Graduate Student Summer: Institute for World Literature 2018 Session at Tokyo

By Penny Yeung

From July 2 to 26, I attended the Institute for World Literature (IWL), hosted at the Hongo campus of the University of Tokyo. This year, IWL gathered over 120 scholars from different stages of their research careers, from advanced undergraduates, to graduate students, post-docs, and faculty. As the program coincided with UTokyo’s regular academic session, everywhere we went, we met with students going about their routines. The buzz on campus made me feel as though for the four weeks, we were integrated into the pulse of university life.

Group photo in front of the General Library

Over the four weeks, IWL participants attended two out of a choice of ten seminars. For the first two weeks I took “The Avant-gardes in the World” with Professor Christopher Bush (Northwestern University), during which we discussed conceptual definitions of the avant-garde and examined the political and aesthetic dimensions of varying movements in their cultural localities. The second seminar I attended was “From Comparison to World Literature: Readings and Conceptual Issues,” taught by Professor Zhang Longxi (City University of Hong Kong). In this seminar we looked at East-West studies through the lens of utopian and anti-utopian literature, raising questions about the place of comparison in redressing Eurocentric frames of analysis. The diverse research backgrounds participants had brought different insights to bear on the conversations. I came away with more contextual understanding of the different literary movements and theoretical tools with which to think about my project.

“The Avant-gardes in the World” seminar

Participants were also assigned to different colloquia, a weekly occurrence that offered the opportunity to present our work and receive feedback in a more intimate setting. In my colloquium, “World Literature and Translation,” I presented on An Atlas: An Archaeology of an Imaginary City, a work by Dung Kai-Cheung, a Hong Kong–based author. I spoke about the aesthetics of translation at work in the paratextual elements of and within the novel. I explored several ways in which such an aesthetic troubles definitions of placedness, and further, intervenes in spatialized constructions of world literature by making it difficult to pinpoint the “point of origin” or “cultural origins” of a work. The colloquium provided not only an occasion to learn about the research projects fellow program participants were undertaking but also a venue to dialogue broadly on theories of translation.

“World Literature and Translation” colloquium

IWL also ran a series of faculty lectures and panels, with topics ranging from world literature, to contemporary Chinese science fiction and posthumanism, ecocriticism, and translation in modern Japanese literature. In addition there were a number of events that broke down the boundaries between the theoretical and the creative. One presentation featured Seoul-based Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, whose body of work has been acquired by Hong Kong’s M+ museum this year. Combining poetry, music, and visuals, the work the duo presented gave a dynamic and wry questioning of “What is World Literature?” Later in the program, we were also treated to multilingual poetry readings by Yoko Tawada and other locally-based poets, and the “New Japanese Voices” panel featuring contemporary Japanese writers introduced me to literary vistas I had not been familiar with.

“New Japanese Voices” event

This July was one of the hottest in Tokyo’s records. Some days we sought respite in the air-conditioned quiet of UTokyo’s library, but the sweltering heat did not deter us from venturing out. I had been to Tokyo before but never for such a long stay. This time, I enjoyed experiencing the city at a slower pace, biking around the neighborhoods, seeing the programs on offer at its many cultural institutions. Organized excursions by the IWL took us to Asakusa, the Hama Rikyu Gardens, Ueno Park, and the Tokyo National Museum. 

Of course, no trip to Tokyo would be complete without tasting its impeccable culinary fare. And I’d like to think that food and academics do harmonize: some of the most memorable moments from the summer are the conversations had outside the classroom over kara-age or a sizzling plate of monjayaki. IWL provided a rare opportunity to interact at length with student-scholars undertaking research at institutions in other parts of the world, and it was interesting to learn about how their programs are structured and exchange thoughts on how we see cultural and institutional dimensions playing a role in shaping our projects.

I am not sure what metaphors we gravitate towards to describe cultural encounters these days—the old tropes of surface and deep encounter or immersion seem to fall short. Perhaps I will borrow from Spivak, who, in her essay The Politics of Translation, talks about the “language-textile,” its selvedges “[giving way and fraying] into frayages and facilitations.” For now, perhaps this is the closest metaphor I can think of to speak of the experience, one of weaving myself into the texture of daily life in Tokyo. I am thankful to IWL for the wonderful programming and to Comp Lit for making this summer possible through funding. A special shout-out also to Tokyo-based students, who, despite their busy schedules, took it upon themselves to be our translator and facilitator to all things local.

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