The last few posts on here have been focusing more on the things I am reading and although I do inject my thoughts into those posts, I thought that it may be fun to deviate from the usual strictly books-only posts and discuss something a little more personal: why I study Japanese Literature and how I ended up where I am now — particularly since this is not the route I originally started on.
My relationship with literature, in general, is a very cliché one: my interest in books, like most readers and writers, has been around since I was a kid. My mother was always very against TV, video games, and so on, so I spent a lot of my time reading. My grandfather was also a huge reader; he would always tell me that he learned English by going to cheap movie showings in New York and picking up dime-store thrillers whenever he had extra money. He always sent me books and took me out book shopping whenever he came to visit. I was also very introverted and was, generally, afraid of people — so books were a happy, yet safe escape. Due to this affinity towards books while I was growing up, I eventually decided to major in English Literature at university..
.after attempting a biology major and premed for all of one year. Anyway.
My undergraduate institution was a great place to be, but it was very traditional in the courses that it offered at the time, so the English department was very focused on set time periods and authors, as opposed to theory or more explorative or comparative topics. In fact, the very first time they even offered a course dedicated to theory was in my third year. Even then, we covered topics that I now consider fairly basic and, frankly, out of vogue with what was happening in the broader field — for example, we studied narratology, structuralism, and a very tiny bit of post-colonialism. There is nothing wrong with any of this stuff at all (and I still rely heavily on all this knowledge), but I remember that it was packaged as very “cutting edge” and even radical in a way, when these approaches are very commonplace and, at the end of the day, not very radical anyway (aside from post colonialism). From this description, you might think that I regret where I went to school — but I don’t at all; I definitely received extensive training in very classical Western philosophies and aspects of literary or critical theory that has served me well over the years.
That being said, another downside to the place was that (at the time I was there) there was no East Asian department, let alone a Japanese department. The only courses offered were either language courses or survey courses on the history of Asia. Since the institution was so narrow in its Japan-related offerings, I always believed that studying anything that we would call “Area studies” essentially meant you would study linguistics and that you would only ever teach language courses with that type of degree. Because of that, I was never interested in stepping foot in any East Asian department, ever.
Although I was happy studying English literature, by the end of my undergrad degree, I was beginning to feel that the field was a bit stale for me. When I was doing my Master’s degree, I tried to rekindle the interest I had in English by focusing on the aspect I loved the most: theory. I found affect theory and trauma studies to be fruitful for my thesis, and I began inching towards non-Western imperialism in terms of postcolonial studies. But I still found that I wasn’t really excited by English literature anymore. It was because of this “falling out of love” that I ended up taking, on a whim, a PhD seminar in the East Asian department with someone who I came to find out was a huge scholar in the field: Michael Bourdaghs. The reason why I name him here is less about showing off a CV and more to bring attention to someone whose work really showed me how compelling East Asian studies can be. After taking his course and seeing him give a paper presentation at a regional conference, I realized that his comparative approach was exactly the type of scholarship I was looking for. I could still bring in all the theoretical background I gained from my days working in English into Japanese studies and gain new insight into the nature of literature, writing, subjectivity, and modernity. After completing my first MA, I had actually applied to English PhD programs and was even offered a spot at a school in New York, stipend and teaching spot and all. However, I took a hard look at my background, what my interests were, where I wanted to be, and turned the offer down. So even though I have a MA in English literature, I declined a PhD to get a second MA in Japanese Studies.
Since focusing on Japanese literature as my object of study, I have been able to push theoretical boundaries much further and I have been able to do the comparative work that I find more impactful than what I was doing in English. There are more stakes for me in this area of study and, on the flip side, it allows me to just enjoy reading novels in English for fun now – so all in all the switch was a good one for me. I thought I would share this with any interested parties because I know a lot of students follow me on Instagram and, although I have many, many friends who found their area of study quickly and stuck with it for years, I think there is no harm in changing direction if that is what calls to you.
Likewise, I have learned that there is no “right way” to do graduate work. I remember when I was younger I always believed that you must move from undergrad to graduate studies immediately if you were going to be of any use at all to academia. This is simply not the case. Again, I know many people who did go straight to graduate work after finishing their university degrees, but I also know many who took a year off, a few years off, a few decades off, even. I also know people who switch fields in the midst of their graduate studies. All of these people have a lot to add to the conversation and all of these paths are interesting for me to hear about.