The Weatherhead East Asian Institute is pleased to welcome Tyran Grillo, the 2017-2018 Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in East Asia and the Americas, to the Columbia community. Dr. Grillo received his PhD in Japanese Literature in 2017 from Cornell University, where his research focused on (mis)representations of animals in Japanese popular culture, as well as intersections of Asian Studies and Posthumanism. His dissertation, “Cats, Dogs, and Cyborgs: Transcending the Human-Animal Divide in Contemporary Japanese Literature,” is a study of Japanese animal-themed writings from the mid-1990s to the present that visualizes the role of genre, impacts of recent national history, and the influences of Japan’s woefully unrecognized “pet boom.”
Please read below for a Q&A about Dr. Grillo’s research and teaching interests:
How did you initially become interested in animal studies—particularly the representation of animals in literature and popular culture?
My interest in animals from an academic standpoint came out of a conference paper I wrote for a translation theory seminar I took as a master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In that paper, I explored the politics of rabbit language and communication in Richard Adams’s classic novel Watership Down, and what implications such forms of fictional language held in store for translation studies. The experience of working on that project opened a floodgate of interest in the symbolic animal in my primary field of Japanese literature.
What aspects of Japanese culture do you focus on when studying animal representations and what you term as animal “(mis)representations?”
Although animals—and perhaps animality more broadly—have figured significantly in Japanese literature since its earliest creation myths, much of my doctoral work focused on literature published since Japan’s so-called “pet boom,” and therefore on the special characteristics of human-pet relationships as represented in those texts. I leave these open to being called misrepresentations only because pets are often used to uphold an idealized humanity rather than as agents for on-the-ground social change. For example, the many books about guide dogs have produced very little in the way of policy-related or infrastructural amendment in service of the blind in Japan, despite the sweeping national interest in the subject borne of such books. I should be clear, too, that I use the term “misrepresentations” neither disparagingly nor as a moral flag, but rather as a tie-in to my theoretical idea of “productive error,” by which I mean to stress the necessity of intellectual emergencies as catalysts for change.
Can you tell us about Japan’s “pet boom” and what you think led to its occurrence?
Sociologists tend to locate the origins of the pet boom in the early 2000s, when the number of cats and dogs being kept as pets in Japan exceeded the number of children. It therefore has strong links to ongoing anxieties about falling birth rates and rising elderly populations in need of care. I, however, see the pet boom as a fundamentally literary (and therefore also social) problem, when pet-themed literature began flooding the Japanese popular market in the mid-1990s. In a culture where they were historically subservient, animals were now being welcomed into the home as equals (Japanese: kazoku dōzen). A more likely explanation for this, then, comes from feminist scholar Ueno Chizuko, whose work on what she calls “family identity” shows how in the late 20th century the very notion of family opened itself to nontraditional cohabitations. Pets are a natural extension of this work, which looks at the malleability of what (and who) constitutes a viable domestic arrangement.
In addition to your scholarly writing, you have translated over a dozen works of Japanese fiction into English. What do you enjoy—and what challenges do you encounter—when you are translating fiction?
The challenges, in fact, are a large part of what I enjoy most about translation. Tasking myself with making certain cultural and/or linguistic concepts palatable to another audience is fulfilling, to say the least. Of those challenges, I would say the biggest is finding cultural substitutions or other creative strategies to make certain concepts understandable to an English-speaking reader. If, for instance, a popular reference or idiom in the original would make no sense to anyone who hasn’t grown up in Japan, I am compelled to replace it with an equivalent that will. I also enjoy translation simply because it is the deepest form of reading that I know. I come out the other end of a new project feeling like I understand the novel in question inside and out. A little piece of everything I translate stays with me. Practically speaking, however, translation also humbles me with its never-ending complexity and difficulty. No translation I have done is perfect, and the mistakes I make along the way are a constant reminder that there is always more to learn, refine, and improve.
How has your experience translating Japanese literature informed your own scholarship about Japanese literature?
The two are intimately connected, especially as I become increasingly interested in the literature I translate from a scholarly viewpoint. I am, for example, now polishing an article about a recent translation I did of Kitano Yūsaku’s speculative masterpiece, Mr. Turtle. Science fiction especially raises questions similar to those I have invoked in my own work around the fluidity of subjectivity, human/animal/machine distinctions, and moral ambiguity.
You also are a longtime Jazz critic. Why do you find that music genre so appealing and how might your interests in Jazz and music intersect with your scholarly pursuits?
I have done some conference papers on music, and often think of my ideas in musical terms, so that interest occasionally merges with my academic activities wherever appropriate. Beyond that, however, writing about music has made me a more effective scholar, and vice versa. Music writing allows me to flex my creative muscles more openly and, to the chagrin of some readers, hyperbolically—something that I cannot usually get away with in academic writing without sacrificing clarity. By the same token, being an academic makes me realize the value of direct, expository expression when talking about something as ephemeral as music. These two realms reinforce each other. Above all, writing about music has given me the discipline to be empathetic to scholarship that I may not agree with, yet in which I find value for forcing me to sharpen my own opinions in tandem. In other words, it has emphasized the value of open dialogue and improvisation (and what is jazz if not those very things?) in scholarly life.
Can you tell us about the courses you planning to teach at Columbia this academic year?
For the Fall 2017 semester, I will be teaching “Disability in East Asia and Beyond,” which will look at social, popular, and legal definitions of disability in Japan, China, North and South Korea, and the United States. This multimedia course is framed in feminist theory and will culminate in a mini-conference in which students will present their work in an open forum. My Spring 2018 course, called “Remaking Japan,” will invite students to examine selected Japanese films and their Hollywood remakes as a means of understanding and critiquing processes of cultural translation, representation, and commoditization.