AAS Member Spotlight: Sumie Jones

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Sumie Jones, Professor Emerita, Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington; Residential Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, Indiana University

Comparative Literature and Arts; Japan

How long have you been a member of AAS?

Since 1979.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

I joined in order to promote comparative studies of Japanese and other East Asian cultures. I recommend AAS to specialists and students in Asian Studies because it is broadly multi-disciplinary and democratically represents all geographical areas in Asia and yet it is small enough to allow newcomers to join or create a community of specialists.

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

I grew up in a family in which reading literature in Japanese and in translation was among the central activities. My first encounter with a foreign language was classical Chinese when I was still in grade school. Subsequently, I moved into the English and French languages and other European literatures. It was after I came to study in the U.S. that I rediscovered the charm of Chinese and Japanese literatures in comparison with Western texts. In the U.S., Asian Studies formed a very small field at the time and I was intent to promote it in my teaching and research.

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

My chief pleasure has always been teaching in Comparative Literature as well as in East Asian Studies. My courses often generated events, such as a well-received performance of a kabuki play in English, graduate student conferences, and team presentations with one or two students. I was also active in advising on several art exhibitions and workshops on campus as well as inviting many speakers in the field, some from China, Korea, or Japan. I am proud to say that for thirteen years I co-chaired, with my colleague Breon Mitchell, a program titled “Seminar on Translation,” which consisted of distinguished and active literary translators from the U.S. and other countries. Large-scale international conferences that I organized include “The World of Genji: Perspectives of the Genji Monogatari” in 1982 and “Sexuality and Edo Culture, 1750-1850” in 1995, chiefly focused on Japan. The former was accompanied by an exhibition of Genji-related art from a large number of U.S. museums and the latter was accompanied by an exhibition consisting of works provided by galleries and individuals in Japan.

Tell us about your current or past research.

The chief products of my research during the 35 years of my career are articles and book chapters focusing on comparative literary and cross-disciplinary readings of early modern European and Japanese literature and arts. Through my study in these areas, I came to focus on semiological examinations of the relationship between reading and writing to develop a theory of “overtext,” which seems to apply to early modern bourgeois culture in languages, East and West. It was my interest in this relationship that led me to the theory and practice of translation, on which I have written articles and edited a few journal issues, eventually turning me into a translator. These activities have gone hand-in-hand with my current long-running project, which has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Toshiba International Foundation. A team of 70 participants has so far produced the Edo-focused volume of an anthology of early modern Japan’s popular literature, a Tokyo volume is scheduled to appear in February 2017. The team is now working on the Kyoto-Osaka volume of the anthology. I have also been active as a comparatist beyond the field of Asian Studies. I have chaired workshops for the International Comparative Literature Association congresses and, particularly for ICLA’s Tokyo conference in 1991, I organized a full-day workshop on Kurosawa Akira’s films and co-edited, with Margaret Higonet, one volume of the proceedings, which included papers on border crossings in terms of gender, language, and culture.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

I always emphasize the importance of language learning for their future teaching and research. My slogan for my students has always been “Talk big.” Once you make a big claim against existing studies, say, responsibility makes you conduct fierce research and develop the sort of rhetoric that convinces others. I would also advise them to keep their professional horizons wide and flexible when pursuing their studies on the university level, considering their marketability within and without academia. 

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

I am an unpublished novelist in Japanese. 

Jones, Sumie

"I recommend AAS to specialists and students in Asian Studies because it is broadly multi-disciplinary and democratically represents all geographical areas in Asia and yet it is small enough to allow newcomers to join or create a community of specialists."

— Sumie Jones