Dylan McGee earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 2009. Between 2007 and 2011, he was Assistant Professor of Japanese Language and Literature at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. Since 2011, he has been teaching and researching at Nagoya University in Japan.
Dylan’s primary area of research is early modern Japanese literature and print culture. His recent publications examine the development of local literary circles and lending book markets in the Tokai region, reading and book collecting practices of individual samurai in early modern Nagoya, and book refurbishment practices in the Daiso lending library.
In his spare time and when not making the arduous commute to the high hills of Chikusa Ward on his electric bicycle, Dylan enjoys reading Cuban and Dominican newspapers, listening to hours of podcasts (recent favs include The Bookworm podcast, The Essay podcasts on BBC Radio 3), parsing advanced baseball statistics, and scouting the minor league Chunichi Dragons from his designated seat on the third base side.
He will speak at the second Tokyo Humanities Cafe in September 2017.
1. Can you describe a turning point in your career?
In my last semester of college as an undergraduate, one of my professors asked me to help him translate a chapter from an early nineteenth-century comic novel, by a now mostly forgotten Japanese writer. It was for a three-volume anthology of early modern Japanese literature in translation.
The jokes were awful, mostly relying upon untranslatable puns; the characters spoke in thick dialects; the action lines or slug lines (since it was written in the manner of a playscript) were riddled with arcane references to kabuki plays, sexual innuendo that played on visual puns of sword components, etc. In other words, the text was a translator's nightmare.
The professor gave up on it and eventually the project ending up becoming my baby. Half of my work ended up being excised for publication, but I was grateful to have had the opportunity to work on it. It taught me so much about early modern Japanese material culture, language, and the craft of writing. After that project, I became an Edo lit junkie. 2. What question are you currently exploring in your work?
Two questions. One is about literary reception - how did readers living in the castle town of Nagoya read and respond to popular literature that was being circulated through commercial lending libraries? Did circulated books become a sort of "social media" where readers could share their responses to books through marginalia and graffiti?
Second, a question about authorial labor - what motivated local Nagoya writers to emulate the glitterati of the Edo publishing world and compose works of "fan fiction" in manuscript form, for limited circulation in local lending libraries, coterie reading circles, etc.?
3. Which artist or writer has had the most influence on you?
Difficult for me to say, really. Personally, I respond to works that conjure up vivid narrative worlds - whether in the form of prose narrative, theater, or visual art.
In terms of opening my eyes about my area of study, I would probably say that it was not a particular artist or writer who influenced me most, but rather the experience of watching a Bollywood film during an extended trip to India. I had this moment, while being swept up in the lush visuals and the music, of suddenly realizing what kabuki must have been like for an early modern Japanese audience.
It was not the film itself that brought me to this realization, but rather the stark juxtaposition between the unrelenting stress of living in a city - with poverty, disease, haggling over the prices of everything, and the constant threat of violence, including from feral animals roaming the streets in packs - with the magical other-world of the cinema.
It might seem like a facile analogy, but I really feel that I was only able to "get" Edo culture, and in particular the allure of the theater, after having experienced life in India.
4. What do you think is the value of the humanities?
While my field has benefited from an engagement with visual studies for the past few decades, correcting, as it were, a tendency to repress the image (illustrations and other material effects) from canonized texts, it is easy to see how new technologies are paving the way for a return of the "word." The rise of big data is already bringing new emphasis to intertextuality in the field, and I'm sure that one day it will be possible to create a searchable concordance, a database, built from thousands of Edo-period texts.
In tandem with this, there has also been great progress, by multiple research teams, on developing technologies that can decipher calligraphic text into standard type. This promises to open up a vast body of material to non-specialists and researchers working in other fields, such as medicine or geology, who might be interested in reading pre-modern descriptions of illnesses or earthquakes, for example.