3.1 From Practicalities of Life to Intellectual Pursuits: A Comparatist's Insights
Upon interviewing Lily Wong, Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature at American University, I gained insight on her perspective on the challenges and blessings of being a Comparative Literature graduate student and on the future of Comparative Literature. Wong’s research pays close attention to the politics of affect/emotion, gender and sexuality, as well as media formations of transpacific Chinese and Sinophone communities. She has published in journals including Asian Cinema, Pacific Affairs and China Review International, as well as book chapters in World Cinema and the Visual Arts (Anthem Press, 2012) and Queer Sinophone Cultures (Routledge, forthcoming). Between her research and experience as a Comparative Literature scholar, Wong shared interesting points on her past, present and future as a Comparatist that I enjoyed genuinely and hope you will do so too.
Q1. Please tell us a little about yourself; what drew you to Comparative Literature and what are your research interests?
I spent most of my youth traveling back and forth across the Pacific. Amidst all the movement and adjustments, literature quickly became my most reliable constant. Worlds within books provided me a safe yet continuous space that I could revisit with just the flip of a page, and writing allowed me the freedom to ponder the many languages and cultures I was navigating from an early age. And since my love and attachment to literature was not restricted to any particular national or linguistic framework, Comparative Literature became the most enticing field for me to enter.
As a student of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I discovered how literature and media are particularly powerful mediums for us to interrogate not only our own constructions of identity, but also our shifting imaginations of “community” – be it the family, nation-states or globalization – and perhaps more importantly how, what and why certain Others are left out, often along sexual, cultural and national lines.
It is because of this very interest in the politics of community building that, in my own work, I try to redefine the concept of “Chinese community” as not merely a cultural, national or ideological category, but as an affective project that is consistently reinvented through mass media.
Q2. What are you most proud of in your academic career as a graduate of Comparative Literature? What is your favorite accomplishment as a professor?
I feel most proud during those impromptu office hours held right after a good class, when students just can’t stop discussing and thinking about the hard concepts or texts we’ve covered in lecture. I feel most accomplished when I receive those enthusiastic emails and notes from students expressing how much my class has challenged them to re-conceptualize their own realities. In those moments, I know that my research continues to matter and that my teaching is translating that knowledge to my students and making an impact. Those moments make all the long hours worth it.
Q3. What was your challenge as a graduate student within the Comparative Literature field?
The biggest challenge studying Comparative Literature has also been the most rewarding part of it for me. It is that persistent navigation between cultures, languages and disciplines that is the most taxing but also the most invigorating. It is precisely the constant explanation of what Comparative Literature means, the resistance of being fixated within particular preconceived boxes, the feeling of being always on the verge of an existential crisis that keeps me thinking and evolving as a thinker.
Q4. What was your experience getting published and starting your career? How difficult was it to find a job?
The job market, as we know, took a huge hit at the start of the recession and has yet to fully recover. Being on the market for the past few years was one of the hardest endeavors (emotionally, financially and mentally) I’ve experienced as of yet, especially since the outcome depends heavily on factors that one has no control over. As for factors that I did have control over (the dissertation, publications, teaching), I have my mentors and colleagues to thank. My advisor encouraged me, very early on in my graduate career, to actively build my CV by planning mini-goals for each academic year: from attending one graduate conference the first year, to applying to regional conferences every quarter starting the second year, to regularly attending national conventions; from submitting book reviews the first few years to eventually submitting my own work to journals.These endeavors weren’t always successful, but it nevertheless helped me build a certain archive of experience, sometimes even confidence, slowly but surely. After a few years of sharing my work to a wider public (conference going and article submissions), opportunities for publication and collaboration often came from the colleagues and mentors I have encountered through the process. I would not be at this stage in my academic career without them. They give me the guidance, opportunities, and inspiration to keep on developing my work to be in constant conversation with the field.
Q5. What is one word of advice you would like to have heard as a graduate student and that you will give to your students?
To learn to balance the practicalities of academic life – as well as life in general – with the passions that brought you to it. There is a certain excitement of being fully engulfed and driven by our intellectual pursuits (i.e., that burning question/complicated theory at the heart of your work), but there are also the practicalities of life (i.e., money for food and rent, time to spend with friends and family, physical and mental health) that nurtures us in, perhaps, more immediate ways. I find that it is the constant pursuit of that balance that sustains me.
Q6. What do you see for the future of Comparative Literature?
As someone who is just starting off my career in the field, my take on this might not hold much weight. But here is my two cents. In a time when the Humanities in general seem to be undergoing an institutional crisis, I would like to think that students and scholars in Comparative Literature are well – if not better – equipped to deal with it. We are accustomed to navigating along disciplinary and inter-disciplinary borders in both our research and teaching. This might place us in a unique position to address the hard questions of what it means to be “in” the Humanities today, and how we can think beyond it.
Claudia Yaghoobi is a Doctoral Candidate in Comparative Literature at the UCSB. Yaghoobi’s research interests include English and Persian Medieval Mystical/Sufi Literature, Middle Eastern women’s literature, gender and sexuality studies. She has published articles on Iranian women’s activism and Persian Sufi poetry.