Research interests: World Literature and the literatures and cultures of East Asia and the Indian Ocean Rim; transculturation, postcolonialism, environmental humanities (literature and environment), trauma, medical humanities, global and comparative indigeneities.
Karen Thornber’s primary areas of research and teaching are world literature and the literatures and cultures of East Asia, particularly Japan, as well as the Indian Ocean Rim. Professor Thornber received her A.B. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 1996, with minors in East Asian Studies, Japanese Language and Literature, and Romance Languages and Literatures. She received her Ph.D. in 2006 from Harvard’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her dissertation – based on extensive fieldwork in vernacular archives in Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan – won the International Convention of Asia Scholars (Leiden) Book Prize for the best dissertation in the field of Asian Studies, the American Comparative Literature Association’s Charles Bernheimer Prize for the best dissertation in the field of Comparative Literature, and the Achilles Fang Prize for the best dissertation in East Asian Humanities at Harvard University.
Professor Thornber’s publications analyze textual production, circulation, consumption, and reconfiguration as key elements of wider cultural and global consciousness. Her first book, Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (Harvard Asia Center Publications Program; Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 2009), won two major international awards: the 2011 John Whitney Hall Book Prize from the Association for Asian Studies, for the best book on either contemporary or historical topics in any field of the Japanese humanities or social sciences; and the International Comparative Literature Association’s 2010 Anna Balakian Prize, for the best book in the world in the field of Comparative Literature published in the last three years by a scholar under age 40. Empire of Texts in Motion explores interactions among the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese literary worlds in the Japanese empire (1895-1945). It reveals that while actively engaging with Western literatures – the subject of most comparative scholarship on twentieth-century East Asian literatures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese writers also significantly reconfigured one another’s creative output, forming vibrant spaces of intra-East Asian textual contact. Empire of Texts in Motion demonstrates how this textual contact both affirmed and challenged Japan’s cultural authority, blurring distinctions among resistance, acquiescence, and collaboration and also eroding cultural and national barriers central to the discourse on empire. Professor Thornber’s second book, Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures (University of Michigan Press, 2012) analyzes how literatures from East Asia and other parts of the world depict the ambiguous interactions between people and their biophysical environments. It focuses on creative portrayals of the relationship between damaged ecosystems and discrepancies within and among human attitudes, behaviors, and information vis-à-vis the nonhuman world. Ecoambiguity was awarded Honorable Mention in the American Comparative Literature Association's 2013 Rene Wellek Prize Competition, for the best book in the field of comparative literature in the triennium 2010-2012; Honorable Mention in the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Book Prize, for the best book-length monograph of scholarly ecocriticism published in the calendar years 2011 and 2012; and the International Convention of Asia Scholars Accolade for the scholarly work in Asian Studies most captivating and accessible to the non-specialist reader published in the calendar years 2011 and 2012.
Professor Thornber’s translation of Tōge Sankichi’s Genbaku shishū (Poems of the Atomic Bomb) was published by the University of Chicago, Center for East Asian Studies in 2012; it received the 2012 William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature and Literary Studies. In August 2015, Professor Thornber was invited to read selections from this translation for Empress Michiko of Japan, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings.
Professor Thornber has published or has forthcoming more than sixty articles/book chapters on East Asian literatures and cultures (Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan), as well as diaspora, gender, trauma, translation and transculturation, the environmental and medical humanities, and comparative and world literature. She also has forthcoming a co-edited volume on the poetics of aging in Japan.
Current projects include books on world literature and global health; a global history of leprosy; world climate fiction; and cultural interactions among East Asia and the Indian Ocean Rim (Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia); as well as co-edited special issues of Humanities (on global indigeneities and environment) and Journal of World Literature (on trans-Asian comparative and world literature).
Professor Thornber has served as Chair of Comparative Literature, Chair of Regional Studies East Asia, Director of Graduate Studies in Comparative Literature, and Director of Graduate Studies in Regional Studies East Asia. In 2016, she was Conference Chair of the 2016 American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting, which with 3,500 speakers was the largest conference ever held at Harvard.