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Archive for the 'Asian Literature' Category

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

An Interview with Carrie Preston, author of “Learning to Kneel”

Learning to Kneel, Carrie Preston

“My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.”—Carrie Preston

The following is an interview with Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching

Q: Learning to Kneel examines the Western interest in the Japanese noh theater from many different perspectives, historical and scholarly, as well as via your own experiences as a teacher, student, and performer. How did these different vantage points shape your approach to the book?

Carrie J. Preston: I began thinking about this book as a fairly typical scholarly study of the noh theater’s influence on modernism. As I read previous scholarship on the topic, I kept encountering a disclaimer that went something like this: I tried to watch a noh play but understood next to nothing; that’s ok, there is no need for a deep knowledge of noh because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin Britten, and other Westerners knew nothing about noh. Aside from the homonym fun (nobody knows noh), this was a troubling and decidedly un-scholarly disclaimer. I set out to learn deeply about noh, and I soon realized that experts locate the essence of noh in training, always in private lessons where the student mimics the teacher’s chant and dance so as to memorize the noh repertory. I clearly needed to take lessons, and my experience as a performer helped me undertake this rather daunting enterprise. My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.

I decided that the story of my experience taking lessons in noh performance technique needed to be central to the book. I tried to interweave that personal story with the accounts of how the various artists I was discussing learned about noh. I treated us all as noh students who bring personal desires and goals to our studies that impact how we understand and use noh. This approach allowed me to face the disclaimer that none of us know anything about noh by acknowledging that there are always limits to a student’s knowledge. But students also develop unique and interesting strategies for learning. By focusing on the techniques for learning and teaching noh, I hoped to open up the rather esoteric topic of noh theater’s influence on modernism so that the book will be of interest to many students and teachers of cultures—and we are all students and teachers of cultures on some level.

Q: Yeats, Pound, Brecht, and Britten’s approach to noh is often viewed as an example of cultural appropriation. In what ways does your book alter this perception?

CJP: I don’t disagree that these figures were engaged in cultural appropriation and orientalism, but in some ways, that’s the least interesting thing to say about them. It’s easy to accuse them of cultural insensitivity and prove their guilt. At the same time, we often celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, believing that study abroad will produce cultural sensitivity in our students. I find the binary of good multiculturalism and bad appropriation to be particularly unhelpful. Who owns a culture? Who should be allowed to study and perform the theater of a particular culture? What is the difference between being inspired by noh and appropriating noh? If the answer is that only those born into a culture can study, use, or be inspired by it, what does that mean for study abroad, diversity requirements, and global studies?

These are difficult questions, and international/transnational teaching and learning is messy work. In Learning to Kneel, I embrace that mess and get down on my knees in the dirt, so to speak. And that taught me that all cross-cultural or global learning involves a degree of appropriation, whether we’re studying noh or opera. But, of course we don’t put those two lyric musical theaters in the same category because of unequal power relations between the so-called “east,” where noh originated, and “west,” the birthplace of opera. Was Ito Michio appropriating opera when he moved to Germany to become an opera singer? I recognize that power disparities are absolutely crucial to understanding cultural exchange and that some appropriation is regrettably malicious, but I also hope to recognize and question the habits of mind that make us treat noh so differently from opera.

Q: Ito Michio is one of the more fascinating figures in your book. How does his life affect the way we think about cross-cultural exchanges?

CJP: Ito’s life is the perfect example of the messiness of cultural exchange. He traveled to Europe as a young man hoping to become an opera singer and then a western dancer and slough off his stultifying Japaneseness. Upon reaching London, Ito was valued most as an “oriental” artist” by Pound and Yeats, who wanted him to help them translate noh plays and work on modernist noh adaptations. He claimed that they taught him to value his own culture, but they also taught him how valuable the popular fascination with Japan could be for his career as a performer. He began to advertise himself as an “oriental dancer” and exoticize his modern dance practice. When he arrived in New York during World War I, Ito began staging Pound’s translations of noh plays, even though he had no training in noh. And in spite of the fact that he was adapting Pound’s already adapted versions of noh texts, Ito advertised them as absolutely authentic. His tendency to stretch the truth and invent a powerful position for himself in Japan raised the suspicions of the CIA, and he was arrested shortly after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor as an enemy alien. He was eventually repatriated to Japan, where he staged spectacular revues for the U.S. occupying forces and introduced American modern dance and beauty pageants (for better and worse).


Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Learning to Kneel,” by Carrie Preston

This week our featured book is Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching, by Carrie J. Preston.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Learning to Kneel to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 9th at 1:00 pm.

Martin Puchner writes, “What drew Western writers to an arcane, highly stylized form of Japanese court theater? As a scholar, Carrie J. Preston answers this question by way of the archive, unearthing a global network of dancers and writers. But she also pursues this question as a student, subjecting herself to the rigors of noh training. The result is an unusual blend of both approaches, a magisterial study in cultural history that is also a compelling story of teaching and learning.

For more on the book, you can read the book’s opening chapter “Introduction to Noh Lessons”:

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

City of the Dead and Song of the Night

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a brief look at the plays of Gao Xingjian, a writer who has worked in multiple genres—short stories, essays, novels—but is best known as a playwright. Sixteen years ago Gao became the first writer in Chinese to win the Nobel prize for literature, since then The Chinese University Press has been steadily publishing translations of his work into English.

City of the Dead and Song of the Night is his most recent collection of plays. In City of the Dead Gao updates the ancient morality tale “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” a cautionary tale against infidelity, to confront the traditional patriarchal system. Song of the Night, considered one of his most ambitious plays, theatrically portrays the female psyche. MCLC has called the book “intriguing and thought-provoking.” For a more detailed explanation of these two plays, you can read “Gao Xingjian: Autobiography and the Portrayal of the Female Psyche,” the volume’s introduction by Mabel Lee, one of his translators and an expert on his work.

Of Mountains and Seas is based on the ancient text The Classic of Mountains and Seas. This play reenacts the classical world of Chinese mythology, traversing the creation of humans to the beginning of Chinese dynastic history. (more…)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

When the Incident Occurred

The Lost Garden

“When the incident occurred, Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep sleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she’d heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.” — Li Ang

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: The Lost Garden: A Novel, translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. We are happy to present the video of a recent panel on The Lost Garden, featuring Li Ang herself, along with her translators and Columbia University Press Director and editor Jennifer Crewe, followed by an excerpt from the second chapter of Part 1 of the novel.

Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

When the Incident Occurred

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

The Disappearance of M

Slow Boat to China and Other Stories

“When I (uh, it’s not me) . . . when he discussed that essay, he had an uncanny feeling that he had written it himself, while at the same time it was obviously mocking his writing. How could there be another author like this, who was able to penetrate into his thoughts and preemptively write his future, thereby forcibly removing him from this position of the ‘author’?” — Ng Kim Chew

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas. “The Disappearance of M,” excerpted below, is the first story in the collection:

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Problem with History

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

“Think of official history as a book. A book comes into view; it seems to suggest that it has no blank spaces, no margins. But it does, it contains blank spaces. In those spaces I cram my own notes, copious notes that are not yet articulated thoughts, and in the end weave a new book solely from the notes in the margins.” — Hideo Furukawa

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka.

Hideo Furukawa is in New York this week with Monkey Business for the PEN World Voices Festival (along with other fantastic writers, editors, and translators), and will be participating in a number of events: April 27 (Wed.), New York University, 6:30pm; April 28 (Thur.), Kinokuniya Bookstore, 6pm; April 29 (Fri.), BookCourt, 7pm; and April 30 (Sat.), Asia Society, 2pm (Ticket purchase required)! And now, on to the post:

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the town of Fukushima, Japan, was struck by a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Over 20,000 people died.

The reconstruction has been swift. ‘The incident is about to be forgotten, or they pretend nothing has happened,’ Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa said about his hometown. For Furukawa, careful examination is the only route to healing. One must investigate one’s nation and its past and present. His new book, Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, is a mix of fiction, history, and memoir, as one can see in this short excerpt.

The Problem with History
Hideo Furukawa

Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than a history of killing people.

I am not sure of the best way to phrase things, given that rather inflammatory start. I will explain things as simply as I can. We live within the echoes of the Warring States period. For example, bushō, the term for military leaders, circulates as a commodity in contemporary society, and, thus, it continues to echo in everyday Japan. By the “Warring States period” I include the Azuchi Momoyama period right up to the beginning of the Edo period (1573–1603). I am not sure if the Azuchi Momoyama period is still taught as a single historical period in schools (elementary, middle, and up through high school). But I am quite sure that everyone learns that there was a period when Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled supreme. For example, we consume these two men as commodities all the time. When I say we “consume” them as commodities, I mean how we see them as “heroic” and think of them positively. Why would that be? (more…)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Complexity and Individuality of Contemporary Chinese Experiences and Perspectives

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, translated by Julia Lovell, and newly released in paperback. We are happy to present part of an interview with Julia Lovell from the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as the short story “The Apprentice,” excerpted in full from the book:

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha. (more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Weekly Feature and Book Giveaway: World Literature Week

World Literature Week

This week, in conjunction with the PEN World Voices Festival, we will be highlighting our wide range of books of and about world literature here on the Columbia University Press blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Here’s a quick summary of books we’ll have posts for this week (we’ll add the posts, as well, as they arrive!):


  • An interview with M. A. Orthofer, highlighting his thorough and fascinating new guide to contemporary fiction around the world, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction
  • Tuesday

  • An interview with translator Julia Lovell and “The Apprentice,” an excerpted short story from The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, a collection of short stories about everyday life in China in the late 1980s by Zhu Wen (following up his previous collection, I Love Dollars)
  • An excerpt on writing a book composed from notes in the margins of history, from Hideo Furukawa’s novel/history/memoir of the 3/11 disaster at Fukushima, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka. Hideo Furukawa will be in New York for the PEN World Voices festival! For more details, click here.
  • Wednesday

  • “The Disappearance of M,” the first story in Ng Kim Chew’s collection of short fiction, Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas
  • Watch novelist Li Ang discuss The Lost Garden, her eloquent and beautiful exploration of contemporary Taiwan, with translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, and Columbia University Press Director Jennifer Crewe, and then read “When the Incident Occurred,” an excerpt from Part 1
  • Thursday

  • A quick critical look at the dominance of English and its effect on world literature from Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, and The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Editor Christine Dunbar introduces our new Russian Library series, with a particular focus on its first three books: Between Dog and Wolf, by Sasha Sokolov, translated by Alexander Boguslawski; Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen; and Strolls with Pushkin, by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski
  • Friday

  • Take a closer look at Chinese University Press’s extensive collection of drama from Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gao Xingjian, including, among others, The Other Shore, Snow in August, and, most recently, City of the Dead and Ballade Nocturne
  • A wonderful selection of poetry from Chinese University Press’s series of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong anthologies, particularly the most recent installment, Poetry and Conflict, Edited by Bei Dao, Shelby K. Y. Chan, Gilbert C. F. Fong, Lucas Klein, Christopher Mattison, and Chris Song
  • Book Giveaway

    We are also offering a FREE selection of titles discussed in the feature: The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, by M. A. Orthofer; Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, by Hideo Furukawa; The Lost Garden, by Li Ang; and The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, April 29th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Thursday, March 24th, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel

    The Blue Wolf

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on the (unfair) expectations readers put on translations after reading The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel.

    I am wary of treating literary texts as windows into the soul of a people. Presupposing the existence of the individual stable concepts of “soul” and “people” is bad enough; putting them together inevitably smacks either of nationalism or racism. I think of Dostoevsky’s 1880 Pushkin speech, where he calls Tatiana “the apotheosis of the Russian woman.” I find Belinsky’s equally political remark about Eugene Onegin—that it is “an encyclopedia of Russian life”—to be more congenial, if also limiting. (This is, after all, the same guy who told Gogol that his books could be aesthetically bad as long as they weren’t bad for society; not really an art for art’s sake type.) This is a very roundabout way of saying that I am so pleased that we published Joshua Fogel’s translation of Inoue Yasushi’s The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan.

    It could easily never have been translated. Originally serialized (I learned from the brief but informative Translator’s Note) in 1959-60, and immensely popular in Japan, it took almost 50 years for the book to appear in English. And I can imagine why. There’s something rather odd about the idea of translating a Japanese novel about Mongolia into English. But why is that?

    I think some of it has to do with our tacit expectations of a translation. With some exceptions for genre fiction—Swedish crime novels, say—we expect a translation to be excellent literature; after all, a translated book has been elevated above its peers, one of the chosen few to appear on a world stage. But at the same time, we expect it to fulfill an anthropological function. We want to learn something about its country of origin. Our (well, my, at least) ignorance is so vast that the simplest of details becomes a revelation. We don’t read Wordsworth and think, “oh, so daffodils grow in the Lake Country, how interesting,” but we may well have such a thought about the flora of the steppe.

    The Blue Wolf is remarkably effective in this way. There isn’t, granted, much discussion of flora, but in reading the novel I learned a great deal about social mores, battle tactics, and political maneuvering on the Mongolian plateau. As for any historical novel, these details are the result of painstaking research, not the chance-met details a reader might glean from reading something of foreign origin. According again to that very useful Translator’s Note, Yasushi was well regarded in the academic community for taking the time to get these details right. All that is missing is the reader’s feeling of delight (if we’re being charitable) or self-righteousness (if we’re not) in the immersive, two-for-one nature of reading something set in the same foreign locale that produced the author. That is, the feeling that you are increasing your knowledge not only of Japanese literature but also of Japan.

    Perhaps a Japanist would feel comfortable drawing some kind of conclusion from the fact that this book was so popular. I do not. But I found it to be an enjoyable and fascinating look at the life of Chinggis Khan, and the book’s language of origin, in regard to that basic fact, is neither here nor there.

    Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom

    Trees Without Wind

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on sound, names, and the ethical stakes of translation after having read Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom.

    In their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky propose translation as a way out of having to choose between a fragmented world, rich in cultural specificity and a more culturally homogenous, English-speaking world, rich in unmediated communication. Translation, they argue, “works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native tongues” (xv). However, Allen and Bernofsky do not ignore the ethical dangers inherent therein: “As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture” (xvii).

    To look at this binary from a slightly different perspective, is the role of translation to give the reader a glimpse of a piece of the fragmented world to which she would otherwise not have access, or is it to bring stories to a larger audience, who will appreciate their universal appeal? Is it in service of celebrating otherness or commonality? Like many binaries, I find this one fascinating to contemplate and not all that useful to answer. It’s a little bit of both, of course, or maybe that means it’s neither.

    At an event during Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week 2015, Mark Krotov told an anecdote about his mother’s take on this question. She was frustrated by Anglophone readers using the difficulty of parsing Russian names as an excuse to avoid reading Russian literature. She advocated a simple fix: Anglicize the names. After all, the names aren’t the important part. Later the same week, if my memory does not fail me, Marian Schwartz supported a similar, if slightly less extreme, solution. If a character is called by five different variations on his name throughout the book, she’ll choose two (I think she said two—it could have been three—but the principle stands) and use those throughout.

    But what about when the names themselves carry meaning? Or when the sound of the name plays an important role in the aural landscape of the work? Or, heaven forbid, both?

    I recently read Li Rui’s Trees Without Wind in John Balcom’s translation, a book in which sound is important not only for establishing a sense of setting but also for maintaining a link between the stream of consciousness narration and the outside world. The text is full of people chewing “crunch, crunch, crunch,” a donkey digging “dig, thud, dig, thud,” a saw sawing “chi-la, chi-la, chi-la,” leaves rustling “hua-la, hua-la,” and other such sounds. This selection of sounds combines words that refer to sounds and pure sounds. This same dichotomy is preserved in Balcom’s decisions regarding the names in the book. He has chosen to identify most characters by their transliterated names—and I am assuming here that he has not simplified them for an Anglophone audience, but I do not know. In any case, I did not find them difficult to follow. For some characters, however, he has translated their “speaking names”—for example, Uncle Gimpy, Second Dog, or the name of the town where the action takes place, Stunted Flats.

    This decision—which, for the record, seems to me to be entirely the right one—does limit the instances of non-English words in the text, but Balcom has chosen to leave some non-name terms in the source language as well. The most common example of this is “kang.” In phrases like “how could you wet the kang again?” (47) this is clearly something akin to a bed, but in other contexts it appears to have an even more central role in daily life. Choosing one English word would have fixed the meaning. In a book set during the Cultural Revolution, a time that erases boundaries between public and private (which is to say, a time when who is sleeping with whom has potentially stark political consequences) stating that two characters were eating in bed—when the kang is in fact an entirely standard place to eat—would have been significantly misleading. At the same time, for better or for worse, the unfamiliar word kang draws the Anglophone reader’s attention in a way that is probably not the case for a reader of the original text. This seems to me to be not a tragedy, as it is a productive place for the reader’s attention to be. It highlights questions of gender disparity, outside scrutiny of communities, the meaning of home and belonging, etc. that are important in the novel. But it is an interpretive lens that is maybe not forced, but at the very least thrust upon the reader of this translation.

    It will come as no surprise, I think, to hear that I enjoyed Trees Without Wind for both its specificity and its universality. The passages that mock the formulaic heroes of proletarian fiction remind me of similar responses to socialist realism in Russia, and the use of kang solves a problem readers of Russian literature face when they read that so-and-so was sleeping on the stove, a completely standard activity for certain designs of pech’, but rather masochistic-sounding for the initiated. (The Wikipedia article references the Kang bed-stove, further cementing this similarity.) Drawing connections between two pieces of the fragmented world to discover commonalities—yet another way in which translation defies binary thinking.

    Friday, July 3rd, 2015

    The Father-Daughter Relationship in Early China

    Exemplary Women of Early China

    “Referring to the prevailing concept of the ruler as fulfilling a parental role, ‘How indeed,’ [the Emperor] asked when contemplating the cruelty of corporal punishment, ‘can I be called the father and mother of the people?’ He then declared, ‘Let the corporal punishments be abolished!’” — Anne Behnke Kinney

    The following is a guest post from Anne Behnke Kinney, author of Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang:

    If Fathers’ Day cards are any indication of how Americans idealize the father-daughter bond, we honor our fathers as wise, strong, and encouraging, extolling these virtues in verses set against images of golf clubs, neckties, and for some reason, mallard ducks. The cards are purchased by sons and daughters alike. But in early China, daughters were afforded a status well beneath their brothers because, as females, they could not carry on the family line or the sacrifices necessary to nurture ancestors in the other world. (more…)

    Thursday, June 4th, 2015

    Thursday Fiction Corner — The Tale of Genji

    The Tale of Genji, Michael Emmerich

    For this week’s fiction corner we look at what is considered by many to be the world’s first novel. The following is an interview with Michael Emmerich, author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature now available in paper.In the interview, Emmerich discusses, among other subjects, how The Tale of Genji became a classic of Japanese literature, how it changed reading habits, its place in world literature, and his first experience with the novel:

    Question: We tend to think of The Tale of Genji as a kind of immortal classic but in fact its history is more complicated. How did it become a national classic or emblematic of Japanese culture and literature?

    Michael Emmerich: Genji was written in the early eleventh century, so of course the story of how it achieved its present status as one of the preeminent classics of both national and world literature is very long—a millennium long, in fact—and very complex. I argue that while Genji came to be regarded as a “treasure” very early on at an elite level, ordinary readers had little or no interest in the tale until surprisingly recently. The work that first managed to interest a truly popular readership in Genji—if only indirectly—was a sort of early modern graphic novel called A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji that was published over the course of thirteen years, from 1829 to 1842. The way I see it, Bumpkin Genji was crucial because it inspired for the first time in a popular readership the desire to know more about Genji, and then offered itself up as an enjoyable means of satisfying that desire, without actually having to read Genji itself. In other words, Bumpkin Genji popularized the notion of the complete translation of Genji into vernacular Japanese. Then, almost exactly a century later, from 1939 to 1941, the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō published a translation into the Japanese of his day that became a best-seller. That was when Genji really came to be re-canonized not just as a celebrated but unread “treasure,” but as a “national classic” in the sense of “a classic of the Japanese people”—as a work for which, and to which, Japan and its citizens were somehow responsible.

    Q: What has been the role of The Tale of Genji in the popularization of Japanese literature in English?

    ME: Scholars have long recognized the importance of Arthur Waley’s translation of the tale, The Tale of Genji, which was issues in six volumes from 1925 to 1933. Waley’s version was widely read, and was praised by reviewers from the time its first volume appeared as one of the great works of world literature. In my book, though, I explore the role an earlier partial translation that has now been largely forgotten played in making Genji known—though less as a literary classic than as a portrait of eleventh-century Japan, and as a work by a woman writer. This translation, published in England in 1882, was done by a young Japanese named Suematsu Kenchō. At the time, the publication of a work translated from Japanese was such a rarity that it was actually considered newsworthy, and the notion that women writers had played such a crucial role in creating what is now known as classical Japanese literature made its appearance even more sensational. It’s hard to say how much of an effect the attention Genji garnered, first in 1882, then in 1925, then in 1976 with the publication of Seidensticker’s translation, and again in 2001 when Royall Tyler’s appeared, has had in popularizing Japanese literature more broadly, but I do think it has helped give people an image of Japanese literature as something worth paying attention to.

    Q: How has the reception of The Tale of the Genji changed over time?

    ME: To tell the truth, I’m somewhat skeptical of the notion of “reception.” In the case of Genji, hardly anyone reads it in the original classical Japanese these days, and even fewer people read it in the form in which it was originally circulated—in calligraphic manuscript rather than typeset book. Instead, most people come into contact with Genji through what I call “replacements.” Translations are perhaps the paradigmatic form of replacement, but there are all kinds of other replacements, too: digests, guides, movies, manga, artworks, designs on kimono. So many people have created so many different kinds of replacements of the tale over the millennium since it first appeared that it would take a book even to begin to explore the trajectory they have followed—as it happens, Columbia University Press has published just such a book: Envisioning the Tale of Genji, edited by Haruo Shirane—but I think one might at least say that, over the centuries, the forms Genji’s replacements take have moved further and further away from the forms in which it was first circulated.


    Thursday, April 30th, 2015

    Burton Watson Named Winner of 2015 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation

    Burton Watson

    Congratulations to Burton Watson, winner of the 2015 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation for his work as a translator of Chinese and Japanese literature! As the PEN America Translation Committee’s citation states, “Burton Watson is the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time.” Watson studied at Columbia University as both an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and taught at Columbia for many years. He has translated prose, fiction, and poetry from both Chinese and Japanese into English, and the list of his translations published with us speaks for itself. We here at Columbia UP could not be prouder to have worked with Professor Watson over the years.

    More from the PEN announcement:

    Credited with making many classical Chinese and Japanese works accessible to the English-reading public for the first time, Watson’s translations also span a wide array of genres, from poetry and prose to histories and sacred texts. The committee’s citation continues, “For decades his anthologies and his scholarly introductions have defined classical East Asian literature for students and readers in North America, and we have reason to expect more: even at his advanced age, he still translates nearly daily.”

    In 1982, Watson was a recipient of the PEN Translation Prize for his translation of From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Hiroaki Sato (Anchor Press/University of Washington Press), and in 1995 for his translation of Selected Poems of Su Tung–p’o (Copper Canyon). PEN is thrilled to now recognize Watson for his valued and longstanding commitment to the art of translation, bringing great creativity and precision to his work and introducing exceptional works of literature to a wider audience.

    Watson will be honored, along with all 2015 PEN award winners, at the PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on June 8 at The New School in New York City.

    Monday, March 2nd, 2015

    Internet Literature in China — An Interview with Michel Hockx

    Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China

    The following is an interview with Michel Hockx, author of Internet Literature in China. You can follow Michael Hockx on Twitter at @mhockx

    Question: What in particular struck your interest in Chinese Internet literature that prompted you to begin researching for a book?

    Michael Hockx: I was struck by the fact that there was a nationwide debate among scholars and critics in China in the year 2000 about the merits and demerits of Internet literature. The phenomenon was taken extremely seriously. Around the same time I also noticed that collections of online work were starting to come out in print. They often ended up in separate sections of bookstores marked “Internet literature.” I realized this was a new type of literature in the making and I got curious.

    Q: You mention the “Great Firewall” and the misconceptions western countries have of Internet censorship in China. To what extent are Internet behaviors in China similar to, let’s say in the US? Are they as different, in terms of freedom, as Americans like to believe?

    M: They are similar in the sense that the vast majority of Chinese people also use the Internet for entertainment, social media, and shopping. Most people are rarely confronted with censorship since they simply have no interest in using the Internet for politically sensitive purposes. What they do notice and what does annoy them is that the “Great Firewall” sometimes prevents them from accessing certain foreign sites, especially Facebook and Youtube. In the course of my research I once came across an official Chinese statistic showing that Youtube was in the Top 30 of most frequently visited sites in China—even though it is blocked! Lots of people go around the Firewall in order to access it.


    Thursday, February 12th, 2015

    Thursday Fiction Corner — Minae Mizumura As Novelist

    The Fall of Language in the Age of English

    Minae Mizumura, author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English is also a well-known novelist. Her most recent novel, A True Novel, is a reimagining of Wuthering Heights and has been widely praised, including a glowing review in the New York Times.

    Recently, The White Review, a literary magazine, ran an excerpt from Mizumura’s novel published in Japanese as Shishosetsu from left to right. The unusual title, a mixture of Japanese and English, represents the novel’s content and form. The novel is narrated by a Japanese young woman who, like the author, grew up in the United States in a bilingual environment. ‘Shishosetsu’ refers to a genre of autobiographical novel that characterizes much modern Japanese literature. Since English words and phrases are woven into the text, the novel was written horizontally, from left to right, unlike other Japanese novels, which are written vertically on the page and read from right to left.


    As white morning sunlight poked through the cracks in the blind, I inserted the cord into the telephone jack, digesting the usual sick realisation that another day had begun. No sooner was the telephone plugged in than the ringing gave me a start.

    Sudden fear shot through me. It might be the French Department Office.

    Is this Minae Mizumura?

    Yes it is.

    What on earth are you doing?

    What on earth was I doing? If they asked me, what could I say? I could not explain it even to myself. I was afraid that somehow the way I was living—holed up in this apartment that remained dim even in the daytime, fearful of the dawning of each new day, for all the world like a snail coiled tightly in its shell—might become shamefully and unmistakably exposed to the light of day.

    As hopes of an international call from Tono gradually faded, I fell into the habit of unplugging my telephone every night; apart from the practical desire to avoid being awakened by my sister, the main reason was this very fear.

    It is of course a neurotic fear. Every department has one or two delinquent graduate students on its rolls, and there is no reason why the department should care if I put off my orals indefinitely on the pretext that my advisor is in and out of the hospital. It’s not only the department—in the whole huge United States, apart from Nanae hardly anyone is aware that I even exist. And why should they be? Still, I am afraid. From the time I wake up in the morning till five in the evening, when the office closes, I live in fear that at any moment the telephone will ring and I will be given final notice—Your time is up!—and stripped of my identity as a graduate student.


    Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

    An Interview with Minae Mizumura, author of “The Fall of Language in the Age of English”

    Minae Mizumura

    The following is an interview with Minae Mizumura, the author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English  

    Question: It is ironic that your book on preserving languages from the tidal wave of English has now been translated into English. Can you speak about the relationship between you, Mari Yoshihara, and Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translators of the book?

    Minae Mizumura: Mari Yoshihara has long been an enthusiastic fan of my novels, especially of my second, autobiographical novel that traces my growing up in the United States. She has a similar background. As soon as The Fall of Language was published, she contacted me from Hawaii, where she teaches, and offered to translate it herself. I was initially taken aback; as you point out, it seemed rather perverse that a book warning about the dominance of English should be translated into English. It took me some time to realize that what she proposed underscores the whole point of the book: in our age, ideas can spread only when translated into English. After Mari finished her translation, I worked on the manuscript to make it accessible to a wider readership. I then asked Juliet Winters Carpenter to go over it and also to let me work with her at the final stage. I knew she would say yes. Julie translated my third novel, called A True Novel, and despite being one of the most highly regarded translators in the field, she had no objection to working with me closely in Kyoto where she teaches. Very flexible and open-minded. The English version of this book owes itself to two generous souls.

    Q: How did you react to the controversial reviews when your book was first released in Japan?

    MM: Very much bewildered, though I never actually saw those reviews. So I said nothing publicly. Like many writers, I avoid reading what people say about my books on the Internet and ask others to filter information for me. It seems that this was a particularly wise decision when this book came out. Japan lags behind in putting together quality online book reviews. As is often the case, the online controversies took place mostly among people who hadn’t read the book. The firestorm got out of control. Rumor has it that a famous blogger, the one who unwittingly initiated the controversy by declaring that my book was a “must read for all Japanese,” got so fed up that he no longer blogs or tweets. He apologized to me for having incited such vociferous reactions but was relieved to learn that I had only a vague idea of what was being said.


    Monday, February 9th, 2015

    Book Giveaway! The Fall of Language in the Age of English

    This week our featured book is The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura.

    In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

    We are also offering a FREE copy of The Fall of Language in the Age of English to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, February 13 at 1:00 pm.

    “A dazzling rumination on the decline of local languages … in a world overshadowed by English. Moving effortlessly between theory and personal reflection, Minae Mizumura’s lament—linguistic and social in equal measure—is broadly informed, closely reasoned, and — in a manner that recalls her beloved Jane Austen — at once earnest and full of mischief.” — John Nathan, translator of Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Soseki

    Monday, December 15th, 2014

    A Q&A with Janet Poole on Modernist Literature in Korea

    When the Future Disappears

    The following is an interview with Janet Poole, author of When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea.

    Q: Your book deals with an extraordinary group of writers working in Korea at the height of Japanese occupation during the Asia-Pacific War. How did you first become interested in their work?

    JP: When I was first studying Korean and living in Seoul, there were these uncanny ways in which the colonial past seemed to exert an ongoing effect in the present. For instance, old people would come up to me in the street, when I was standing at a bus stop for example, and start talking to me in Japanese. Luckily I had learnt Japanese and could answer! But what really intrigued me was that they would not be surprised when I answered them in Japanese, but would just carry on having a regular conversation with me. This had never happened to me in Japan. I became interested in the history of colonialism and especially the ways in which it left traces in language and language use. Naturally—as a fiction lover—I started to read novels and short stories from that time. I had learnt that colonial occupation had been brutal and, most of all, that it had prevented Koreans writing in Korean, especially as the Asia-Pacific War intensified. But when I picked up books of canonical short stories—the best loved in the nation and the like—so many of them were written in the late 1930s. It seemed such a contradiction that the stories most heralded still today had been written when supposedly Koreans had the least possibilities for expression. That’s what got me interested. (more…)

    Thursday, December 11th, 2014

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Ground Zero, Nagasaki

    Ground Zero, Nagasaki

    In this installment of our Thursday Fiction corner we will be featuring the just-published Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories by Seirai Yuichi and translated by Paul Warham.

    Seirai Yuichi’s stories are set in contemporary Nagasaki, and draw an unflinching portrait of the A-bomb’s horrific, ongoing trauma. Whether they experienced the attack directly or have merely heard about it from survivors, many of the characters in these stories filter their pain and alienation through their Catholic faith, illuminating a side of Japanese culture little known in the West. For hundreds of years, Christianity was suppressed in Nagasaki, but the religion enjoyed a revival in modern times. The Urakami Cathedral, the center of Japanese Christian life, stood at ground zero of the A-bomb attack.

    Here is the first story from the collection, “Nails”:

    Thursday, October 30th, 2014

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Haïlji and The Republic of Užupis

    In a post from earlier this year we featured the recently launched Library of Korean Literature Series, published by Dalkey Archive Press. Next week, Dalkey and the Korean Cultural Centre UK are having a big, two-event launch party on November 4th and 5th, with Haïlji, author of The Republic of Užupis.

    On the 4th, there will be a book launch with Hailji; John O’Brien, CEO of Dalkey Archive Press; and Richard Lea, a writer from The Guardian. On the 5th, there will be a discussion and screening of The Road to Racetrack, based on the Haïlji’s controversial novel of the same name.

    For more on Haïlji’s work and books from the library, here is a sampler that includes excerpts from the initial books from the series: