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January 16, 2020 – Print, Power and Parable Speaker Series

Jan. 16 – David Lurie (Columbia University)

Thursday, January 16, 4 PM
Room TBA

Smug Parables: Anachronistic Self-Congratulation in the History of Writing

The story of the god Thoth and King Ammon in Plato’s Phaedrus is perhaps the most familiar example of a script-origin narrative, but such accounts also exist from ancient China (such as Xu Shen’s postface to the Shuowen jiezi) and Mesopotamia (the poem “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”). There are also rich and provocative ancient discussions of what it means to “borrow” or “adapt” writing from an adjacent (often more powerful) civilization, including a set of related narratives in eighth-century Japanese chronicles about Korean scribes importing Sinitic writing. Such premodern sources can be profitably juxtaposed with modern discussions of colonial and ethnological encounters with literacy, such as frequently quoted and requoted stories of “natives” taken aback at the power of writing, or Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous “Writing Lesson” (from his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques). This article considers the persistent anachronism that marks such accounts. Whether premodern or modern, it seems they inevitably become parables or allegories of the powers of writing at the time of their composition, rather than plausible reconstructions of its earliest stages. What lies behind this difficulty in writing the history of writing?

Jan 31. – Rebecca Copeland (Washington University in St. Louis)

Friday, January 31, 4 PM
Room TBA

Thinking Back Through Mythical Mothers: Modern Japanese Women Writers Retell the Past

In her famous line from “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf invites women writers to think back through their mothers—biological, literary, and imaginative. In so doing, she disrupts the heterosexual dyad of male poet-female muse and authorizes a maternal source for inspiration. In this paper, I will discuss the way Japanese women writers have often turned to mythic mothers as a way to legitimize their creativity. From Izanami, to Kishimojin, to the yamamba, these potent images of both nurture and destruction have invited women writers to explore alternate forms of power, sexuality, and social entitlement. Authors to consider will include Kurahashi Yumiko, Ōba Minako, and Kirino Natsuo.

Feb 14. – Melek Ortabasi (Simon Fraser University)

Friday, February 14, 4 PM
Room TBA

The Wonderful Adventures of Western Children’s Classics in the East

World literature is what happens when literary works travel from their point of origin. How does children’s literature behave differently from “adult” literature when it moves among and across borders? This lecture will examine three influential and highly regarded children’s “classics” – all written over a century ago – and trace their journeys to Japan. American “girls’ books” writer Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868); former soldier and popular Italian travelogue writer Edmondo De Amici’s Cuore (Heart, 1886); and Swedish Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgerssons underbara resa (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1907) were wildly popular at home and abroad. Through a comparative analysis of these works and their translations into Japanese, we will discover how these works of world children’s literature also became “classics” for Japanese children.

Gusdtav Heldt, University of Virginia

Friday, April 03, 4 PM
Room TBA

Waka Poetry’s Myths of Origin

For centuries after its initial articulation in the Kokinshū anthology, the waka tradition asserted it began with the god Susa-no-o’s song at Izumo. At the same time, this claim to authority was contingent on a longstanding consensus that Japan’s “age of the gods” in general and its songs in particular were constantly open to reinscription. This paper will trace the multiple and occasionally conflicting myths of waka poetry’s origins in the prefaces to the first imperial anthology and its interpolated commentary while considering how these narratives can be further fleshed out by attention to the surviving corpus of song-texts from the age of the gods that are included in the mytho-histories Nihon shoki and Kojiki.