Professor explores the mastery of Nobel-winner Ishiguro

Wong leads presentation of Ishiguro's work as part of Nobel at Noon series

November 14, 2017
CU Denver Professor Cynthia Wong
English Professor Cynthia Wong is an expert on Nobel Prize-winning author Zazuo Ishiguro.

There’s nothing like getting lost in a good book, but for CU Denver Professor Cynthia Wong, PhD, one incredible author has become her passion. Wong is an expert on Japanese-born, British-raised author Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature.

Speaking about Ishiguro’s first novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” Wong said, “the novel supported contradictory readings and was powerful precisely because of its indeterminacies.” Ishiguro’s work approaches unique subject matters with distilled craft, often navigating the space between historical event and literary truth.

Wong has published literary criticisms, interviewed Ishiguro and co-edited the book “Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context.” She is a faculty member in the English Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Wong will talk about Ishiguro’s work at today’s (Tuesday, Nov. 14) Nobel at Noon lunch-and-learn presentation in the Jerry Wartgow Welcome Center in the Student Commons Building, 1201 Larimer St.

Researcher SpotlightAs masterful as the author himself, Wong’s work demonstrates an impressive precision of language. To get a closer look at the woman behind the research, CU Denver Today posed a few questions. Here are her answers:

What is it that interests you about Kazuo Ishiguro? Why do you think he deserves winning the Nobel Prize?

The first novel I read was the first one Ishiguro wrote, “A Pale View of Hills,” an extraordinarily “quiet” novel with turmoil seething under the surface of eloquent prose. I taught the novel in my first year here and the students loved it. But, they disagreed with me on the narrator’s motivations. They felt that the narrator had made up things to cover up something malicious, while I found the narrator’s inconsistencies reflective of deep trauma and grief. I published an essay on the discrepancies not to prove that my students were wrong, but that the novel supported contradictory readings and was powerful precisely because of its indeterminacies.

Ishiguro continues in all of his novels to portray devastated lives rising to some degree of dignity, and it’s a basic plot that all humans can appreciate. You can say that the novels are about survival and endurance, and then you can dig deeper and see the profound desires, pains and complex emotions worked into his elegant writing style. These human drives are universal, and Ishiguro writes about many kinds in a variety of genre styles and thoughtful narrative strategies.  Each novel invites the reader to explore some human condition, recognize human suffering and find ways that we can be allies to one another.

The Nobel Prize in literature is specific about honoring a laureate for a lifetime of work that moves in “an ideal direction” and that bestows upon humankind “the greatest benefit.” The prize is not for a single work. Now, what is “ideal” and what is beneficial to humankind is widely debated. When I apply the criteria to Ishiguro’s works and note the literary techniques, unique subject matters, and significant meanings in each book that build an entire body of work, I find that Ishiguro is most deserving.

CU Denver Professor Cynthia Wong
Cynthia Wong, PhD, at her desk.

He writes about survivors of war-damaged Japan, masters and servants in Great Britain at the wane of colonialism, a troubled pianist in an unnamed labyrinthine European city, young adults raised in a good boarding school but are destined for a horrific end, and recently, about an elderly couple trying to reach their son in pre-Medieval times. It’s impossible to do full justice by naming characters and plot, so I encourage people to read the novels.

Ishiguro’s fiction is not self-absorbed but worldly: each book is very different from the other, although there are family resemblances that can be grouped into a satisfying lifetime’s achievement. Ishiguro’s literary critics are a relatively small group, and we all know one another’s interpretations. Our different readings of Ishiguro’s writings reflect the diversity of his achievements. We tend to agree that we are writing about a masterful author.

What do you know now that you wished you knew when you were entering grad school?

Nobel at Noon schedule

Nov. 14 – Literature, Cynthia Wong

Nov. 28 – Chemistry, Scott Reed

Dec. 12 – Economics, Laura Argys

Dec. 19 – Physiology/Medicine, Chris Phiel

All presentations are at noon in the Jerry Wartgow Welcome Center in the Student Commons Building, 1201 Larimer St.

The presentations are free and open to the public.

The question suggests that I might have had a rude awakening in grad school, but that is contrary to what happened. My parents were opposed to my going to college, much less continue on to graduate school, because they predicted that nobody would marry a Chinese girl with so much education. In graduate school, I was blessed with fellowships that allowed me for the first time to not have to work a paying job. My professors were generous with their intelligence and guidance. I focused on reading as much and as widely as I could, kept writing as well as I could, and those years made up my enlightenment – I came out from a rather dark period of my family’s upbringing.

What is your favorite quote?

“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”  From Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” It underscores almost everything I teach.

What is your research/teaching philosophy?

For research: learn as much as I can about the authors and their context, examine their writing in their own terms, and find something unique about each achievement. Write clearly so that other academics respect the contribution to insights, and also, so that non-academics can find ways to appreciate these books.

For teaching: excite students about literature and guide them to integrate a literary imagination into every aspect of their lives. Students are curious about authors’ lives and enjoy exploring deeper meanings about what it means to exist. Literature is ideal for these explorations because we can imagine what it feels like to be that character and be in someone else’s world for the time we immerse in reading. Literature motivates us to be more empathetic and broadens our understanding of human differences.

If you were not a professor/lecturer, what would you be?

That’s a tough one! I’ve been “professing literature” for over 30 years, but if I had a career change, I’d be a bespoke knitter, definitely. I would work with the wild semiotics of knitting patterns, play with many wonderful yarns and knit on request.

What is your favorite non-academic reading/interests?

Knitting – cables, lace, fair isle, the whole lot. I love tinkering in my small garden with pots of flowers and herbs. I’m a serial watcher of serial shows: “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Fargo,” “Sherlock,” “Foyle’s War” –  shows that have fascinating stories about society’s underbellies (and perfectly complement knitting).

What was your first concert?

Earth, Wind & Fire (gulp).

Where have you lived outside of Colorado?

San Francisco, Chicago, Milwaukee, Honolulu.

What is your ideal vacation? Or where do you like to travel?

Kyoto, Japan, for the beautiful temples and walking paths.