Orientation and Asian Literature: A Conversation with Rob Wilson

Rob Wilson is a western Connecticut native who studied at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was founding editor of the Berkeley Poetry Review. He has published a book of poetry and prose with Mineumsa Press/ University of Hawaii Press called Waking In Seoul.  Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted: An American Poetics was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2010. A Chinese translation of his serial poem When the Nikita Moon Rose appeared in Malaysia, and a set of Hawaii-based poems in Susan Schultzs Tinfish anthology, Jack London Is Dead.  He lives in Santa Cruz, Californiawriting on edges of transpacific beatitude and busy being reborn. His works can be accessed at: https://ucsc.academia.edu/RobWilsonHe administers two literature-related discussion groups on Facebook, Rethinking World Literature and Beat Attitudes:  World-Becoming

C. Derick Varn: Why do you think Chinese and Korean literature in translation has not done as well in the American and British markets as Japanese literature and do you see this as changing?

Rob Wilson:  A book that helped transform my understanding of Japanese literature, as created and received in modern world literature terms that started in the nineteenth century and extended into much of the twentieth as a quasi-systematic frame, was Kojin Karatani’s Origins of Modern Japanese Literature.  He elaborates how, reflective of the literary-artistic dimension of the quest for world modernity that saturated Meiji Japan, novelists absorbed the discourse of self, landscape, body, and confession as a “semiotic constellation” that makes for “literature” as such in world-literary frames:  so that when Natsume Soseki writes works like Kokoro or Light and Darkness, the whole Western discursive apparatus of psychology, interiority, descriptive landscape, everyday setting, and the will to articulate some kind of embodied subjective ‘truth’ is not outside Japan but already interiorized as a local-global situation to be engaged with in thick, specific Japanese terms as what Fredric Jameson calls “form-problems.”

The struggle to ‘overcome the modern’ in Japan resulted in postwar novelists like Kawabata, Mishima, and Oe, in other words, who already knew and embodied these Western narrative traditions of narration and engaged with its terms in transformative and culturally situated ways, whether in Oe’s “buttery” Western style or Kawabata’s more poetic mode of oblique understatement that recalls haiku or filmic imagery.  As an aesthetic subset of this, there is the whole fascination with Japanese genres and traditions confronting Western modernity spearheaded in the West by Ernest Fenollosa and, in his wake, the polemics of Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, or even Gary Snyder.  The contexts for Kawabata’s and Oe’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1968 and 1994 respectively, had been set up both internally and externally for Japan to be recognized mimetically.

Lu Xun might well be interpreted, relatedly, as the ‘founder of discursivity’ in demotic language for modern Chinese literature, akin to what Karatani has elaborated for Soseki in Japan—he certainly was deserving of broader international recognition, as signaled by Oe’s calling him “the greatest writer Asia produced in the twentieth century.”  The belated recognition of Chinese literature as a modern and postmodern force inside world literature will continue to be rectified or validated, as now seems the case with Nobel prizes in 2000 and 2012.

When I taught in Korea in the early 1980s I was asked several times why Japanese literature had been afforded such global recognition whereas Korean and Chinese literature had not been.  The answer that was promoted in the press (not by me) was that Korean writers needed to find a translator like Edward Seidensticker, as if Seidensticker had himself won or deserved the award for his skills.  Pascale Casanova has pointed to the example of Korean literature as a minority form in a minority language in her “world republic of letters” system, hence in dire need of greater translation into French, English, and Spanish to achieve systematic consecration.

Ko Un, it seems to me, is such a Korean poet of world importance, literary recalcitrance, and cultural-political integrity deserving of such recognition on the Pacific Rim.  To be sure, translation can hardly begin to rectify or transform the hugely asymmetrical powers of the world literary system, especially for minor, indigenous, or local works of amazing power like Robert Sullivan’s Maori-based Star Waka or the works of caustic multi-generic scope like those of Samoan novelist Albert Wendt.  This interior Pacific is all the more so off the map of the literary world-system, voided and avoided as such like some ‘Pacific beneath the European pavements’ I would say, unless it wins the 1985 Booker Prize like Keri Hulme’s bone people, seemingly the only Pacific work literary scholars like Casanova or Louis Menand have heard of.  So we are damned with or without such “world” system recognitions in their reductive and foreclosed worlding of literature.

Do you see Korean literature or Chinese literature being able to make inroads through the popularity of Korea- American and Chinese American writers such as Chang-Rae Lee and Li-young Lee? 

 It could help.  Both of these writers you mention have global and diasporic ties that inform how they write and envision the world and/or the shaping of minority frames and poetics around Korean or Chinese American literature as such.  Chang-rae Lee (born in Seoul) in particular, from Native Speaker to A Gesture Life and Aloft, has been concerned with the discrepant, shifting and shifty ties of US Korean immigrants to the right-left and South-North politics happening in the ex-Korean homeland, the division system of cold war politics that shaped prior generations and that in some way still abides, the misrecognitions that racial formations are reductively subjected to, and the often erroneous burdens of autobiographical representation that are imposed upon such minority writers to explain and contain them.

Any internal US–identity frame is insufficient to grasp the geopolitics or social energies and flows of such works and authors; indeed such works help to resituate and “world” the US on and along the DMZ that it still mars and maintains as a horizon of strategic dominion. Li-Young Lee’s own ties to the Chinese diaspora into Indonesia and the United States complicate the settled making of a Chinese-influenced poetics and any such linguistically oblique post- or anti-Mao politics into one national context.

Certainly, in global contexts, Koreans in South Korea or the Chinese in Taiwan and the PRC have become increasingly interested in these Asian American writers as carriers of a global diasporic mandate, that transforms the very meaning of “Korean” or “Chinese” in decentered, transnational, polyvocal ways.  To invoke an even stronger example, Ruth Ozeki is a sophisticated, de-categorical, and uncanny Canadian American who writes about Japanese, Canadian, and Japanese American cultures as transformed across a transnational-transpacific nexus of interaction, via food industry, biotech, and agribusiness ties between the US and Japan in My Year of Meats and All Over Creation.  The fact that her recent A Tale for the Time Being could be shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize in 2013 suggests the emergent global overlap in which such back-and-forth Asia/Pacific works can and should be rightly appreciated and red, rather than just slotting them into pre-existing ethnic minority frames to contain them.

Such ‘world literature’ often exceeds the categories, national frames, or genres that would read or arrange it.

What did you make of the controversies in English language media about Mo Yan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in regards to his relationship to the PRC and lack of support for detained writers?  Do you think this will continue to complicate Western reception of Chinese literature?  How does this compare with the prize being awarded Gao Xingjian who was more controversy in Chinese speaking media but almost no controversy in English and French media?

 The PRC confronts readers as one formation internally, and another all the more so geopolitically complicated and entangled formation globally, even if we just consider its relation to Taiwan and Hong Kong not to mention decentering relations to the diasporic Chinese, or the South China Seas build-up set against Obama’s Pacific Pivot and so on.  “The Pacific is big enough for all of us,” declared U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2012 Pacific Forum in Suva but this claim of American innocence did not satisfy globalizing China not to mention the smaller interior Pacific countries of Oceania wary of such unifying US Rimspeak since the end of the Cold War and in the present security-system.

I remember going with the editorial team of the emergent journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (which by then had already established a substantial publishing record in the region and in the broader global world of cultural studies) to Tsinghua University in Beijing to discuss with scholars there the meanings of ‘doing cultural studies.’  Cultural studies in the PRC, we were told by sociologists, meant articulating workers to the needs and demands of the party, and that if we wanted to affiliate with their work it would be better to name our project “critical theory” and to drop the name “cultural studies” from our masthead!  Needless to say, we kept the name “cultural studies,” and continued to define this work or “worlding” project of cultural and literary studies quite otherwise, more along Gramscian “counter-hegemonic” lines of trans-local affiliation and neoliberal critique.  As I know from my Chinese-immersed colleague Chris Connery, however, the work of cultural studies in sites like Shanghai or Beijing proliferates along such diverse critical lines, as discussed by trenchant scholars like Wang Xiaoming and Dai Jinhua in the Meaghan Morris and Mette Hjort coedited collection, Creativity and Academic Activism:  Institututing Cultural Studies.

As for Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt has become the foremost translator and global-anglophone mediator for such Chinese novelists in the world literature system, “becoming the PRC Seidensticker,” as it were, for the University of Hawai’i Press et al.  Goldblatt concedes that Mo Yan (like Zhang Yimou, maker of the pro-imperial film Hero or the Mo Yan-story based Red Sorghum, long exposed by Rey Chow as a work of ‘self-orientalizing’ ethnography) operates within a PRC state system of censorship and self-censorship.  This long-committed translator nonetheless urges that “Mo Yan writes in a gray area in which he avoids direct, overt criticism of established institutions and policies while revealing social pathologies and what he has termed a devolution of attitudes and behaviors in the PRC.”

This more oblique, quasi-Rabelaisian mode of irony, subtext, temporal displacement into different eras, black humor, satirical or fantastic distortion of theme, setting, and character, and cryptic allegorization seems on the mark as narrative tactic within such a system.  Others engaged in the field contend that Mo Yan is too comfortable and passive with this large-scale censorship, as when he suggested at his Nobel Prize speech in that it was no worse than an airport security system, that is, easy to elude or get through (not so for cultural producers like Ai Weiwei, who lambasted this award as “an insult to humanity and to literature”).  Whether he is taken as a maker of “hallucinatory realism” or the conformist flunky of an authoritarian state, Mo Yan’s claim that “Everything I have to say is in my writing” makes liberal literary sense.

In a sense, like I said above, “we are damned with or without such “world” systems in their reductive, foreclosed worlding of literature,” as with the prior award to a diasporic Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian in France or to Mo Yan inside the state. Not to award such a prize to Chinese writers would be unconscionable, but to award one now is bound to generate controversy and resistance, especially along the inside/outside fault-lines of China, given PRC-China’s “becoming global” in a high capitalist frenzy of forgetting Mao and remembering Confucius as it were.

What do you make of the way geopolitics, perhaps, over-determines reactions to East Asian literature?  Do you suspect that has anything to do with the reception to Japanese literature we talked about in the first question?

That ‘overcoming modernity’ context for modernizing Japan reminds us that the production of modern literature was implicitly caught up in the Asia Pacific force-fields of imagining nationhood and subjectivity in contact zones of geopolitical transformation and expansion the US was involved in via its own interlocking transformation and extra-territorial expansion and legitimation.  The rise of “area studies” in world war and post-war time contexts of containment and cultural-political saturation of the everyday only makes what you are calling ‘over-determination’ more palpable.

The critical collection Masao Miyoshi and Harry Harrootunian put together called Learning Places:  The Afterlives of Area Studies, elaborates and challenges some of these frameworks in which the humanities and cultural studies have been engaged in transforming: to go beyond that World War II production field/ “learning place” as an “entrenched structure” of language, history, literature, and social sciences aimed at “gathering and providing information about the enemy” as the editors summarized it.  As Miyoshi noted, translators of Asian literature in this postwar era became all to often behind-the-language “editors” emending, condensing, and ‘improving’ the originals to make them fit globally recognized patters of high modernity.

Literature all the more so these days takes place in this global/local/national force-field which does not so much ‘over-determine’ but at the very least ‘semi-determine’ the aesthetic field of production, enacting a kind of semi-autonomy of transformation and enframing.  Literary and aesthetic judgments and tactics of reading and recognition are no less so caught up in these same force-fields.

How much damage do you think these over-translations did to the understanding of the literature? I am particularly of thinking of Pound’s translation of Chinese poetry or some of the Beat’s translations of Japanese poetry.

 I must admit I am particularly moved and engaged by Pound’s image-soaked “over-translations” in Cathay and feel you could recapitulate the whole history of imagistic prosody and syntax via his translation of Li Po’s “River Merchant’s Wife:  A Letter” into a modern idiom.  No less so, you could probably study the whole Beat movement and Beat engagement with Zen philosophy and poetry via a sustained reading of Gary Snyder’s translations of Han Shan into a “cold mountain” figure of “beat” mountain-mindedness in engagement with city civilization.  Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums remains one such elaboration or cross-cultural “translation” of Snyder’s Han Shan into a Cold War beat figure.  Jack Spicer’s “over-translation” of Lorca into “After Lorca” contains the tactics of Lorca re-situated into the American deconstructive/ re-sacralized scene in that same Beat era. Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry anthology offers poetic mistranslation at its misprisioning or over-reading best. These are all examples of what Robert Lowell called “Imitations,” unfaithful in any strict way to the original but turning the source into a vortex of meaning and influence in a new global context.  It gets a bit routinized when a singularity of a poet like W. S. Merwin turns any poet he translates into another version of a W. S. Merwin lyric whether from Spanish or Sanskrit or French and so on.  It begins to reek of what Nietzsche and Heidegger lamented as the Romanizing appropriation of Greek sources into the language-of-dominion over world being, something Americans are quite capable of inside Empire, grandly or blandly so.

About two years ago, I have a brief online spat about the negative influence of Zen poetry on American poetry with poet and translator Sam Hamil.  The issue I had is that felt like the aesthetic was overused and was depleted in power.  Sam disagreed with me, and probably rightly so.   I bring this up as what do you see as some of negative influences of post-Beat appropriations of particularly Chinese and Japanese traditional poetry?

I would tend to agree with your critique of the more recent Zen-influenced American version as closer to an aestheticizing quietism that runs dangerously close to an Orientalist fantasy softening what Zen stood for in social contexts then or now.  My own sense of what Gary Snyder was doing, in his translations of Han Shan as a “beat” figure of mountain-minded dialectics, was part of his eco-social process to transform the “dharma bum” figure of meditative beatitude and solitary desolation into the “dharma revolutionary” figure of Earth House Hold who would bring together these two strands into a pragmatic and dialectical poetics of engagement-cum-meditation.  As Snyder urged in “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” sounding a bit like that visionary “boy scout” poet as Jack Spicer mocked him, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void.  We need both.”

Han Shan, as Zen figure, gets supplanted as influence by the Japanese beat-activist poet, Nanao Sakaki.  His transpacific work with Snyder on the Banyan Ashram leads towards the Bay Area vision of planetary ecopoetics Snyder will activate in the High Sierras and Sakaki will himself bring to the US. That wholeness of vision, inward and outward connection of energies and powers, is what gives Snyder’s work uncanny relevance then and now.  Some of the Zen-drenched poetry you allude to comes closer to a pastoral retreat to inwardness and green epiphany, aligned to what Ron Silliman lambasts as the American lyric “school of quietism” and evasion.

Returning to Korean literature for a minute, I have thought the late 2000’s translations of Kim Young-Ha’s works, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Your Republic Is Calling You, were truly excellent and vivid in English. Given what I know about Korean, that’s a fairly impressive feat, what do you make of Kim’s reception in English?

The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism—a strange late capitalist mix, that’s for sure—has been pouring money into the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, and these more professionally worldly translations may be situated as a reflection of this larger drive towards international recognition for Korean literary culture, which is ever-emergent.  The less Confucian in form and content these translations, the better, I might opine, as in the risky or more subterranean works of Kim Young-Ha as translated by Chi-young Kim into anguished suave English.

Kim was also a professor of Drama at the Korean National University of the Arts, which I experienced as a visiting professor teaching Asia Pacific cultural studies in the Film program there led by the innovative feminist film scholar and maker Kim So-Young.  KNUA remains a creative seed-bed of prolific cultural works and uncanny genres that express “organic” ties to Korean history and cultural-political problematics.  Whether Kim Young-Ha prefigured or refracted this work, that remains his generation’s quasi-filmic, late-capitalist, reflexively postmodern, and global/local context, “killer capitalism on the Pacific Rim” it might be called.  This expressive work in many genres goes way beyond anything the government might want to fund, control, or nurture in its criticality and transgressive power as “Korean Wave.”  Translations of Kim Young-Ha’s novels into English, French, German, Dutch, Polish, Turkish, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese suggest their world resonance as intervention into the contemporary and divided world, Korea.

Conversely do you see literature from African or Latin American beginning to have real influence in Asia, or is it still mostly dominated by English and local literature?

Your assumption of the local and indigenous languages and literatures interacting with the Anglophone modern and postmodern traditions probably holds weight across the region, except for the increasing interaction of influences and forms along the “inter-Asian” nexus, meaning the linkages of sites like Taiwan to Japan and Korea and of course to the PRC and Hong Kong as well as the USA and UK postcolonial.

The Bandung Conference of 1955 of nonaligned and emergent nations, situated in between the pores or grasp of the postwar US and USSR empires, presupposed “Asian-African” alliances and modes of coalitional independence.  Bandung pushed writers like Richard Wright at once towards Mochtar Lubis from Indonesia and Amilcar Cabral from the Portuguese colonies of Africa.  Such alliances along Third and Fourth world lines of tactic and influence, in a shared “struggle for liberation,” came to the foreground in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana.  This leads a learned scholar of world postcoloniality like Robert Young to say we should call such emergent world literature “tricontinental” rather than the more accommodating “postcolonial” as such.

These modes of worldly solidarity between and across the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin American seem unlikely if not impossible these days to the fragmented multitudes of the literary imagination, at a time when, as Fredric Jameson has ruefully noted of utopian socio-literary energies, “it is easier [for writers] to imagine the end of the world than alternatives to global capitalism.” Nowadays, some end-time ecological jeremiad calls out as world genre across the planetary anthropocene.

What do you make of the exclusion of most of South East Asia from discussion of contemporary Asian literature?   With the exception of India, there seems to be little scholarly or public involvement on the topic?

“Asia” remains an impossible if necessary category, enacting arbitrary and power-laden inclusions and exclusions from its origins in Greece and Rome and imperial England down to its present iterations when East Asia and China seem to dominate.   Asia is a catachresis, as Gayatri Spivak tracks it in Other Asias, even as she attempts to include, compare, and translate ‘other Indias’ inside what gets taken as the literature of India within dominant Anglophone frameworks of comparative literature.  Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal has worked responsibly to expand, complicate, and interconnect across what has been taken as “Asia” since the mid 1990’s in ways that go beyond the Euro-American production of “Asia” that seems to reign in the generation and translation of Asian literature.

Cultural studies formations like this can help to deconstruct, historicize, and go far beyond the “worlding” production of regions, disciplines, and areas in literary studies or the ‘world republic of letters’ which is one reason I am drawn to this work as a kind of theory-rich, emergent, and reflexively politicized poetics.  This interaction of poetics and cultural studies is something that informs the literary production of Asia/Pacific authors from Kenzaburo Oe to Gary Pak and Ko Un, or from Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha to Ruth Ozeki and Robert Sullivan, and this gives me hope in a time that can seem bleak and utopic energies of worlding foreclosed.

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One thought on “Orientation and Asian Literature: A Conversation with Rob Wilson

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