by Olivia Xu
Dr. Nan Zhang is currently a visiting assistant professor in the School of English at HKU. She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. Her research interests include global modernism, late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture, ethics and literature, intellectual history, and aesthetic theory.
O: I happened to hear one of the students in my class complaining about how she is frustrated by an excerpt from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which makes me wonder: why were you particularly drawn to modernist writers at the very start? Also, I know that you are very interested in Edmund Burke and the influence he has on modernist writers. Can you also say something about that?
N: Yes, you’re right that difficulty is a striking characteristic of modernism and modernist texts, such as the novels by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. One reason why I was attracted to them in the beginning is the rich texture of their language. Modernist writers themselves were acutely aware of the complexities and possibilities of language; in the case of James Joyce, for instance, he plays with language deliberately and impressively. The formal features of modernist texts are also related to modernist writers’ commitment to exploring and intensifying human experience in modern life. For writers like Virginia Woolf, it is significant to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” and to perceive the subtle interactions between mind and world in complex socio-political and historical contexts.
Edmund Burke is an important figure in my current book project, which examines how a group of modernist texts work to foster cosmopolitan sensibilities by simultaneously renewing attention to eighteenth-century and older conceptions of civilized society and creating social imaginings that evoke the cosmic dimension of the history of cosmopolitism. Burke’s ideas concerning the intimate relationship between aesthetic sensibilities and political life are particularly pertinent to my project.
O: As a mainland Chinese student, I was once frustrated by the fact that being Chinese and a non-native speaker seems to put me in a disadvantaged position in pursuing English literature or, practically speaking, getting admitted to top Ph.D. programs in English literature. From your own experience, how does your Chinese cultural background nuance your approach and your perspective in studying Western canonical literary works?
N: Being Chinese (or for that matter, a member of any culture) could give you some perspectives that you are unaware of now but might be more keenly conscious of when you are situated in a different cultural context. The cultural tradition one was born into and is part of can be one’s baggage sometimes, but it can also be a precious asset that enables one to enjoy added points of view. In my own case, I think my affinity for eighteenth-century notions of civilized society has to do with my interest in Taoist aesthetics and Confucian understandings of the relationship between civil society and the political state, which differ from officialized accounts of Confucianism of course. The initial interest was not necessarily conscious, though. I guess the most important thing is to do one’s best to be open-minded and sensitive.
O: This might sound like a clichéd question but I’m really curious: what is the biggest obstacle you’ve encountered in your pursuit of English literature?
N: My first semester as a Ph.D. student in the English Department at Johns Hopkins was really tough. The intensity with which people discussed each other’s work at seminars and talks was intimidating. It was also frustrating when I wasn’t able to actively participate in those stimulating discussions. Well, there are always growing pains. I’m really happy to be part of the vibrant intellectual community at HKU and I appreciate the discussion culture here very much. I hope postgraduate students can participate more and more in discussions and help to foster open and in-depth discussions and dialogues here and elsewhere. Intellectual exchange in various forms is among the most rewarding aspects of academic life—well, really life at large.
O: I often get asked, or interrogated by my friends and family, what is the meaning of studying English literature? And sometimes I’m frustrated by my inability to articulate the answer clearly. How would you respond to a question like that?
N: Nowadays the humanities are constantly pressed to defend themselves. I must be naïve and old-fashioned, but I do believe literature enlarges and enriches one’s life, and that is a great object of humanity. I still find John Henry Newman’s description, in The Idea of a University, of the “utility” of endeavors like literary studies touching and relevant: “[A] cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.”