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Valerie Henitiuk

SSHRC Postdoctoral Prize

Valerie Henitiuk, winner of this year’s SSHRC Postdoctoral Prize, is embarking on what she predicts will be a “career-long examination” of the globalization of culture.

A professional translator for ten years, Henitiuk has degrees in Japanese, French, and comparative literature and has written dozens of articles for textbooks and journals—as well as a column in a Japanese newspaper. The Edmonton native wins the prize for a research project that tracks the interplay between world and national literatures.

Her focus now is Japan. The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book are two circa-1000 AD Japanese classics written by women of the Imperial Court. Reading them (in the original language, now almost incomprehensible to modern speakers) is one of the most dreaded chores faced by the country’s high school students.

Yet the last 15 years have seen this school penance transformed into a national pop-culture phenomenon. The books have always been respected: now they are adored. There are manga (comic book) versions, a Genji museum and readers’ clubs. There’s even a rock band named after Genji’s title character.

The reason? To a great extent, says Henitiuk, it’s the influence of English translations of the works. Japanese readers became more passionate about them—about their own culture’s treasures—after seeing them reflected in the sometimes distorted mirror of world literature.

It’s the kind of paradox that is becoming more and more common. But how and why are works elevated from a national to the international canon? Who, in fact, decides a work belongs to “world literature”? How are individual cultures affected by their interaction with the global one? With questions like these, Valerie Henitiuk is doing scholarly research that is vitally relevant in a shrinking world.