I am constantly surprised by the fact that anyone reads my posts, particularly because I tend to neglect this space. I started this blog purely as a spot to write about the texts that I read – whether they are fiction or non-fiction – and that I feel deserve some recognition that they maybe don’t get. Initially, a lot of what I focused on was Japanese literature specifically, or at least directly related to Japanese studies in some way. However, through my exposure to more contemporary works through Instagram, I’ve strayed away from my focus as of late. Though I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, I decided to return to the literature that I love; partially because I am rereading this specific text again, but also because I know that the readers who tend to end up on here are probably drawn in by my work on Japanese literature. And what could possibly be more ‘Japanese’ than Natsume Sōseki’s* こころ (Kokoro)?
[*NB: Some of you may be wondering why we refer to Sōseki as Sōseki when in the Japanese naming system we always place the family name (Natsume) before the first name (Sōseki). By this logic, we should be referring to Sōseki as Natsume, right? Well Natsume Sōseki is actually his pen name and whenever a Japanese author uses a pen name, we use the name they chose since that was the name that they, the author, chose for themselves. The same thing is true for other authors for example, Mori Ōgai – the family name is Mori, but we refer to him as Ōgai, because that is the name he selected.]
I had the privilege of seeing Roxane Gay read from her latest book and (wittily) do a little Q & A with the audience. This is the first time I had ever heard her speak or gone to any of her events; although I had seen her work floating around the internet – especially Bad Feminist – I never ended up reading her work until a few months ago, when my friend and I saw her name on an events list and decided to go. I am really happy that I finally became acquainted with her work. Better late than never!
The event I attended was for her latest work Hunger, which is billed as her memoir on her relationship with her body. Before I read this text, I had finished reading Bad Feminist (again, better late than never, right?) and her series of short stories Difficult Women, for my little book club. What I like about Gay’s writing is the grittiness of it and the fact that she depicts trauma in a way that is not spectacle. There is not a lot that is “beautiful” about the things the women are subjected to (or subject themselves to in some cases) in Difficult Women in particular, and yet Gay is able to show the complexities behind human action. And there is something beautiful in Gay’s ability to depict horrific things in a way that draws out empathy from the reader in a way that isn’t voyeuristic – at least for me, at any rate. I knew from reading Difficult Women that Gay is able to handle messy topics really well, so once I saw some more information coming out about Hunger I knew it was something I should read.
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 here – particularly since this is not the route I originally started on.
Scrolling through my posts, you might wonder whether or not I actually read novels – I wouldn’t blame you for such a thought because, for the most part, I tend to read non-fiction, theoretical texts or novels that are assigned for seminars. However, whenever possible, I decided to try to pick away at a novel “for fun”. After class one day, I ended up chatting with one of my classmates and we both commented on how we feel more sane when we read outside of coursework or research, even if it is just a few pages.
With that mantra in mind, I tried to insert a little bit of leisure reading into my February and managed to get through two novels, one of these being Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. Obviously, it is no longer February, so some time has lapsed since I finished this book – but I enjoyed it, so I felt it deserved some love on this blog.
Originally, my research focused more on Japanese imperialism in Manchuria, because this was the only context within which I ever even heard about Japanese imperialism spoken of. I thought that if I did end up focusing on post-colonialism in the East-Asian context, it would have to be Manchuria. My lack of context comes from two places: for one thing, Japan* is good at forgetting the past and occluding certain elements from history. Secondly, the status of Japan as an ally to the United States, I think, has something to do with the continued hush around Japanese imperialism.
*I say this in a very general sense, because I can provide a list of many thinkers and writers, for instance, who were contemporaneously opposed to Japanese imperialism and I can also show you thinkers and writers who address this issue now in a very open, critical matter. Another important thing I want to address here is that when I make this claim, I am not saying that Japan is the only country to do this at all. All countries are guilty of this to varying degrees, from outright genocide to denials of prejudice. Clearly, Western countries have a long, sordid history of terrorizing and conveniently forgetting; those who hold hegemonic power are just lucky in that they get to set the standard for historical fact.
A while ago I devoted a post to my love of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, so you can imagine how pleased I was when I found out another Arendt piece was assigned for one of my seminars. However, rather than being one of her other famous texts, we were assigned a piece that was essentially Arendt’s “dissertation” or post-doc project of sorts, which was on a German Jewish woman named Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833), who became quite a well-known salonierre in Germany. Arendt’s archive was originally made up of pages upon pages of letter that Varnhagen had written to various family members, friends, and love interests over the years in which she candidly philosophizes on her outlook on life, her situation as a female Jew in Germany, and many other topics. Interestingly, Arendt’s research doesn’t simply focus on the way Varnhagen describes herself; instead, Arendt uses Varnhagen’s letters as a point of departure for her own meditation on ideas of representation, self-identity, history, and an incredibly wide array of topics.
Arendt actually had to put this project on hold as she had to flee Germany due to the events leading up to WWII; most of the book (minus the last two chapters) were completed in 1933. The final two chapters were written a little thereafter, but the book was not published until 1957, so there are a lot of interesting gaps in the writing of this. Since Arendt had to flee Germany, she also lost access to her archive of Varnhagen’s letters. She thus had to reconstruct the text from her notes on the thousands of letters that were lost to her.
As I’ve done in the past, I think the best way to get a sense of the writing here is to get a glimpse of the text itself. Here are a few of the passages that caught my eyes as I was reading along, but keep in mind that I had to pick out a handful out of tons of flagged-pages! I think this will give you a sense of the style of writing Arendt goes through in this text.
It has been a while since I actually wrote about a specific book that caught my eye and is applicable to my field. So when this text was assigned for one of my graduate seminars and we worked our way through the text, I knew I had to dedicate a bit of time to it. The text is called Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies and is a collection of articles/essays by various scholars who would place themselves in various area study disciplines. Most of these essays are from Asian Area studies (i.e. Japan, China, Korea, Southeast Asian studies, etc.) but I think that they highlight the issues in area studies as a discipline, which are not necessarily specific to a specific region.
The tone of this book, overall, is quite cutting of Area Studies and these criticisms are made by those who are an active part of the field. I’ll admit right now that I really enjoyed this text because many of these people articulated issues that I had sensed over the past few years, but did not know how to articulate my qualms.