The Center for the Literary Arts provides faculty members with the chance to develop their creative work in a tight-knit, highly collaborative space.
When Ji-Eun Lee made the leap to become an associate professor of Korean language and literature at Washington University, she had to rearrange her priorities.
As she worked to balance her teaching and research commitments, there wasn’t much room left for her passion projects – chief among them, immersing herself in the language of Korean authors through translation work.
“When you’re working at a top research school, translation is already something that’s pushed to the side,” Lee said. “When I was hired at WashU, one of the things that the chair of the department told me to do before I got tenure is to put these translation projects on the backburner.”
But more than a decade later, Lee has found an opportunity to clear her academic plate and dive back into the joys of living and breathing her native language. In early 2023, the Center for the Literary Arts named Lee, Flora Cassen, and Edward McPherson as the first three members of its Creative Practice Workshop. This interdisciplinary workshop provides a semester leave and dedicated workspace for WashU faculty to collaborate, produce, and share work.
Lee and Cassen officially joined the workshop at the start of the Fall 2023 semester – McPherson bowed out after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for his proposed workshop project. For Lee, the experience of working in a tightly knit, highly collaborative environment has been a breath of fresh air.
“I’m so used to being isolated on campus, especially in my research work,” Lee said. “So being in this environment, where we talk about the substance of my work, it’s very pleasant. It reminds me of why I started – why I decided to be a scholar of literature in the first place, because of the love of reading and thinking about words and expressions.”
As part of her workshop project, Lee is focusing on the translation of travelogues from early 20th-century female Korean writers. Her source writings come from the period when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, and the desire for independence and the search for women's place in the modernizing world animates much of the work.
Workshop sessions feature an ongoing back-and-forth between Lee, Cassen, Center for the Literary Arts co-director Danielle Dutton and CLA postdoctoral fellow Ashley Colley. Each member of the group shares from her latest work while the others provide feedback and pose constructive questions.
For Cassen, an associate professor in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies, working with an interdisciplinary group of scholars challenges her to view historical storytelling in a radically different light.
“I was trained as a historian, and I’m trying to write a book that will speak to a wider audience. But I’ve never learned the right way to do that,” Cassen said. “That’s the biggest benefit I’m getting from those weekly meetings that we’re having. How Danielle, Ashley, and Ji-Eun read my work is just different from the usual historians’ committee that I talk to. They’re saying, ‘Alright, here: can you develop this passage into a scene? Can you put the reader in that place?’ That’s never something any of my academic colleagues have said when they read my work.”
In this case, the added focus on narrative is essential. While writing about the history of antisemitism in Europe, Cassen wants to weave in the story of her own Belgian grandparents. In 1942, they fled the Nazi occupation of Belgium, only to wind up in the role of occupiers themselves – as a military officer and his wife in the Belgian-occupied Congo.
“We like to think of oppressor and oppressed as a kind of binary – you’re one or the other,” Cassen said. “In a way, my grandparents were both once they were in the Congo.”
“I’m telling her she should sell her story to Hollywood,” Lee said of Cassen’s work. “It’s all very fascinating.”
The Center for the Literary Arts is accepting applications for its next round of Creative Practice Workshop fellows through December 1. Full details are available on CLA’s website.