By Khadija Azhar, Lok Hang Vincent Chu, and Rajesh Panhathodi
Claire Gullander-Drolet earned her PhD in English from Brown University in 2019 and was a visiting assistant professor at Clark University during the 2019-2020 academic year. Her writings have appeared in The Journal of Transnational American Studies, Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Another Gaze: A Feminist Film Journal, and The Asia Literary Review.
What attracted you to a research career?
I’ve been drawn to writing and reading since high school, so there was no question that I would end up doing something related to these practices. At the risk of sounding glib, it all sort of shook out this way! I was just following my intellectual interests by applying for opportunities that interested me, and then I wound up in a research role (for the time being). My original ambition was to be a fiction writer. For reasons that are truly hilarious to me now, I thought academia would be a more stable path, one that would provide me with the flexibility and financial stability to pursue creative writing. I did work a non-academic job at a dictionary company for about a year, and this experience made it clear to me that I needed to pursue something related to writing and research; stability be damned.
Do you have any specific reasons for choosing the politics of language as part of your research?
I grew up in Montreal, a city where language politics—particularly where English is concerned—are a fraught and complicated affair. So we might say that I’ve been thinking about language and its intersections with forms of power and colonialism for most of my life. This interest grew and crystallized after my second MA when I moved to South Korea, where I worked as an English teacher for about a year and a half. I began to think about the imposition of English as a colonial language and how it is taught globally. So, my research lies at the intersection of world literature with a focus on Asian diasporic literature, translation studies, and film theory. I wanted to study Asian diasporic literatures in English, both because I had little exposure to these in my undergrad and my first MA, and because I suspected–rightly it turns out–that the kinds of issues around power, language, race, and identity would be very well-represented in these literatures. From there, I did my PhD at Brown; I worked with Daniel Kim who is an Asian Americanist but works specifically on Korea. I read a lot and synthesized these interests with my interest in translation and feminist theory.
Tell us a little bit about your upcoming monograph.
It is a very new project; it grows out of my doctoral work, which involved me thinking about translation and catastrophe in a trans-pacific frame. The goal of this project is twofold: I want to think about how the politics of feminist translation has shaped the production and contours of world literature in English and, more broadly, history. It’s also about the import of feminist translation into the practice of writing world history. In this, I look at quite an eclectic archive, though it is also quite a personal one in that it is limited to the languages I speak. So, I look at Don Mee Choi and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha who are Korean diasporic poets, and some Québécoise writers like Marie-Célie Agnant and Naomi Fontaine. The project is hopefully going to allow me to work across my three languages – English, French, and Korean. At the same time, although I am thinking about translation practices, I’m limited to three languages, so I have been thinking about how I might fold collaborative work into this book. Part of what I am trying to say is that a cornerstone of feminist translation practices is being open about that which you don’t have access to. And that requires critical, creative collaboration. I am excited; it is very new. I intend to have the book prospectus done by May or June of next year.
Are you still comparing American and Asian literatures in this project?
In part, I think so. What is carried over from the original project is a reading that is now an article, about South-Korean writer Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. It won the Man Booker Prize a couple of years ago and it was a big deal because of the translation controversy that developed in the wake of the prize ceremony. Bilingual readers (largely in South Korea) uncovered numerous errors in the translation, ranging from simple things like confusing the names of common nouns, to misattributing the speaker of a sentence or excessive embellishing of the source text. This spawned a series of debates around who gets to translate national literatures, particularly from underrepresented languages and groups, and what responsible translation looks like (or might look like).
What interested me about this is, in part, how the potentially feminist optics of this translation project—i.e, author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith’s collaboration work, and the feminist politic of the novel itself—got largely bracketed out of the controversy. I am trying to think about why it is that these important conversations about translation ethics often seem to happen when there is a present, or undergirding, feminist coalition. This is a roundabout way of answering your question, but part of what I will be interested in exploring are—for these works coming out of Asia—questions such as: how are the texts that make it into English overdetermined by their subject matter? What are the expectations around translating these texts? What kind of translational baggage do they carry with them? One thing that has often been said, and this applies very much to The Vegetarian too, is that if a text is going to be translated into English and marketed as a “feminist” work, it will necessarily depict (usually in a very overblown, stereotypical way) the evils of patriarchy in South Korea. But the Korean text is a lot more nuanced; it presents a much more complicated view than what happens in the English version. I am interested in the production of world literature from these various contexts, in rooting out how they’re overdetermined in some ways, and how these translators need writers who are invested in the feminist politics of translation.
What are the main differences between the various institutions you have worked at?
This is such a good question. It is also a virtually impossible question to answer because COVID has obviously affected so much of this! I have this sense that you are asking about the cultural differences, but what I can really speak about is the work conditions and how they are different. At Clark, my teaching load was quite heavy; it was a very rewarding experience, but challenging to find time for research. Here I have the completely opposite experience—my role is almost entirely research-based and so the challenge has been to really map out my research goals for the coming months and years.
Could you tell us about your experience as part of the Society of Fellows at HKU?
The Society of Fellows at HKU takes inspiration from similar fellowships at elite institutions in the US (Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, etc). We are a cohort of post-doctoral fellows from various disciplines across the Humanities, and the idea is that we come together in the spirit of intellectual exchange, share work and collaborate on various projects. You are given time to work on your research, which is so rare and so precious. COVID has thrown a wrench into our regularly scheduled programming, of course, but we’ve started to host events again. You can check out our forthcoming events at our fellowship website: https://www.sof.arts.hku.hk/
How would you describe your work style and work-life balance?
I loved this question so much, but I don’t have an answer that is nearly satisfactory. I spend a lot of time meditating on questions and texts: a lot of time reading and researching. But writing, even though I think it is my vocation, is always torturous for me. It is really hard and can take forever if I don’t set limits. I have realized (this is quite a recent realization) that I work better when I have external deadlines where I am accountable to other people. Something like a presentation or an article revision deadline for a journal. To keep myself on track, I sign up for these things even though I hate them because it’s a way of getting the writing done without being too ponderous about it. I used to be very rigid with my to-do lists and feel really horrible about myself when I didn’t get everything done within the day. So, my strategy now is that I go by week, and I try not to be rigid about when the stuff gets done as long as most of it does get done. That applies to the month as well, so you can carry things over and be a little kinder to yourself. In the off-hours, I try to see movies, get some exercise, and explore Hong Kong. It sounds really silly, but if you’re not careful, the work can be your entire life: you have to be a person outside of the work. This will make your work better. That is what I have learned in terms of work-life balance.
Could you offer some suggestions for our research postgraduate students?
Enjoy your time in your courses and really linger with the texts and authors who captivate you. Whether they have captivated you in a positive or negative way—sometimes it is fun to read about things you really hate! Read widely and spend time in conversation with your peers and postgraduates in other disciplines to see what kind of creative critical connections emerge across your fields of study. Those looking for a PhD in the States: only apply to programs that are fully funded; do not take on any debt. I recommend that people take at least a year off in between their studies. Because it is a six-year commitment at minimum, what ends up happening is a lot of people drop out because they are burnt out.
I think there is a common misconception that you go into your PhD with a set idea of what you want to do and that project you propose is exactly what you end up doing. That’s rare as well. This is how reading works—as you read, you’ll be led in different directions, and your interests will inevitably change.That said, you want to take your time and research potential supervisors who you think you can learn from, and whose work goes with your own interests and apply to those programs.
What are your interests outside academics?
My interests outside of academics are, tragically or fittingly depending how you look at it, related to my interest in academics. I love watching films and going to the theatre, which I am grateful we can still do in Hong Kong. I write fiction and I translate for fun in my spare time. And I drink a lot of coffee! I am really into discovering the hole-in-the-wall cafés in Hong Kong.
Published on: January 27, 2022 < Back >