By Jackie Militello, 3rd year PhD candidate
This month we are introducing Harriet Hulme, from The Society of Fellows in the Humanities: ”a prestigious new initiative that attracts exceptional, early-career, post-doctoral scholars from around the world to the University of Hong Kong.” (You can read more about this new program here http://arts.hku.hk/research/sofhku) Each Fellow is affiliated with a school or department and Harriet is linked to The School of English. She will be at HKU for three years and is ‘hot-housed” in the charming Run Run Shaw Heritage House with 4 other fellows: Nathanial Amar in China Studies, John Gabriel in Music, Robert Kramm in History, and Yu Zhang in Chinese Literature.
JM: Welcome to Hong Kong. Let’s start with your work. I see your thesis Ethics and Aesthetics of Translation: Exploring the Work of Atxaga, Kundera and Semprún, is being published by UCL press. Congratulations. I read that this is about the political and ethical thought as it relates to these three bilingual authors. Could you tell me more about the politics and ethics of translation in a way that a sociolinguist could understand?
HH: Hi! It’s really great to be here! Yes, absolutely. When you translate – even if you’re a bilingual author, self-translating - you confront forms of linguistic and cultural difference. Thinking about how to respond to that difference, recognising the appropriations, manipulations and erasures which happen when we try to transfer meaning between different languages, voices and cultures, raises ethical questions about all our interactions, whether interlinguistic, interpersonal or intercultural. In certain cases – when translating between minor and major languages, for example – those questions have a political weight. For an author like Atxaga, who writes in Basque and then self-translates his texts into Castilian, translation is caught up in the socio-political dynamic between Spain and the Basque Country more generally. Thinking about the changes he makes when he translates his texts opens up questions about that dynamic and about the ways in which his literature is implicated in the linguistic politics of the Basque Country. That’s really the reason I’m so interested in translation generally: it allows me to explore ethical questions from a wide range of perspectives – literary, linguistic, cultural and political.
JM: Your project here at HKU is On the Threshold: Locating an Ethics of Hospitality Between Home and Homelessness and takes a “geoliterary approach” inspired by a 16,000 km cycle trip across Europe and Asia. “Geoliterary” was a new term for me and was described in your bio on the Society of Fellows site as mapping “questions of physical location and movement onto questions of textual location and movement”. Could you explain more about this and give me some examples of other geoliterary works?
HH: Terms like geoliterary or geocritical really just mean approaches which explore the relationship between literature and geography. That can take many forms, but in my project I’m interested in two main elements. Firstly, how do contemporary texts write about space and place? Thinking about literary representations of the home or homelessness, for example, allows me to think more broadly about the ethics of hospitality. Secondly, how do those texts move between and across national, linguistic and cultural borders? Translation is integral to that question, as are issues of intertextuality and other forms of cross-cultural ‘interference’ within texts, like the use of language loans. So for me, approaching texts geocritically connects me to two aspects of literary studies which fascinate me, all caught up in the ethics of writing, reading and translating. The key thinker in this regard is probably Deleuze, who uses a critical vocabulary drawn from geography (terms like cartography, territory, borders) to create a philosophy which negotiates the structures – political, social, cultural, literary and linguistic – which surround us. But geoliterary questions also intersect with issues of postcolonialism, migration, refugee literature, ecocriticism: it’s an approach which allows me to explore many different critical avenues, which is why I find it so interesting!
JM: Your project aims to examine “the ways in which the tension between home and homelessness informs our contemporary response towards hospitality.” I find use of the word homeless here interesting. Usually homelessness in its everyday use is associated with poverty and street sleepers. So use of this term with a cycle trip seems like an intentionally provocative choice. Was that the plan?
HH: That’s a great question! I don’t think it was intentionally provocative but you’re right about the associations of homelessness with poverty and rough sleeping. In that regard, it’s very different to the term ‘nomadism’ which gets used a lot in literary theory, usually with positive connotations of freedom, mobility, and choice. Homelessness has very different connotations – the word itself picks up the idea that something is absent or lacking. With issues of migration and the refugee crisis matched by increasing border controls globally, I think that the tension between homelessness and home – between those who need a home and those who have one and fear its loss or transformation through the arrival of someone else – is really critical to understanding how we might formulate an ethics of hospitality. But, although those questions were raised by my experiences cycling, I’m not sure I was specifically thinking about my cycle trip when I used the term homelessness for this project. Obviously, the need to find a home (or at least a place for the tent) each night was an integral part of the trip, as was the hospitality which I encountered. But that need came from a choice I’d made – it wasn’t imposed upon me. For me, that’s a very different type of homelessness, probably more akin to the positive ideas associated with nomadism. There’s a big difference between the two terms, and I think it’s a difference that can really inform our understanding of what it means to be hospitable.
JM: Tell us about the trip. Where did you go? How did you travel? Why that itinerary?
HH: The trip began at our front door in Brighton, UK – my husband and I set off from there and just kept cycling. The original plan was to cycle through Europe to Greece – essentially reversing the trip being made by a huge number of refugees at that moment across Europe – and then spend some time working in a refugee camp in Athens. We got to Athens after 3 months and, after a month off the bikes, we felt like we really weren’t ready to stop, so we didn’t. From Greece we crossed Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and came into Northern China. Then a train across the Taklamakan Desert to Chengdu. From there we cycled across Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Guangdong Provinces, took a side trip to Hong Kong, and then carried on into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, finishing our trip in Bangkok. The route we chose was really motivated by lots of things – the weather, visa possibilities and restrictions, how hilly different places were and which countries we most wanted to see!
JM: You must have an interesting story or two. Tell us one.
HH: We were travelling at a really interesting time politically which impacted us in many ways, not least of which was getting caught up in the coup in Turkey. But I think the most unforgettable moment, for lots of reasons, happened on the border between Kyrgyzstan and China. We’d timed it a bit late in the year, and for a couple of weeks it had been getting snowier and snowier. We kept being told we wouldn’t be able to cycle across the last pass which was over 3,500 metres high, but we thought that we’d give it a try anyway. It was a really beautiful road but utterly deserted – we didn’t see another vehicle or person at all as we cycled across this empty expanse of white stretching all the way to the Pamir Mountains. We made it to above 3,000 metres, but as the road started to climb higher we realised we’d made a mistake – it was covered in packed ice, which we couldn’t grip on at all. When we saw two lorries that had slid off the road and were lying abandoned on their sides in the snow, we knew we were in trouble. And then a blizzard started to come down! We tried to push the bikes up but it was like an ice rink; I fell over and we couldn’t see in front of us at all… We were just starting to panic when two men appeared out of nowhere and beckoned us into this tiny house, the only one we’d seen in 10 km or so. Inside was a whole family eating bread, drinking tea, and watching TV. They didn’t seem at all surprised to see us and were incredibly kind, insisting we stay and eat with them. It was a great example of the hospitality we received all through our trip. We sat there for a couple of hours defrosting, just smiling and pointing at our map trying to explain what we were doing, and playing with the children. But we knew we had to move on: a snow storm was meant to come the following day, and given how bad the road already was, we thought we might be stuck in their house for several days if we didn’t make it over the pass soon. As there was no way of walking/cycling on the road, we decided we’d have to hitch. We had to wait for ages, with the snow getting heavier all the time. The first lorry we saw didn’t stop, so we gestured even more frantically at the next one that appeared and, thankfully, it ground to a halt. The driver opened the back doors, our bikes were piled in, and he indicated that we would also be travelling as freight and locked us in the back with all the chains and rubble! It turns out there are few things more terrifying than hurtling up and down ice-bound passes locked in the back of a lorry with no windows! Luckily we made it to the border town and that was the end of the snow for us!
JM: Turning to the non-academic side, what are your other interests?
HH: Well I still love cycling – Hong Kong is proving to be a bit of a hilly challenge but I’m enjoying it! I’m very much an outdoors person, even more so after living in a tent for 18 months, so I love anything to do with being outside – hiking, swimming, gardening, yoga on the beach. And then reading generally – I’m really excited about the Hong Kong Literary Festival next month, and especially getting to know more about the Hong Kong literary scene. I’m hoping to get involved in PEN Hong Kong as well, as I’m really interested in forms of literary ‘inhospitality’, like censorship.
JM: Lastly, what has surprised you about Hong Kong
HH: I’d been to Hong Kong once before, so I already knew what a great place it was! But I’ve been really amazed by just how far you can get off the beaten track – last weekend, I came upon two different beaches which were totally deserted. It’s hard to believe that sort of tranquillity can exist so close to this incredible, vibrant city, which has so much going on culturally. I’m really excited about that mix which fits perfectly with my interests.