“Shelfie”: Rachel Park


This is my “shelfie” aka what I’ve been reading (or re-reading) the past few weeks, both for school and for fun.

  1. On Revolution by Hannah Arendt
    Hannah Arendt will always be, in my opinion, one of the coolest, most bad-ass women ever in the history of philosophy and just in general.
  2. L’État honteux by Sony Labou Tansi
    I’m writing my thesis on this novel so I may be totally biased, but he is a really wonderful and underrated writer. It’s a bit difficult because there is no English translation of this book, or of most of his other works, so it is limiting in that you have to know French to read it. But if you ever needed motivation to learn French, here it is.
  3. Freedom Time by Gary Wilder
    This was published very recently, in January 2015, and it’s a nice reminder of how there is always new scholarship and studies out there and that we don’t necessarily have to stick with just the canonical works, or that things have to be published for an “x” number of years before we can consider them “seriously”.
  4. The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
    The Korean language, in my opinion, does not translate very well into English which makes it very difficult for non-native speakers to access any Korean literature. What little texts that have been translated are usually missing this intangible “something” that really makes it beautiful. I love Chang-Rae Lee because all his works are written in English, but he also writes about the experience of being Korean, whether it is as an immigrant, a first generation Korean-American, a mixed-race person, and more. His writing style is absolutely beautiful and I love that he is making a part of Korean culture accessible to the mainstream in some way.
  5. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
    I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book (seven? eight?)
  6. The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

    Time for me had always been measured in terms of the rising sun, its setting sister, and the dependable cycle of the moon. but at sea, I learned that time can also be measured in terms of water, in terms of the distance traveled while drifting on it. When measured in this way, nearer and farther are the path of time’s movement, not continuously forward along a fast straight line. When measured in this way, time loops and curlicues, and at any given moment it can spiral me away and then bring me rushing home again

    That was a quote from the book. I don’t think I can write anything more that can justify or prove how achingly beautiful the writing is.

  7. The complete collection of Aimé Césaire’s poetry 

Swordfights and Kazoos: A Look at the Humor of Shakespeare and Calderón

By: Lauren Cooper

Women dressed as men, feuds fueled by honor, a power struggle for a foreign throne, and a swordfight to the death. This plot summary could describe any Shakespearean drama that the typical American student has been forced to read time and time again throughout her prolonged education. After a while, the tropes become old and bleed together until they are nearly indistinguishable. But what if I told you that the final battle wasn’t staged with swords, but kazoos—a massive kazoo battle culminating in a dance-off. The play doesn’t sound Shakespearean any more, does it?

In fact, it’s not Shakespeare, the English Bard, but his Spanish contemporary Pedro Calderón de la Barca, whose 1635 comedy La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) not only enjoyed massive popularity in its day, but has also played a key role in the twentieth-century Spanish and French avant-garde movements. These two playwrights, who created during the same period in rival empires, tell nearly identical stories. Hamlet and La Vida es Sueño, for example, are steeped in drama, suspense, and occasional bawdy humor. But it is the centrality of the humor, or lack thereof, that distinguishes the two.

The first place that this humor shows is in the text itself. The first scene in Hamlet shows a ghost; the first scene in La Vida es Sueño shows someone falling off of a horse—the tone of each play is set from the first lines. However, more than the text itself, the differences between these two national playwrights can be seen in the portrayal of their works on stage. When confronted with a three-hour long play, stage directors are forced to make cuts to the text, and they are often faced with a choice between the subplots that add to, but don’t define, the narrative (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and humanizing fillers (suggestive jokes that appear between scenes). In modern day productions, directors of Hamlet seem to side with the dramatic, while directors of La Vida es Sueño, as evidenced by the kazoos used in a recent English adaptation at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, emphasize the absurd.

It is difficult to determine exactly why this difference has emerged in the modern day. Looking at production styles from the seventeenth century, it seems that Shakespearean plays—both tragedies and comedies—could be raucous events, just like Calderón’s plays in Spain. At some point, this changed in England, perhaps due to the events shaping English society during the following centuries. As the fledgling English empire grew, gaining control of a good portion of the world’s landmass, perhaps a more serious image was required. This conservative style is certainly reflected in later English cultural production. Meanwhile, the once powerful Spanish empire, recently defeated in a naval battle with England, entered into a period of decline known as the Decadencia. Confronted with a loss of political power, perhaps the humor present in political dramas became a central and sustaining focus.

Turning to the modern day, Shakespeare has not only entered into, but has also become a central figure in a literary canon filled with dramatic texts. It is perhaps this academic focus that prevents the modern reader or audience from fully appreciating the humor in Shakespeare’s texts. Calderón, on the other hand, while well known in certain literary circles, remains largely unstudied in academia. Read in the context of other Spanish works—often defined by satire, parody, and absurdism of a level unseen in the English canon—Calderón’s humor can be appreciated without diminishing his importance within the Spanish literary canon.

You’ve heard of Shakespeare—he’s good. Even if he seems a bit conservative, he deserves your recognition. But so does Calderón. And within his dramatic texts you may find something altogether different, something that that you don’t feel the need to “take seriously.”

Meet Tony Soyka: Traveler, Writer, and Comparative Literature’s Newest Academic Advisor

By: Rachel Park

One of the first things you notice upon entering 4118 Dwinelle is the colorful array of maps that cover the majority of one entire wall, turning its boring, grey uniformity into, quite literally, whole other worlds. It is here, in the office of the undergraduate advisor for Comparative Literature, that we have our first indication of Anatole Soyka’s wanderlust. Having earned  Bachelor’s degrees in Food Science and Medical Technology as well as having a Master’s in Education , it might seem counterintuitive at first that he is the advisor for Comparative Literature majors, a domain that seems far removed from the factual theorems and laws that dictate the realm of science. Nevertheless, it is precisely this love of traveling, as well as his unexpected roots in science, that make him so well suited for the unique world of Comparative Literature.

In fact, you might even say that he was born for this job. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan to refugee parents from Russia, Tony’s world has always contained multiple languages. He confesses to having struggled with his own identity as a result of this multilingualism: “My parents didn’t speak English, and there I was, trying to learn, but with nobody to help me or teach me”. Yet this did not deter him and along with language, he found other unexpected ways to adapt to American culture: “For me, baseball was my tool to ‘assimilate’, rather than language. It was universal, and made me feel more a part of American culture without having to speak English straight out. After that, I changed my name from ‘Anatoli’ to ‘Tony’ because it was more “American”.

Like most children, particularly those that are first generation Americans, Tony felt the struggle of negotiating two separate cultures and trying to place them in his own sense of identity. It was not until Tony started attending Michigan State University, however, that he was able to re-connect with his cultural roots and heritage. Though he earned a double Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Medical Technology, Tony admits that he was “not that drawn to it, but in terms of career-choices, I thought it was practical”. Looking back, he admits that it was definitely the Russian language classes he took during his undergraduate career that he benefited from the most because it allowed him to understand and access his heritage and culture in a way he had previously never been able to. For him, learning the language of his parents and native culture was not just a means of being able to communicate or understand the Russian language, but a means of understanding the “spirit” of being Russian, of understanding the context and intangible connotations that each culture seems to carry. For instance, he mentions a class he took that studied aphorisms and he still remembers how they were given a phrase in Russian “Тише едешь, дальше будешь” which, when literally translated, means something along the lines of “The quieter you ride, the farther you will go”. But the English translation they were given was the more popularly known: “Slow and steady wins the race”. Beyond the linguistic discrepancy, Tony found the translation remarkable because of what it implied about each culture. The English version places an emphasis on the goal, on “winning” rather than the journey itself, while the original Russian aphorism highlights the importance of the way or the path to getting to a goal.

“I think this nuance is very important, especially as so much of academia is focused on the end-result and the product. As cliché it is, life is a journey and what we really should be focusing on is what is gained along the way. What are the lessons along that path? What skills or experiences do we gain?  What sorts of unexpected encounters do we have along the way?  Most importantly, I think that acknowledging and focusing on your own journey allows you to have a kind of flexibility and resilience when things aren’t going the way you want: it lets you adapt to change and to be accepting of yourself. If we focus on just achieving the goal, we are always living in the future, always asking, ‘what’s going to be my next destination?’ But you have to ask yourself, then, are you living in the present? It’s important to make goals, but also to not become so attached to them that they completely determine your identity”.

His Russian language classes are also what prompted him to visit his family in Russia for the first time. As a child, he had somewhat resisted learning Russian and embracing his Russian identity, but finally learning the language and realizing the nuanced differences between languages and cultures “humbled” him enough to step out of his comfort zone. And, true to expectations, his first time in Russia was a huge culture shock, in which being immersed in an entirely different culture and society completely destabilized his ideas of what he thought was “normal” and “universal”. It also taught him an important idea behind language and communication, which, as an avid traveler, would prove useful to him time and time again: “A lot of the time, surprisingly, you don’t need to have perfect knowledge of a language to comprehend or convey meaning; a lot of times, you can find the general gist of what a person is saying just through intonation, expression, and even gestures”.  Ultimately, Tony’s three trips to Russia (in actuality, the separate country of Belarus) and his subsequent travels to New Zealand, Nepal, Turkey and Peru became a kind of proof of this sense of universal “human-ness”, that there is a dimension of being human that transcends languages and geographic borders as long as we humble ourselves enough to try and understand – that there is something universal in all of us that resonates with one another. It is altogether fitting then, that Comparative Literature feels natural for Tony and why he can empathize with those of us in the major:

“I think the word ‘passionate’ is over-used, but my advice to all undergraduates, Comparative Literature or not, is to find something that resonates with you – something that really connects with you. I think that one of the greatest aspects about Comparative Literature is that it goes beyond this language and cultural barrier so that you can always find someone or something you can resonate with. Reading is just another form of traveling, of coming into contact with another culture and challenging your norms, and it is this contact and its subsequent humility that continually reminds us of how much there is of the world we don’t know, but also, how much there is left for us to discover”

Correction: October 2, 2015
An earlier version of this interview stated Ти́ше е́zдешь – да́льше бу́дешь as the original Russian saying. Courtesy of Yana Zlochistaya, one of our editors, we corrected it to the proper spelling: Тише едешь, дальше будешь

Challenging the Discipline, One Code at a Time: Comparative Literature and Its Discontents

By: Lydia Tuan 

Last July, I had a conversation with a British customs officer that went something like this:

“Oh, so you’re a student?  What do you study?”

“Comparative Literature.”

“What is that?”

“Literature… that you compare… with other literature.”

“So if I read a pamphlet on airports and another one on fixing aeroplanes, would that be considered Comparative Literature?”

My sudden unwillingness to correct a figure of authority forced a very brief, yet shockingly incorrect response to be uttered at that very moment: “Yes.”

The customs officer, having just conquered all understanding of Comparative Literature on his first try, looked pleased with himself and welcomed me into the UK.  At least I was not asked what I was going to do with my major.

Comparative Literature is difficult to define.  Of course, sources like Wikipedia give the reductionist definition of ‘dealing with literature of two or more cultural groups.’  The major here at the university is structured so that students can compare world literatures that are read not in translation, but in the original language: French with English, Italian with Spanish, German and Russian, or other creative and less expected combinations.  Engaging more theoretically, Comparative Literature can also be the comparison between primary and secondary texts, critical texts and their primary texts, or texts from another discipline and literary texts.  These definitions are generally thought to represent Comparative Literature in the most straightforward sense of the term.  

As a student of literature, I do not hold enough authority to define the limits and boundaries of the discipline.  If we are to stand by the most widely accepted definition of ‘comparing national literatures across nation-states, languages, cultures, and centuries,’ then we could even say that a paper I wrote for a Comparative Literature seminar on narrative theory of 19th to 20th century (mostly) French literature last semester can hardly fall into the defined boundaries of the discipline.  In that paper, I subjected the following citation to an analysis following the conventions of literary theory.  Hold your enthusiasm:

“MEEOW…. Me. mew Mew. MEOW. Meow meooow me meoow meow meeooooow me meeeoow; mew me Mew. MEOOW me meeeow me meeeeow.” –MEEEEOW’M MEEEEEEOOW

For those unfamiliar, I have just cited a computer-generated version of Moby Dick: the product of an algorithm that has taken each word in Melville’s canonical text and rewritten it in the form of a randomized variation of the word “meow.”  Does analyzing a ‘literary work’ of 50,000 meows, produced from lines of code, and comparing those ‘meows’ against computer-generated “poetry” count as a valid contribution to the field of Comparative Literature?  Briefly returning to what I may — or may not — have falsely confirmed at the UK border a few months ago, can a pamphlet about airports actually be considered a work of literature?  

What is literature?

Some conservative scholars in the discipline might contest that “MEEOW…. Me. mew Mew. MEOW.” is not literature in any general, widely accepted sense of the word and that by analyzing that sort of text, I have not produced any sort of academic, or even remotely fruitful, literary criticism.  Critics might even argue that computers cannot write literature and that they never will — that only humans can write and contribute to the humanities, the literary canon, the great oeuvres of literature — or that creativity is exclusively human: it begins and ends with human beings.

But does it really?  Can creativity be computer-generated, and can what we understand to be humanity be computer-generated?  I remain optimistic and wishful that Comparative Literature, as an academic discipline, can eventually move into the territory of acknowledging computer-generated text as literature, forcing us to rethink the inescapable presence of science not only in the creation of literature but also in the way in which we define humanity.

“Not the Criticism of the Literary”

By: Andrew Reyes

Some think that writing a paper on literature must be easy because there is not an insane amount of problem sets to do with a definitive standard of quality determined by a pre-established science. Well, that may be true in some sense. When I sit down to write about literature, I have a lot of freedom in what I write. But freedom, true freedom, is quite scary. Think of the last time you had to make a decision in life where you had no precedent for action. Maybe it was something to do with love, or perhaps moving to a new city (you’re probably young and as yet have little experience with that, but think about choosing a college—now multiply that by infinity, because there is no number that could possibly measure the qualitative difference between choosing between a set amount of predetermined choices and actually inventing an entirely new one, picking up everything, and transplanting yourself into an environment which, before the move, is simply a darkness in your mind; or simply admit to yourself that you have no idea where you are or where you’re going, despite all the on-campus programs that comfort you with choices and information).

That sinking feeling of not knowing? That’s kind of what literary criticism is like.

And it’s addicting.

When we write—and I mean seriously write—about literature, we’re swimming in deep, open waters. There are a lot of trends to latch onto, but those are more like life rafts than powerful naval forces (which maintain the illusion that they are protected from the elements as well as the enemy). In fact, mathematical thinking—that which gets posited as the opposite of literature—has a lot to do with power; learning to do math is training oneself to conform to the rules of a power that the subject has no say in (here in the realm of comparative literature, we can end a sentence with a preposition and then deny that ending by inserting a parenthetical explication which is more like a black hole than an extension of the sentence). Any individual experience is moot; it takes away from the human element of that fearfulness we face when we consider that of which we have no solid grasp.

Now, that kind of thinking is just as essential to humanity as the fear that drives us to conquer the world in terms of sciences, but if we want to retain an element of consciousness in our lives, we need ways of exploring the unrefined. We need to think in terms of constellating countless elements into new combinations of concepts. Literary criticism is not about producing a knowledge that has the power to effect practical changes; it is more about becoming very humanly aware of a present which often goes ignored because we, as a species, seem to have a tendency to fit things into existing categories and simply expand those categories into as many nuances as we can until the cracks in the foundation are so obvious at the scale of our work that we simply need to redefine it (the theoretical, axiomatic foundation).

In literary criticism, you don’t find scientific revolutions. But you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of their root as unimaginable (though we still try to outline them) forces build up and eventually climax in a grand explosion of change. Sometimes it’s ugly—in fact, it’s mostly ugly. But, as Theodor Adorno pointed out in his seminal text Aesthetic Theory (and if you stick with comparative literature long enough, you may know it more familiarly by its untranslated title, Ästhetische Theorie), the beautiful needs the ugly. As dialectical poles, they are only separable in reified thought—the kind of thinking that contradicts itself by stopping (the process of thought) and establishing concepts as if they are really existing things instead of expressions of the constant movement of reality. When you get into this territory of thinking, a reminder of how little you know is prudent. So you try to erase everything you think you’ve discovered and start fresh. But erasing what you’ve conceptualized doesn’t erase the insight, the trace of the real you’ve left in your memory. You’re simply left with nothing. And that’s what those outside of literary criticism can’t stand about the humanities: it’s not an explicit player in the productive forces of the economy. However—and I use that word because of its formality and definitive tone—, we who take comparative literature seriously are seeking nothing, and believe me when I say that it is not easy to find.

But there it is. A whole world of thought which reduces, quite simply, to nothing. Perfect if you’re on a diet or an existential crisis. Also perfect if you prefer imagination over strictly defined answers.

“What is Comparative Literature?”

By: Rachel Park

Whenever I tell anyone that I am majoring in Comparative Literature, I inevitably get the question: “You mean English? What’s Comparative Literature? Do you just, like, compare stuff?” Of course, comparing is a fundamental aspect of the major, but for me, it is the implications of the very act of comparison that embody the nuances of Comparative Literature. Comparing, by definition, requires more than one – a view that includes an “other” – and by simply expanding the myopic vision of just one language and culture, I believe that Comparative Literature touches upon a vein in humanity that is inaccessible otherwise. Frantz Fanon once said that “Parler une langue; c’est assumer une culture” “To speak a language is to carry the weight of an entire culture”. To study literature in its native language is to study a particular culture, to empathize with a particular moment in history in the world. Comparative literature, in my opinion, is irrefutable proof that language is far more than just a means of conveying basic meaning or messages. Language carries the weight of society and history, insinuating power relationships, mediating interactions between human beings, shaping and determining what is said and preserved.

Yet in the midst of the numerous languages in the world, I believe that our ability to study them, to translate, to understand tongues that are not our own, speaks to a universal humanity and capacity for empathy that is essential to our very essence as humans. Studying literature in different languages allows for an understanding of cultures and societies that we would otherwise never have been exposed to. Comparative literature is exactly what it sounds like – comparing literature of different cultures – but beyond that, comparative literature is insight into the human condition, empathy with those separated from us by time and space, and a means of closing the chasm between individuals to realize that despite everything, we are all not so different after all.

Three Things I’ll Take Away from My First Year at Cal

After finishing my last final for this semester–marking the completion of my very first year at UC Berkeley—I kid you not, the first thing I did was strike a Bender pose under Sather Gate and yell at the top of my lungs, “FRREEEDDDOOOM!” Well, at least until next fall…

But in all seriousness, HOLY CRAAAAP!!!! This semester was a whirlwind of laughs, tears, serious hysterical (and quite possibly psychotic) episodes, and personal growth. Quite the sitcom set up, eh? I won’t bore you with the details, so here are the top three things that I took away from the 2014-2015 academic year at Cal.

  1. Majors…they’re a love hate relationship.

I get asked A LOT why I decided to become an English major and what could I possibly do with such a degree except to teach. Not to discredit the respected profession of teaching, (shout out to all the teachers who have impacted my life!!) but there are plenty of things a person with a degree in English can get into. Publishing, journalism, marketing, debating, public speaking—the list goes on and on! Nothing is more valuable than good writing, argumentation, and analytical skills, which can all be applied to so many fields of study. This first year of Cal really helped me fall in love with my major. It also taught me to pursue the topics I love and express my views in my own unique way that may not get me the A+ but help me grow as a writer and lover of literature. Like a relationship, writing takes time, commitment, and above all undying passion—things that may be excruciatingly difficult to deal with initially, but totally worth the results.

  1. Sometimes you gotta ask yourself, WWFBD?

Look, I know I still have got an entire year to worry about this, but if this year went by in a blur then next year’s definitely going to end in a blink of an eye. Jeez! I feel like I just started yesterday making plans for this academic year and now that it’s over I’ve got to look to towards the next fall and spring and then BOOM! Graduation! Bye-bye school hellooo big scary adult world. But if this first year at Cal has taught me anything it’s that the future will come with many unexpected challenges as well as surprises. It’s good to have a sense of where you’d like to end up in life, to have goals that you’d like to reach, but they mean nothing if you’re stressing all the time and not pursuing what you truly love and enjoy. True, you got to pay the dues to get to that state, but even then sometimes you got to pull a Ferris Bueller and take a day off to look up and enjoy the ride.

  1. It might not make sense now, but someday it will.

The final thing that I am going to take away from this year is the balance of putting time and energy into myself as well as my studies. One of the hardest things for me about going away to college was the ways in which I got to know myself as a person. Some discoveries were amazing and some not so much…but altogether these characteristics (good and bad) helped create the person that I am today and also paved the way for the person I want to become in the future. In the end, I am glad I came to know myself on a deeper level—it was rough at times but I now have a better understanding of what I want out of life. Though I can’t say for sure that I completely know myself inside and out, I’m compelled to take this journey of self discovery and excited to see what my future holds with the new perspectives I accumulated from this year.