Karen L Thornber

Karen L Thornber

Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature
Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Thornber, photo

In addition to her three major published scholarly monographs (on empire/imperialism and transculturation, Empire of Texts in Motion [Harvard, 2009]; the environmental humanities [literature and environment, ecocriticism], Ecoambiguity [Michigan, 2012]; and the medical humanities and health humanities, Global Healing [Brill, February 2020], respectively), six dozen articles/book chapters, and multiple (co)edited volumes on a range of fields in literature and cultural history globally, Professor Thornber has served as Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard University Asia Center, one of the university's largest research centers; 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.  Thornber was Conference Chair of the 2016 American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting, the largest conference ever held at Harvard (3,500 speakers).  She also directed the Harvard Global Institute Environmental Humanities and Social Sciences Initiative.

Click here for Professor Thornber's academic CV. Click here for the Asia Center's 2018-2019 Annual Report, which outlines how Professor Thornber and the Asia Center Steering Committee transformed the Asia Center into a fully fledged international research center with university-wide faculty governance.

Research Fields: Comparative literature, world literature, and the literatures and cultures of East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan), as well as the Indian Ocean Rim (South and Southeast Asia, Middle East, Africa).  Textual production, circulation, consumption, and reconfiguration as key elements of wider cultural and planetary consciousness. Asian and global feminisms.  Gender bias and leadership. Mental health, gender, race, class and the arts. Transculturation, postcolonialism, ecocriticism (literature and environment), trauma, medicine and global health, global and comparative indigeneities, medical humanities, environmental humanities.  Research languages include: Chinese (modern and classical), Japanese (modern and classical), Korean, Hindi, Urdu, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and limited Indonesian. 


Cultures and Texts in Motion: Negotiating and Reconfiguring Japan and Japanese Literature in Polyintertextual East Asian Contact Zones (Japan, Semicolonial China, Colonial Korea, Colonial Taiwan, 1895-1945) - Harvard University

Dissertation Prizes
1) Charles Bernheimer Prize, American Comparative Literature Association (2007), for the best dissertation in the field of Comparative Literature in North America.

2) International Convention of Asia Scholars (Leiden) Book Prize (2007), global competition for best dissertation in the field of Asia Studies (2005-2007). 

3) Achilles Fang Prize, for best dissertation in East Asian humanities, Harvard University. 


(I) Empire of Texts in Motion: Professor Thornber’s first major scholarly monograph, Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (Harvard, 2009; 607 pp.), explores interactions among the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese literary worlds in the Japanese empire (1895-1945).  By developing the new theoretical concept of the artistic contact nebula, this book argues that while actively reconfiguring Western literatures – the subject of most comparative scholarship on twentieth-century East Asian literatures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese writers also engaged significantly with 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, not only blurring distinctions among resistance, acquiescence, and collaboration but also eroding cultural and national barriers central to the discourse on empire.  It analyzes how texts engage vigorously with specific predecessors and demonstrates how literary interactions occurring in sites of unequal power relationships are far more active and complex than the conventional "influence paradigm" has allowed. 

Book Prizes for Empire of Texts in Motion: 
1) International Comparative Literature Association Anna Balakian Book Prize (co-recipient), 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. 

2) John Whitney Hall Book Prize, Association for Asian Studies, for the best English-language book on any contemporary or historical topic related to Japan in any field of the humanities or social sciences.

(II) Ecoambiguity: Professor Thornber’s second major scholarly book, Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures (Michigan 2012; 702 pp.), analyzes how literature from East Asia and around the world depicts the ambiguous relationships between people and their biophysical environments.  It focuses on creative portrayals of the relationships between damaged ecosystems and discrepancies within and among human attitudes, behaviors, and information vis-à-vis the nonhuman world.

Book Prizes for Ecoambiguity:

1) Rene Wellek Prize (Honorable Mention, 2013) of the American Comparative Literature Association, for the best book in the field of comparative literature in the trienneum 2010-2012

2) Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Book Prize (Honorable Mention, 2013) for the best book-length monograph of scholarly ecocriticism published in the last two years (calendar years 2011 and 2012)

3) International Convention of Asia Scholars, Accolade (2013) for the scholarly work in Asian Studies most captivating and accessible to the non-specialist reader published in the last two years (calendar years 2011 and 2012)

(III) Global Healing: Professor Thornber's third major scholarly monograph - Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care (750 pp.) - will be published by Brill in February 2020.  Engaging with literature and other writings from 6 continents, more than 50 countries, and more than 2 dozen languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish, and drawing on scholarship from a range of disciplines, this book remaps the fields of comparative literature, world literature, literature and medicine, the medical humanities, and the health humanities, among other fields.  Global Healing highlights the guidance literature from around the world offers into the broader contours and the more detailed particulars of how better to promote healing and enable well being.  


Professor Thornber's Toge Sankichi and the Genbaku shishu, a translation of Toge's Japanese-language poetry anthology on the atomic bomb, has been published by the University of Chicago, Center for East Asian Studies, as an e-book (2012); Thornber read selections from this translation for Empress Michiko of Japan, August 2015.

Translation Prize: This translation received the 2012 William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature and Literary Studies.

Guest Editor

Journal of World Literature (2019), Guest Co-Editor of Special Issue on Asia and World Literature

Humanities 5:1 (2016), Guest Editor of Special Issue on Global Indigeneities and Environment

Literature and Medicine 31:2 (2013), Guest Editor of Special Issue on World Literature and Health

Edited Volumes

Global Indigeneities and Environment (co-editor with Thomas Havens, 2016)

The Poetics of Aging: Confronting, Resistingand Transcending Mortality in the Japanese Narrative Arts (co-editor with Charles Inouye, Susan Napier, and Hosea Hirata, 2015)

Companion to World LiteratureWiley-Blackwell (Associate Editor, 2013-2014)

Comparative History of East Asian Literatures, planning committee (ICLA)

Books and other Projects in Progress

Mental Health and the Arts, with particular focus on inequalities stemming from Race, Class, Sexuality, and Gender 

Asian Feminisms 

Gender and Leadership 

Networking Cultures: East Asia and the Indian Ocean Rim

Inequality, Technology, Culture

Articles and chapters include


"Korean, Literature, World Literature, and Yi Ch’ǒngjun in Urdu" (forthcoming); “Trans-Regional Asia and Futures of World Literature,” co-written with Satoru Hashimoto (forthcoming); "Patient-Centered and Person-Focused Care" (forthcoming); "Literature and Medicine" (forthcoming); "Incorporating Japanese Literature into the Medical Humanities Curriculum" (forthcoming); “Preface: Manchukuo in Transnational Perspective” (forthcoming); "Curing, But Not Healing in Pak Wanso's 'During Three Days'" (forthcoming); "Mashal Books as Cultural Mediator: Translating Asian, Middle Eastern, and African Literatures into Urdu in Pakistan" (2018); "Commentary on East Asian Ecocriticisms" (2018); "Education for the Future" (2018); "World Literature and Health Humanities: Translingual Encounters with Brain Disorders" (2018); "World Literature and Japanese Literature: Beyond the Dichotomy" (2018); "Is There Environmental Awareness in China?" (2017); "Wolf Totem and Nature Writing" (2017); "Comparative Literature, World Literature, and Aisa" (2016); "Neglected Texts, Trajectories, and Communities: Reshaping World Literature and East Asia" (2016); "Climate Change and Changing World Literature" (2016); ; "The Many Scripts of the Chinese Scriptworld, the Epic of King Gesar, and World Literature" (2016); "Why (Not) World Literature: Challenges and Opportunities for the Twenty-First Century" (2016); "Humanistic Environmental Studies and (Global) Indigeneities" (2016); "Breaking Discipline, Integrating Literature: Africa-China Relationships Reconsidered" (2016); "Abusive Medicine: Constructing the Japanese Empire and its Aftermaths in East Asian Literatures" (2016); "Japanese Literature and Interwar East Asian Modernisms: Reconfiguring the Individual and the City" (2016); "Environments of Early Chinese and Japanese Literatures" (2016); "Empire of Texts in Motion: Where in the World is World Literature" (2016); ; "Care, Vulnerability, Resilience: Ecologies of HIV/AIDS in Chinese Literature" (2016); "Global World Literature and the Medical Humanities: An Overview" (2016); "Ecocriticisms in East Asia and Beyond: Pasts, Presents, Futures" (2016); "Foreword to Japanese Tales from Times Past" (2015); "Ishimure Michiko and Global Ecocriticism" (2015); “Wenhua zhuanyi wangluo he quanqiuxing bijiao: Yazhou, Feizhou, Dayangzhou he Meizhou wenxuezhong de renlei zhongxinzhuyi shengtaiguan he ‘shengtai bendu jumin’” (Transcultural Networks and Global Comparison: Anthropocentric Ecologies and the ‘Ecological Native’ in Literature from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas) (2015); "Paradoxes of Conservation and Comparison: Taiwan, Environmental Crises and World Literatures" (2015); "Japanese Literature and International Environmental Crises" (2014); “Tính hợp thức, cộng đồng và chủ nghĩa hậu thực dân: nhà văn và văn bản du hành ở Đông Á sau 1945” (Legitimacy, Community, and Postcolonialism: Traveling Writers and Texts in Post-1945 East Asia) (2014);“Orality, Silence, and Recovery in South African, Cambodian, and Nigerian Literatures” (2014); "Ecocriticisms in East Asia and Beyond: Pasts, Presents, Futures" (2014); “Lý thuyết chấn thương” (Trauma Theory) (2014); “Tính liên văn bản hay Cộng đồng di dân” (2014); "Global World Literature and the Medical Humanities: An Overview" (2014); "Chinese Literary Landscapes of SARS and HIV/AIDS: On Hubris and Vulnerability" (2014); "Comparative Literature, World Literature, and Asia" (2014); "Capitalizing on Contradiction: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures" (2014); "Modernist Literary Production in East Asia" (2015); "Anthropocentric Ecologies and the 'Ecological Native' in Native American, Maori, and Aboriginal Taiwanese Literatures" (2014); "Chinese Literature and Environmental Crises: Plundering Borderlands North and South" (2014); "Literature and Environment: New Approaches to Ecocriticism" (2014); "Alberto Barrera Tyszka, La enfermedad"; “Tính hợp thức, cộng đồng và chủ nghĩa hậu thực dân: nhà văn và văn bản du hành ở Đông Á sau 1945” (Legitimacy, Community, and Postcolonialism: Traveling Writers and Texts in Post-1945 East Asia) (2014); “Lý thuyết chấn thương” (Trauma Theory) (2014); “Tính liên văn bản hay Cộng đồng di dân” (Intertextuality or Diaspora) (2014); "Literature, Asia, and the Anthropocene: Possibilities for Asian Studies and the Environmental Humanities" (2014); "Japanese Literature and International Environmental Crises" (2014); “Literature and the Environment: Local Approaches to Ecocriticism" (2014); "Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures: Uncertain Presents and Futures" (2014); "Rethinking the World in World Literature: East Asia and Literary Contact Nebulae" (2014); “Hansi shijie wenxue zhong de shijie – Taiwan, Zhongguo dalu, Dongya ji wenxue jiechu xingyun” (Rethinking the World in World Literature: Taiwan, Mainland China, East Asia, and Literary Contact Nebulae) (2014); "Overwhelming Disease and Nature: New Perspectives on Ariyoshi Sawako and Amitav Ghosh" (2013); "World Literature and Global Health: Reconfiguring Literature and Medicine" (2013); "Global Health and World Literature: Translating Silences in Cambodian Writing on Sex Slavery" (2013); "Afterword: Ecocritical and Literary Futures" (2013); "Japanese Literature and Environmental Crises" (2013); "Nature, Humanity, and Uncertain Futures: East Asian Literatures and Environmental Degradation" (2013); “Shejie wenxue yu shengtai piping: Tanjiu Dongya wenxue zuopinzhong feirenlei de fusuli [World Literature and Ecocriticism: Questioning Nonhuman Resilience in East Asian Literatures]” (2012); “Dajiang Jiansanlang [Oe Kenzaburo]: quyu, quanqiu he he wenti de shuxiezhe [Oe Kenzaburo: Writing Regional, Global, and Nuclear Problems]" (2012); "Ishimure Michiko, Literature, and Environmental Ambiguity" (2012); “Acquiescing to Environmental Degradation: Literary Dynamics of Resignation" (2012); "Collaborating, Acquiescing, Resisting: Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Transculturation of Japanese Literature" (2012); "Green Paradoxes: Literature and Environmental Crises in Korea, China, and Japan" (2012); “1920 nendai no Higashi Ajia bunka kōryū to kantekusutosei” (2011); "Literature and Environment" (2011); "Legitimacy and Community:  Traveling Writers and Texts in Post-1945 East Asia" (2010); "Degendering Ecodegradation and Rethinking Ecofeminisms in the Writing of Kurihara Sadako, Sakaki Nanao, and Ichimure Michiko" (2010); "Responsibility and Japanese Literature of the Atomic Bomb" (2010); "Ecological Urbanism and East Asian Literatures" (2009); "Early Twentieth-Century Intra-East Asian Literary Contact Nebulae:  Transculturating Censored Japanese Literature in Chinese and Korean Literatures" (2009); “Ecocriticism and Japanese Literature of the Avant Garde” (2009); "French Discourse in Chinese, in Chinese Discourse in French – Paradoxes of Chinese Francophone Émigré Writing" (2009); "Translation and the Borders of Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Literature" (2008); "Itinerant Clouds, Sooty Trains, and Peripatetic Memories:  Travel in Hayashi Fumiko's Ukigumo" (2007); "Reconfiguring Japanese Literature in Early Twentieth-Century East Asia:  The Enpon Boom, the Uchiyama Shoten, and the Growth of Transasian Literary Communities" (2006); "When the Protagonist is Death:  Implicating Text and Reader in Trilogies of Hiroshima and Auschwitz" (2004); "Literature of the Atomic Bomb" (2001).

Courses Taught

  • Undergraduate: Disease, Illness, and Health through Literature; Mental Illness and Mental Health through Literature and the Arts; Global Crime Fiction: Tackling Crime, Corruption, and Social Disintegration; Literature and the Environment; Literature, Gender, and Revolution; Literature and Medicine; Medical Humanities; Sophomore Tutorial
  • Graduate: Poetics of Empire; Thinking and Writing Transculturally; Literature and Diaspora; Literature, Diaspora, and Global Trauma; Comparative Literature Proseminar; Professing Literature; Survive and Thrive
  • Institute for World Literature: World Literature and Environmental Crises

Contact Information

c/o Reischauer Institute
CGIS South S222
1730 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
p: 617-496-6244
Office Hours: Fall 2019: Wednesdays 4.30-5.30pm and by appointment