Abstracts 2019

Manuel Azuaje-Alamo (Harvard University)

The Translator’s Personal Canon: Haruki Murakami’s Translations of Contemporary American Literature and Their Literary Afterlives in Japan and East Asia

Widely known throughout the West as a novelist and perennial Nobel prize candidate, Haruki Murakami is also renowned in his native Japan as a consummate translator and writer of travel narratives. He has been responsible for rendering into the Japanese language American writers as diverse as Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. Having translated American literature into Japanese for more than 3 decades, Murakami has created a personal canon of American literature that his avid Japanese readers consume with the same gusto that they have for his novels and short stories. Even as Murakami’s very visible role as a translator in Japan stands in stark contrast to what translation scholar Lawrence Venuti decried as the “translator’s invisibility,” it can be said that for his readers in the West his work as a translator has remained a similarly invisible work. Murakami’s dimension as translator, along with his special positioning as an expert in American literature, is a side of his career that is usually barely mentioned in passing by both readers and scholars in the West. I argue, instead, that Murakami is a perfect case study for understanding the diffusion and influence of American literature around the world at the turn of the 21stcentury, and the appearance of new geographies of literary circulation.

A perfect example of this is Murakami’s relationship with American literature within the context of contemporary East Asia at large. The prologues written by Murakami for his Japanese-language translations of American literature have been used repeatedly in translations of such books published in China and Korea. Similarly, his travel writings—much of it depicting the space and culture of the U.S. during his prolonged stay there during the 1990s—have also served to create a personalized image of the U.S. and of American literature that, thanks to Murakami’s fame, has found further diffusion in East Asia. In this way, Murakami the Japanese author, has acted as an introducer and framer of a very specific type of American-culture-based vision of the world, which is then refracted through his figure as translator throughout East Asia at wide.

This paper reads Murakami’s translation of American literature and his American travel writing in the context of the possibility of alternate canons of modern American literature envisioned by foreign authors who translate. It reads American literature from the perspective of its readers in Japan and beyond in East Asia, with the novelist Haruki Murakami serving as the point of refraction from which an alternate vision of contemporary American literature emerges.



Douglas Basford (University at Buffalo)

Ticcing in Other Tongues: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Translating Neurodiversity

In arguing that a certain elite of mainstream contemporary fiction writers can count on their novels being “born translated,” that is, published almost simultaneously in translation in multiple languages, and that a foreknowledge of this likelihood is changing how these writers conceive of and produce their fiction, Rebecca L. Walkowitz traces how Kazuo Ishiguro came to focus more on “architectural” concerns rather than sentences or phrasing. Like Ishiguro, Jonathan Lethem seems to have written his fourth novel, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), knowing that it would be widely translated—which it was, far more than his earlier work. But Lethem is renowned for his wordplay, and so what happens as the cosmic jokes that thematically structure the entire narrative fizzle when translations inevitably destroy the critical puns, themselves by no coincidence bound up in acts of linguistic, cultural, and geographical translation in the novel? “Context is everything,” claims the Tourettic protagonist Lionel Essrog at the outset, whose uncontrollable verbal impulses well up within him to give reality a “prick” in the most inappropriate places—a church, a nursery, a crowded movie theater—and, by extension, presumably in any culturally determined space.

How, then, are Lionel’s experiences and his rather improbable outbursts and echolalia rendered by translators across the world, particularly by those from cultures which make appearances in the book—Italian, Polish, Japanese, and, less openly, Jewish? In what ways does Lionel’s idiolect remain “necessarily choral” (Karmen MacKendrick) in other languages? How have translators understood the contrast between the sardonic inventiveness of Frank Minna, the boss of Lionel’s small-time gang, which hides more than it reveals, and Lionel’s involuntary ticcing always on the verge of unveiling something? Crucially and more generally, how are disability and neurodiversity translated and, following the lead of Emily Apter, to what extent are they untranslatable and to what effect?

This paper explores the tensions between the universalizing “neuroliberal subject” (Engin F. Isin) being disseminated by economic fiat and global/popular neuroscience initiatives, the transnational “neurotribes” (Steve Silberman) being granted increased visibility and community through international advocacy efforts, and the tropes of “ablenationalism” (David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder), literary cosmopolitanism, and geopolitical dynamics as they reach a pinnacle in the neuronovel in the course of it becoming a global phenomenon, initially through translation of English and American writers. When he first coined the term “neuronovel,” Marco Roth worried that the emergent subgenre was a further sign of the contemporary novel’s abrogation of its traditional contract to fathom individual subjective experience, unwisely ceding that territory to science. To follow the global reach and promotion of neuroscience and neurodiversity, like the 21st-century neuronovel emanating outwards from an Anglo-American point of origin, means rethinking the means by which world literature represents individual and collective lives.



Daniel Bergman (University of Toronto)

The Intimacy of Parallel Phases: Making (Queer) Time for the Immigrant Child in Ben Lerner’s 10:04

Responding to a frequently asked question about naturalization requirements, the website run by the department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reminds its applicants that their eligibility depends on their ability to demonstrate both their physical presence and continuous residence within American borders over the previous five years. Becoming a U.S. citizen is, from this perspective, fundamentally a matter of time: to be recognized as a fellow member of the American polity, one must remain in one place long enough to verifiably acclimate to the country’s norms and institutions. In this sense, my paper will argue, the movement from residence to citizenship is governed by the same emphasis on linear growth that undergirds the movement from child to adult within classically liberal accounts of subject formation, as each process ostensibly ends with acceptance into a world of free choice and personal accountability. In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, however, these individualistic discourses reach an insurmountable limit when confronted by their shadowy obverse in the figure of the irresponsible immigrant child.

Reversing the normative privileging of adulthood over immaturity and government-sanctioned citizenship over illegality, Lerner’s 2014 novel narrates alternative models of time and growth that echo, in revealing ways, the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton’s attempts to articulate childhood’s unusual temporalities. Rather than viewing growth as an inevitably vertical and future-oriented trajectory, both Stockton and Lerner explore visions of horizontal self-development that emerge out of moments of suspension and delay. Reading these writers’ rejections of maturity against the backdrop of contemporary U.S. immigration law, then, offers a crucial opportunity to interrogate dominant American assumptions regarding the making of a citizen. Ultimately, I suggest, the odd temporal integrations and disjunctions left in the wake of Lerner’s immigrant figures point toward the contradictions at the core of contemporary juridical processes meant to regulate belonging – illuminating the difficulties associated with defining civic maturation as a gradual movement toward stable self-presence while proposing an alternative relational model premised on childlike commitments to aimless and fragmentary forms of growth.



Devin Choudhury (University of California—Berkeley)

On the Possibility of a Negative Universal Lyric

In his landmark essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Dipesh Chakrabarty poses the human species as a new universal for the age of the Anthropocene. Acknowledging the risks of this idea, he qualifies his call for a species-wide politics by noting that such a politics should not subsume the particularities born of colonialism and patchy global capitalism. In this essay, I explore the idea of lyric poetry as an answer to Chakrabarty’s call: the idea of negative universal lyric poetry, in which the individuated lyric voice, situated within the aforementioned particularities, gestures at the human species as universal. In order to answer my central question—“Is a negative universal lyric possible?”—I turn to Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Turtle Shrine Near Chittagong,” which details a lyric subject’s touristic encounter with an endangered species of turtle and local worshipers at the shrine of the Sufi saint Bayazid Bostami, located in southeastern Bangladesh. Using the phrase “turtles all the way down” as a lens, I claim that Nye’s poem fulfills the conditions of negative universal lyric, locating itself within the connections and inequalities that persist across the globe even as it offers forth a vision of species as simultaneously universal and particular; in doing so, the poem discloses new political imaginings for the Anthropocene, both interspecies and interhuman. How might we think lyrically—how might we think with the world-turtle—in the Anthropocene? And how might this new thinking change our approach to adaptation and justice as we confront the extraordinary challenges of our new epoch?



Nate Duke (Florida State University)

“Blueing under a dimming North Star”: Destabilizations of English in Native American Poetry

Contemporary Native American poets writing in English navigate a complex hierarchy of imperial and indigenous languages; Orlando White, Navajo poet and author of Letterrs (2015), has called even pen and paper imperialist tools imposed on a traditionally oral culture. Letterrs signals the destabilization of English lexemes in the title, but goes further in the text to undermine our conception of individual symbols and phonemes. He poeticizes letters and sonic units while simultaneously forcing the reader into a confrontation with the fraught implications of ink on the page.

Layli Long Soldier’s much-lauded book WHEREAS (2017) takes its title from the language of specious U.S. treaties with her ancestral Oglala Lakota Nation. In the collection, she countenances the denotative meaning of English words she thinks should mean something else, building a dynamic poetic around that gulf. Ecological and historical imagery is imbued with linguistic power, creating a new language for new poetry of witness.

Sherwin Bitsui, whose collection Flood Song won a National Book Award in 2010, often interpolates words from his native Navajo into otherwise English-based poems. This bilingual dynamic is noticeably limited in his new collection Dissolve (2018), but the collection contains many verb-neologisms in English that reflect verb-based Navajo.

Bitsui opens English to new possibilities and poeticisms that destabilize the western prioritization of linear time and narrative implicit in its syntax and imagistic structure. The geometric relationships between themes can be occasioned by neologisms and overt reference to language disparities, such as in these lines from his poem “Dissolve” : “These hands glocked / in a hive of red ants / swan through children / grunting at the bank / of one language / while the other / tethers moonlight to firelight—” A gun and a swan are both turned into verbs, leaving a reader to consider the image for which to swan through children is the metaphor. Dissolve is full of such moments that demand and reward linguistic re-reading. Coming from a poet whose identity spans different languages and nationalities superimposed on one another, it makes sense that in Dissolve, worlds are often interpolated swiftly to better render them mutually soluble.

My essay investigates several contemporary Native American poets’ engagements with English, both syntactically and lexicographically, and argues that poets from distinct tribal backgrounds should be treated as hailing from distinct literary landscapes, with distinct consequential relationships to the language of the settler-colonizer. Using Bitsui, White, and Long Soldier’s work as a model, this essay will explore the various ways poets from multiple indigenous North American heritages undermine, reclaim, and indigenize English for their poetic utility.


Jacqueline Krass (University of Wisconsin—Madison)

Detours and Stopping Places in The Narrative and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince

Nancy Prince was a freeborn black American seamstress, traveler, and missionary who self-published her autobiography, The Narrative and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, in 1850. The Narrative, which documents Prince’s travels from her home state of Massachusetts to tsarist Russia, post-emancipation Jamaica, and slave-owning Florida, is characterized by great, even extraordinary mobility, even as it returns, over and over again, to scenes of stuckness and immobility. It follows Prince across the Atlantic Ocean and back, and registers a shifting succession of genre that includes sentimental narrative, ethnography, travel writing, and anti-slavery tract. Yet as it revels in Prince’s formal and literal freedom of movement, the narrative cannot help but fixate on its moments of inertia and immobility, those in which Prince’s status as holder of an imperiled ontological freedom is made evident. She depicts herself trapped on a ship that has crossed into slaveowning territory, or waiting for death at the bottom of a muddy ditch during the Saint Petersburg flood of 1824.

Genre has traditionally been theorized as a set of conventions, a “particular relation to the world which serves as norm or expectation to guide the reader in his encounter with the text.”[1] When a writer crosses or combines genre, does she defy expectation – or instead create a larger, more complex web of expectations and norms to adhere to? Taking Prince’s little-read Narrative as my central text, I examine genre-crossing as a form of travel, a flexible traversal of the conventions that genre represents that also functions to foreground the author’s entrapment in structural forms of immobility and inaction. In doing so, this paper seeks to consider the role of genre and (im)mobility in constituting a particular kind of nineteenth-century American modernity, one marked by expansion and liberalism as much as by injustice and contraction.

[1] Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, Cornell UP, 1975, p. 136.



Chelsea Latremouille (University of Toronto)

“A fluency in the dialect of geography”: Teju Cole and the Habits of Description

This paper examines the role of description in the literary and photographic practices of the contemporary Nigerian-American artist Teju Cole. Description has always been an essential representational mode – central, for example, to the tradition of ekphrasis from the classical period through to the contemporary – yet it has often been undervalued as a literary and critical practice. Lukács famously viewed description in fiction and poetry as static, incapable of conveying the world’s flux and vibrancy. Description fell further out of fashion in the wake of the linguistic turn in literary theory where self-consciousness regarding representational modes resulted in scepticism towards what seemed purely observational. Postcritical scholars have recently endeavoured to redeem description as a practice that makes various phenomena available for analysis and interpretation. This paper builds on such interest, investigating how Cole understands description as an ethical habit of seeing.

For Cole, description functions not only as a representative mode, but an imaginative touchpoint for a form of vision that attends to reality with a fugitive and vagrant gaze, directed as much towards gaps in perception as visual presences. This dynamic, I argue, is epitomized in his recent volume of photographs and essays, Blind Spot (2017). A work of travel literature, Blind Spot captures Cole’s interest in what he calls a “fluency in the dialect of geography.” Cole’s approach to “geography” is creative and allusive. Following the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch cartographers, who conceived the atlas as a book wherein the world is described, Cole explores what it means to describe the world through moments of individual and fluctuating perception.

This paper begins with a discussion of the history of description as an artistic practice and puts that history in dialogue with current theoretical understandings, particularly among postcritical re-evaluations. I then look to three key influences on Cole’s habits of description: seventeenth-century Dutch painting, the twentieth-century Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri, and the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. I argue that Cole draws on these contexts for his approach to description as geography. Cole’s use of photography and essay demonstrates how word and image interaction reveals description to function not as a static, mimetic equation between reality and representation, but rather a synesthetic experience that emerges as a topography of the mind and where representation becomes a journey across a map of partial vision. Cole’s approach to photography and writing is committed to the centrality of one’s subjective experience; his equal commitment to habits of description is crucial to how he conceives an ethical subjectivism.



Ian Litwin (University of California—Irvine)

Abolition and 1848; or, Where in the World Revolution is William Wells Brown?

William Wells Brown is best known today as the fugitive slave who authored several firsts in African American literature, including Clotel (1853), the first African American novel. That reputation has been both a boon and a boundary. While it has provoked prodigious commentary on Brown’s indictment of slavery in the United States, it has largely obscured his placement of that critique within a broader picture of the Anglo-French Atlantic in the Age of Revolution. This paper restores some of that complex geography through an examination of Brown’s underdiscussed response to the European Revolutions of 1848. As a transatlantic traveler in France and the United Kingdom between 1849 and 1854, Brown narrowly missed the revolutions, but he saw firsthand the conservative counter-revolution that followed. His response was intertextual, international, and even inter-imperial. My paper traces the development of that response from its inception in a speech that Brown delivered to the Second International Peace Congress in Paris in 1849, through the panorama of American slavery that he presented to audiences in the United Kingdom in 1850, and to its efflorescence in the European travel narrative that he published in London in 1852. I argue that in those tours, tapestries, and texts, Brown draws on the Christian anarchism that he learned as an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society in order to articulate the failures of Europe’s mid-century democratic revolutions as developmentally and etiologically intertwined with those of the English, American, and French Revolutions that preceded them. In Brown’s account, the root of those failures was that instead of eradicating the depredations of the aristocratic order, democratization had set them on a new footing by embracing cultural nationalism and expropriative violence. Against such a backdrop, Brown presents the revitalization of slavery in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century as not just a failure of American democracy, but a result of it. Slavery, then, was the exemplary example of a problem in which Europe, the British Isles, and the Americas were all enmeshed, and I argue that Brown’s gambit was to suggest that in trying to find a solution to that problem the fate of the French citizen and the free Briton were inseparable from that of the American slave.

By restoring the Atlantic framework in which Brown’s work was conceived, I depart from a critical tendency not only to situate Brown’s pertinence to American literature solely in relation to its exploration of the problem of slavery in the United States, but also a broader disciplinary tendency to disarticulate the problems of mid-nineteenth century American slavery from concurrent developments in the European world. In doing so, I demonstrate that the problems taken up by Brown did not end with slavery or at the U.S. border. I also aim to show that William Wells Brown models ways for us to think, write, and perform an understanding of American Literature today that is in dialogue with developments that are world-historical.



Cole Morgan (Brown University)

Interpretive Interruptions in Hurston’s Barracoon

What does Hurston mean when she explains in her preface to Barracoon that Cudjo Lewis—the reputed last living survivor of the Middle Passage—has at last “been permitted to tell his story in his own way without the intrusion of interpretation”? Hurston’s remark seems to anticipate our contemporary critical reception of Lewis’s “story” by framing Barracoon as a project of recovery and preservation. Deborah Plant corroborates this view in her own introduction to Barracoon, lauding Hurston’s commitment to composing the text without “imposing herself on the narrative.” For her part, Alice Walker introduces Barracoon as Hurston’s “Maestrapiece,” Walker’s term for “the feminine perspective or part of the structure, whether in stone or fancy, without which the entire edifice is a lie.” Walker attests that for Hurston, “truth, what was real, what actually happened to somebody, mattered. And so, she sits with Cudjo Lewis.” History, narrative, truth, and testimony converge in Barracoon as Hurston and Lewis work through their respective roles as anthropological archivist and living record. At stake in the text’s publication, it would seem, are the old and familiar questions of how we remember the legacy of slavery through narrative.

This paper examines the nature of interpretation in Hurston’s text by considering Barracoon’s formal features alongside its contemporary critical reception. Whereas Walker, Plant, and Hurston’s paratextual materials work to minimize Hurston’s perceived role in bringing Lewis’s experiences to print, I argue that Hurston’s “intrusion of interpretation” is, in fact, Barracoon’s most central and productive tension. Hurston’s role as Cudjo’s interlocutor most fundamentally shapes Barracoon’s structure by conceiving of their conversations as chapters. At a deeper level, Barracoon bears the impressions Cudjo’s customs, habits, and habitation make on Hurston during their exchanges. Resting regularly on what she terms Cudjo’s “African idea[s] transplanted to America,” Hurston’s eye for nuanced cultural differences belies the twinned impulses toward documentation and translation that animate her project. Attending to Barracoon’s narrative structure reveals patterns of return, remembrance, recalcitrance, and refusal that expose many of the deepest logics of transparency and veracity by which we make sense of narrative representations of the slave past.



Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen (Stanford University)

Cane in the Crosshairs: Toomer’s New American Race as Heuristic for Antiracist Action?

My paper takes Donald B. Gibson’s cue in reading Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) as “an index of the orientation of its author” and reads vignettes from the novel alongside Toomer’s poetry and journal entries to concretize his vision of “A New Race in America.” In a 1931 journal entry with that same title, Toomer described (t)his new race as

neither white nor black nor in-between […] the American race, differing as much from white and black as white and black differ from each other. It is possible that there are Negro and Indian bloods in my descent along with English, Spanish, Welsh, Scotch, French, Dutch, and German. This is common in America, and it is from all these strains that the American race is being born. But the old divisions into white, black, brown, red, are outworn in this country. They have had their day. Now is the time of the birth of a new order, a new vision, a new ideal of man. I proclaim this order.

I locate Toomer’s philosophy of race within early 20th century discourses of what Werner Sollors coined “ethnic modernism” and then transpose this call for progressive, coalitional race politics to contemporary and near-contemporary discourses about white transnational allyship in the racialized 21st-century American context. I read “Blood-Burning Moon,” a section from Cane that chronicles a lynching, alongside Elizabeth Alexander’s “Can you be BLACK and Look at This?” (1994), which responds to Rodney King’s brutalization by coining the phrase “bottom-line blackness” and asserting the singularity of black suffering in contemporary USA. I contrast Alexander’s Afro-pessimist perspective on the prospect of white transnational allyship with Gloria Anzaldúa’s suggestion in Borderlands / La Frontera (1987). I focus on Anzaldúa’s prophecy that “[t]he whites in power want us people of color to barricade ourselves behind separate tribal walls so they can pick us off one at a time with their hidden weapons.” I end by suggesting that in a moment of nativist/racist flare-ups in U.S. politics and policy, realpolitikal pressures of pushing for progressive change require a temporary suspension of Alexander’s Afro-pessimism and a strategic embrace (cf. Spivak) of allyship even from white transnational coalitions. Given the urgency of this task, I envision the possibility of a renaissance for Toomer’s figure of a New American Race that builds progressive coalitions wherever it can, mindful of but never fixated upon the races and nationalities of people who join this coalition.



Noah Warren (University of California—Berkeley)

American Bards and English Reviewers

This paper explores the transatlantic reception of Joaquin Miller’s Songs of the Sierras (1871) as a site where post-bellum federal mythographies are contested. Though the volume’s reputation would resolve, as did the poet’s, into the minor and regional, it was hailed in the U.K. as major and innovative, preparatory to a new national canon. The volume’s British reception is considered insofar as it treats the book as a metonym for its extravagant author, who is taken in turn as a half-conscious representative of American character writ large. The predominance of Rousseauvian figurations in contemporary reviews is read as reasserting a colonialist epistemology that can comfortably relegate the United States to an inferior stage of development.

The book’s heated American reception is framed by The Education of Henry Adams, which strikingly understands the Grant presidency as a retrogressive historical epicycle. A close reading of Songs of the Sierras salvages Miller’s poetry into a vernacular contestation of linear time and a strong progress narrative. However, the high pitch of American critical objection to the book (snubbed by American publishers, it returns only after its success in England) reveals the threat implicit in these values: the recurring claim that the work fails in its cardinal duty to uphold sanctioned “truth”, or, to represent “reality”, gestures towards the precarity of this civic construct. The paper’s last movement turns to Bayard Taylor’s parody of Whitman, Miller, and other local color poets to instance how class, popularity, and medium (here, newsprint) are mobilized to undercut upstart claims to transcendental literary value.



Tymek Woodham (University College London)

“TONGUES UNANALYSED UNECHOED / UNTAKEN DOWN ON TAPE”: Oceanic depth in Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama

Langston Hughes opens his 1940 memoir, The Big Sea, by recounting the moment he threw all of his books into the ocean. ‘[B]ooks had been happening to me’, he says, and in a dramatic gesture towards poetic rebirth, Hughes attempts to divest himself of ‘everything unpleasant and miserable out of my past’. Interestingly, however, by the time of writing The Big Sea’s postscript the directionality of this gesture has been inverted. Now acknowledging himself as a fully-fledged writer, Hughes delivers one of the most well-known articulations of his artistic practice: ‘Literature is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pulled. I am still pulling.’

This paper wants to ask: what happens in the interim between divestment and recuperation; between the surrendering of language to oceanic depth and the poetic act of retrieving it? In the words of contemporary oceanic studies, where does ‘the sea’s abyss of representation’ (Hester Blum) fit with regards to a poet so often associated with the lateralising currents and hybrid morphologies of the Black Atlantic? At stake in these discussions are the implications of the material metaphors we use to underwrite things such as nationhood, identity and international solidarity. The Atlantic is, after all, much more than a flat surface over which ships and bodies have crisscrossed throughout history. Its seabed is littered by shipwrecks and lost things, lightless voids and unmapped terrains. Following recent work by Ayesha Hameed, I want to ask to what extent can we appropriate the surface of the Atlantic at the expense of its oceanic depth? What kinds of poesis are adequate to the task of allowing recalcitrant materiality back into our formulations of both the national and the international?

By reading for the oceanic in Langston Hughes’ 1961 masterpiece Ask Your Mama, I try to locate this recalcitrance in the ‘depth-effects’ of a multimedia work that uses language, music and performance as axes of dimensionality. Oceanic depth in Hughes’s poem-performance is wayward and intractable, yet simultaneously generative and nourishing: as readers, we are compelled to throw Hughes’s words deep into the crosscurrents of sound, sense and gesture in the hopes that our recuperation of them will evince new articulations of intercontinental solidarity.




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