I’m currently working on a couple of article-length projects that are spin-offs from my recently published monograph, Travel, Translation and Transmedia Aesthetics: Franco-Chinese Literature and Visual Arts in a Global Age (2021). The research revolves around the works of four contemporary first-generation Chinese migrant writer-artists in France: François CHENG, GAO Xingjian, DAI Sijie, and SHAN Sa. They were all born in China, moved to France in their adulthood to pursue their literary and artistic ambitions, and have enjoyed the highest French and Western institutional recognitions, from the Grand Prix de la Francophonie to the Nobel Prize in Literature. They have established themselves not only as bilingual or translingual writers, but also as translators, calligraphers, painters, playwrights, and filmmakers mainly in their host country. I draw extensively on theories and critical models of both world literature and intermediality. More recently, I’ve become more and more interested in Sino-African literary and artistic relations, which are also significantly mediated through Afro-European cultural entanglement.
Perhaps the hyphenated qualifier ‘Franco-Chinese’ in the title of my book—not without controversy!—already evokes literary comparatism in the more classic sense, namely, studying works that involve at least two languages and cultures. Writing for an anglophone readership about these writers’ works that were originally produced in either French or Chinese adds another comparative angle. I should also mention that this last book-length project was 100% supported by a three-year individual research grant from Swedish Research Council/Vetenskapsrådet before I joined Bristol, so I’ve tried to demonstrate the epistemic values and broader intellectual applicability, connection, and contribution through what appears to be relatively niche comparative studies, emphasizing the global dimension and implication of this project. Furthermore, my research is comparative in the sense that I examine works across different artistic media, such as calligraphy, paintings, and films by the same writer-artists, so there are inherent ‘intermedial’ dialogues within and between their literary and artistic works. In fact, these migrant writer-artists I’m working on are themselves ‘cultural comparatists’ in their literary and visual storytelling and stylistic innovations. In other words, they and their creative works already embody comparatism, which calls for comparative critical analysis and theorization.
Although I studied French and English literature (as a Chinese international student in the UK) as an undergraduate, I received little training in comparative literature per se. One of the initial intellectual challenges was to convince myself of the value of comparison in literary studies. Because of the more traditional training I received, which centred around predominantly national literary history, it was difficult for me think transnationally, not to mention any attempt to challenge cultural temporalities. As my research moved on, I realized that reading comparatively and cross-culturally can dramatically change our perception of each compared text, sometimes in utterly unexpected ways, giving us an enhanced understanding of the resistance, interference, manipulation, and transformation that intrinsically characterize not merely national but also world literary relations; and this realization was vigorously supported by various conceptual tools and critical methods in comparative literature (that I had not been introduced to in my earlier training). As comparatists, especially at an earlier career stage, we are likely to compare parts of our work to certain specialist types of work, which, in turn, makes us question the value and originality of our own comparatist works. For example, thoughts such as ‘my research on Proust and Chinese writers will never be as good as the work X done by Y who is a “real” Proustian’ feel quite ‘silly’ to myself now, because I clearly misunderstood the point of doing comparative literature at the time. So, to overcome such a sense of intellectual insecurity and self-doubt, my advice would be to keep thinking carefully and justifiably about your real contribution through your comparatist work, and how it is different from more ‘specialist’ works.
I have quite some scholars in mind! In fact, none of them is technically ‘in my field’! Perhaps I could mention Wai Chee Dimock. I aspire to her tremendous intellectual energy in turning disciplinary barriers into critical inspirations for the studies of comparative literature. Her works span extraordinarily from ‘classic’ American novels and literary theories through environmental humanities to AI-related approaches.
I’ve recently read Kobus Marais’s A (Bio)semiotic Theory of Translation: The Emergence of Social-Cultural Reality (2019). Thoroughly informed by Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of semiotics, this book offers a very elaborate and sophisticated critical model for thinking about translation. It has significantly and systematically expanded my understanding of ‘translation’ much beyond languages and convincingly made translation relevant to things we do in everyday life as well as to the ‘big’ questions facing humanities today. This is not a book on comparative literature per se, but its methods of enquiry and research findings will prove to be inspirational for us to think about comparative literature in similar or divergent terms.