Q&A: ILVS Director Hosea Hirata discusses new concentration in world literature

Olin Center, home to the International Literary and Visual Studies program, is pictured on April 20. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily Archives

New this semester at Tufts is the International Literary and Visual Studies (ILVS) program’s world literature track. According to its website, the ILVS program has parallels to the international relations program; however, the former emphasizes the arts and humanities. In addition to rigorous language preparation, ILVS students are given the flexibility to cater the major to their personal interests, as the focus of study will vary significantly from student to student.

The newly-introduced world literature concentration in ILVS requires students to take six different literature classes from at least three different areas of the world, including literature in translation. To find out more, the Daily interviewed ILVS Director Hosea Hirata, who is also a professor of Japanese literature and director of the Japanese program at Tufts.

Tufts Daily (TD): Can you tell me a little bit about the ILVS program and describe the different components and requirements of the new concentration?

Hosea Hirata (HH): ILVS used to [only] have three tracks … a literature track, a film track and a visual studies track. Each track [has] different requirements, but even though you might focus on literature, you still have to involve [the other] components — the visual studies and film [components]. First, you have to decide two cultural focuses: a primary culture and a secondary culture. If you’re studying, for example, Spanish, you may use English as your primary culture and Spanish as your secondary culture. If you’re [a] film track person, then you have to focus on several film courses with your primary culture, and less film courses with your secondary culture. So, [each track] is pretty similar in terms of requirements, and one requirement that’s really necessary [for all of them] is the language requirement. You have to go up to the eighth semester level. So, this year we decided to create a new track, which is the world literature track, in which there’s no language requirement except [for] the Tufts language requirement, which is [at least] three language classes, and if you want to, you can take three more semesters [of language] or you can take culture [classes].

TD: How does this new concentration work without the eight-semester language requirement?
HH: You can take six literature courses from at least three different regions. Which means you can take three Japanese literature courses, two Spanish literature courses and two English literature courses, if you want. In that case, you have to know Spanish because … all Spanish literature courses [are taught in Spanish]. But even if you [learned] Spanish, you could still do two Japanese literature courses, two Chinese literature courses and two Arabic literature courses, for example, because they’re all taught in English.

TD: Is there less of a focus on the foreign language itself and more of a focus on the culture?
HH: Yes, that’s right. Because if you really want to study modern literature, it’s not enough to simply study in the English department. You would really need to open up your eyes to what other regions of the world are writing. So I think people who are really interested in contemporary literature would be very, very interested in this major.

TD: Can you just elaborate a little more on why this new concentration is in the ILVS program rather than the English department?
HH: Well, ILVS is an inter-departmental program, and it just happens to be kind of housed in [the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies] because I’m the director [and] I teach Japanese literature and belong to this department. [But] it’s like the women’s studies program, [not belonging] to a single department. The English department is focused on Anglophone literature only. They don’t teach Japanese literature, they don’t teach Chinese literature, they don’t teach Arabic literature. They don’t teach any other literature that [is] written in [a] foreign language.

TD: Where did the idea for this major come from and how did it develop?
HH: Well, I had been talking to some students, especially [students] from the English department. And they’re really interested in more contemporary literature. And they’re frustrated that the English department wouldn’t count other literature courses for their major; and that’s part of [it]. And at the same time, I feel like in order to really know what’s happening in the contemporary literary scene you just have to open up your eyes to the world rather than just to one nation.

TD: In what ways were students involved in getting this major going? Was it more so just talking to faculty?
HH: Yes, [students] didn’t have direct input. But the fact that this department offers so many literature courses in translation I think was a big factor [in garnering interest].

TD: How did other faculty members react to this idea and how did you come together to make it happen?
HH: I think everyone I talked to was very encouraging and positive, and excited about the idea.

TD: How do you think this new concentration will impact Tufts students?
HH: Literature is a really wonderful window into what people from different cultures are thinking, how they live, what kind of worldview they have, what kind of histories they inherit. And it is impossible to master all the world languages. I mean, there are like six thousand of them. And [only] a portion of those … languages have written components. So literature is a very, very interesting phenomenon when you think about it.

TD: Do you think it’s possible to understand a culture well without knowing the language?
HH: Well, there are limitations of course. And I’d encourage students to study foreign language if you can, and master it. But it is a fact that we cannot master five, six, seven languages well enough to be able to read literature in [the original] language. And that’s why we have translation, and we have to really think about what translation does to the world culture, so to speak. It’s a very vital part of understanding other people.

TD: Do you often notice that translation shifts the meaning of things?
HH: Absolutely.

TD: In what ways does this concentration give students a fuller and more holistic picture of the world and its issues than other ILVS concentrations?
HH: That’s hard to say. You may have a wider range with this [track], but other tracks also require you to read a lot of books and read into different cultures. The courses that are required are all comparative, [and students] also have to take theory courses [and] gender-oriented courses. I think every track has the comprehensiveness that you’re talking about, and the wonderful thing about ILVS really is that we really try to accommodate each student’s intellectual focus; that becomes the most important part. We try to create a program for … each student.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.