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Lecture explores homesexuality in literature

By Christine Peterson
On December 7, 2011

  • John Whitter Treat, professor of Yale’s Department of Eastern Asian languages and Literarure, speaks to students at the Rainbow Center about the theme of homosexuality in Asian literature. Wynne Hamerman/The Daily Campus

Yesterday, the Rainbow Center held its final Out to Lunch series lecture of the semester. This final segment featured John Whittier Treat, a Yale professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures, as well as the chair of Yale's LGBT Studies program.

Treat's lecture focused on the existence of homoerotic and homosexual literature as the gateway for modern Korean and Japanese fiction. Treat instead used the term homosocial to describe his thesis, a word which he actually coined in Korean.

Before the 1880s and the birth of the modern novel in Japan, the country had existed with centuries of same sex eroticism throughout its history.

"There was same-sex sexuality in art, literature. It had gone on for a long time," Treat said.

According to Treat, it was only during the decades leading up to the 1880s that Japan began to try to change its culture as it began to modernize. The Japanese thus tried to follow the heteronormative culture of other countries. In the 1870s, sodomy for a brief time was made illegal.

However, in the 1880s, with the appearance of modern fiction, homoeroticism began to come back strongly throughout the culture. Before this comeback, Treat argues that this homosexual literature was thought of as embarrassing and the Japanese tried to snuff out their homoerotic origins.

Korea (in this aspect) was different and the evolution of the Korean novel followed a different path. The country did not have centuries of examples of same sex eroticism. It wasn't until 1909 when one of the most influential stories toward modern fiction was written.

Treat gave his lecture surrounding the story written by Korean writer Yi Kwang-su, who published his story "Maybe Love" at 17. The short story, beyond its content, caused a lot of unrest in Korea due to being written in Japanese. This was of course during difficult relations between the two countries.

The short story, as Treat shared, is about a Korean schoolboy named Mungil attending a school in Japan, and illustrates his crush on a Japanese schoolmate named Misao, who was also a boy.

This story, while being considered by many scholars to be the "milestone work in the rapid development of Korean prose literature in the 20th century," is rarely touched by Korean scholars for its awkward theme; the story of a Korean boy's unrequited love for a Japanese schoolmate. The story was not even translated into Korean until 1981.

This is the point at which Treat begins his own thesis. he claims that in fact, Mungil, the main character in Maybe Love, actually desires Misao, not primarily in a sexual way, but in a racial way. Mungil desires Misao because Misao is Japanese, Treat explained.

"Homosocial describes what binds Mungil to Misao. It is a mimetic desire, the desire to be something else. He models his desires after the model," Treat said.

This is his key point because Treat claims that ethnic discourse in these two countries is more prominent than same-sex discourse, which is why "Maybe Love" pioneered the broad expanse of modern fiction.

"I thought it was really interesting. I'm focusing more on LGBT in the middle east, so its interesting to hear about other places where I haven't studied yet," said attendee and Rainbow Center worker Mick Powell.

"It was obscure, and it was interesting. I always knew there was homoeroticism in Japan, but I never knew how much it covered," said Roberto Sanchez, a 7th-semester english major.

"It was hard to interpret but I liked how passionate he was about his topic and how he tried to help us understand, like when he'd translate all of his slides," said Natasha Mathus. Treat's Powerpoint was in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.

Treat definitely gave the audience a different topic and the Rainbow Center for the most part seemed pleased with the final guest speaker for this semester's Out to Lunch lecture series.


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