Comparatively Speaking Interview with

Michael Tsang


Lecturer in Japanese Studies


Birkbeck, University of London


Michael Tsang is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Prior to Birkbeck he was Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University. His research interests lie in world and postcolonial literatures with an East Asian focus, specialising in Japanese, Hong Kong, and Chinese literatures. He also conducts research in Asian popular cultures at large. He is the co-editor of Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage (Routledge, 2021), and has been published in various journals and volumes such as Japan Forum, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Wasafiri, Sanga, and others.


Can you tell us a little about your current research and/or your most recent publication?

I like to think of myself as a researcher in world literatures and cultures with a main focus on East Asia. My ongoing research project examines how trends and technologies in publishing, book trade, and cultural industries in Europe and America have shaped the growth of ‘world literature’ in Japan and China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ‘World literature’ here does not refer to literary influences between elite writers, but to the ways in which, in these two East Asian countries, a reading public was formed; the processes and routes through which books were disseminated and circulated; and the cultural institutions that had shaped reading tastes and cultural values of the time. I also work on other modern/contemporary literatures and popular cultures in East Asia. A book chapter that I recently wrote looked at Hong Kong’s earliest Chinese newspaper, published between 1853 to 1856, and the role it played in establishing Hong Kong as a poster example of British colonialism for the region of East Asia. On the contemporary side, I work a lot on the prolific Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki, and have co-edited a volume on his work. Last but not least, I am interested in the influence of Japanese manga and anime, especially in its portrayal of gender and sexualities.

In what sense do you think of your work as “comparative”?

In the sense that a) I traverse multiple languages, making them collide against one another and munching on the new imaginations and creativities born out of it; b) I bring different geographical contexts together, fantasising how they could ever be connected, while clutching each of their irreducibilities in my hand, not letting go; c) I try to dissect the infinitesimal threads of various temporal trajectories, and then reknotting them in a new technicolour tangle. Above all, to be comparative is to create—a new grammar, vocabulary, language—to be able to play with flexibilities and specificities.

What challenges have you faced while pursuing your career in comparative literature, and do you have any advice for comparatists at the early career stage?

I majored in English literature, minored in Japanese, did a masters in gender studies, wrote a doctorate on postcolonial Hong Kong writing. When I graduated, no one cared much about Hong Kong literature, and the job prospect in English was miniscule (yes, this is an understatement). By sheer luck I was able to switch discipline to Japanese studies (Modern Languages), and it opened my world to a different way of thinking, of doing research, of looking back at what it means to be trained in (and end up being glued to) one academic discipline. Once I got into Japanese studies, however, I realised that there was a lot of catching up to do because my training was different to other Japanologists. I am still navigating this inter-disciplinary position of mine, but I have come to think that I am no longer just an ‘English literature’ person or a ‘Japanese studies’ person. I am both, and in fact many more. Therefore, my advice—if I ever can be so indulgent to give one—is to cultivate plural interests in ourselves, for we never know when and which interest will become useful in kickstarting our career.

Who is one person in your field whose work you admire?

This is such a cruel question… But if I have to pick one, I would pick Sarah Brouillette, Professor of English at Carleton University. She has taught us why it is important to examine the publication contexts in which any literary work — or indeed any cultural expression — is released, and she demonstrates with her books how to do this examination well.

What have you read recently that you would recommend to other comparatists?

Dr Hoyt Long’s The Values in Numbers: Reading Japanese Literature in a Global Information Age. I suspect that the majority of comparative literature researchers may not know enough—and neither do I—about quantitative/computational literary studies, cultural analytics, algorithmic or data literacy. By introducing readers to these new branches of literary/cultural studies, this book is thought-provoking and challenges the assumptions on which our disciplines have been built so far. The subtitle of this book reads ‘Japanese literature’, but, really, it can be applied to any literature. With all the hype surrounding AI nowadays, one should at least have an idea of how such technological shifts may well be affecting the discipline of literary studies.
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