Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

Prize winner explores Japanese literature

Research sheds light on important cultural writings

by Bev Betkowski
Folio Staff
An illustration of the Genji Monogatari, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, forms one of the most intriguing pieces in Japanese literature.  Valerie Henitiuk (bottom), who earned her PhD in comparative literature at the U of A, was awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council  of Canada's Postdoctoral Prize for 2005. She is presently a visiting scholar at the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at New York's Columbia University.
An illustration of the Genji Monogatari, at the University
of Michigan Museum of Art, forms one of the most intriguing
pieces in Japanese literature. Valerie Henitiuk (bottom),
who earned her PhD in comparative literature at the U of A,
was awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada's Postdoctoral Prize for 2005. She is
presently a visiting scholar at the Center for Comparative
Literature and Society at New York's Columbia University.

A University of Alberta graduate has translated her love of languages into a national research prize.

Valerie Henitiuk, who convocated last spring with her PhD in comparative literature, was on campus in early December for a congratulatory reception after earning the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's Postdoctoral Prize for 2005.

She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at New York's Columbia University.

She explained how her education here has played an important role in what she has accomplished. "The University of Alberta has been a central part of my training as an academic."

Henitiuk's study of the spread of Japanese culture across the world has earned her recognition as the year's most outstanding recipient of the award and a $10,000 prize which she will use to travel to Paris this spring. The trip, she says, will give her the opportunity to consult rare journals and other materials documenting the French response to Japanese literature in the late 19th century and the first few years of the 20th century.

Her current research project explores the circulation of two works written by women serving rival empresses at the Japanese court in the late 10th and early 11th century: the Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu and the Makura S˘shi by Sei Sh˘nagon.

"The first of these, known in English as The Tale of Genji, is widely considered the most important work of all Japanese literature and was until quite recently the only text from that country with which literate westerners could claim any degree of familiarity," she said.

"The latter work is commonly known in English as The Pillow Book, and at the turn of the 21st century it appears to be overtaking Genji as the single most important source of inspiration from the Japanese literary tradition for western writers and filmmakers."

Henitiuk has a deep interest in exploring different world translations of Japanese texts, which include English, German and Spanish versions. It seems perfectly natural, considering that before returning to the U of A, she'd previously earned a masters degree in French literacy translation, and had worked for several years as a translator for the Alberta government. Henitiuk also worked in Japan for a year, serving as co-ordinator for international relations for the Nanao Municipal Government.

Upon graduation last spring, she was awarded the U of A Governor General's Medal for having the best dissertation across all disciplines, exploring heroines in literature from such diverse traditions as Heian Japanese, medieval French, 18th-century English, and 20th-century American.

Henitiuk is enraptured by the Japanese literature she is studying, and feels strongly about the significance of translating such work so the rest of the world can benefit from its truth and grace.

"These are exciting works, many of them about relationships. They talk about it with immense beauty and power."

Japanese literature was unknown to the rest of the world until Europeans arrived at the country's borders in the mid-1850s. But lately, all things Japanese have become a part of North American pop culture, materializing in everything from comic books to rock bands. Henitiuk believes this phenomenon is likely connected to the recent translation of works like The Pillow Book and Genji.