This afternoon in Ithaca they held a memorial service for Kyoko Iriye Selden. Unfortunately, my responsibilities here in Chicago kept me from attending. I had the privilege of studying with Selden-sensei when I was a graduate student at Cornell. She was a great teacher, scholar, and translator. More than that, she was a warm, graceful, witty human being. I have been thinking of her often since the sad news of her passing away this past January.
I remember her fourth-year Japanese class, a literature seminar disguised as a language class. I took it my first year at Cornell. In one of the stories we read that year, I came across the following phrase: 「魑魅魍魎」. In my arrogance, I didn’t bother looking it up in a dictionary. Given the repeated use of the oni radical in all four characters, it obviously meant some kind of demon or ogre. I figured that was good enough for my purposes.
In class Selden-sensei happened to ask me to read aloud the passage containing those four characters. When I got to that phrase, I had to ask her the pronunciation: chimi mouryou. She told me it meant the evil spirits found in mountains and rivers, and then she asked me if I had had trouble finding it in the dictionary. I confessed that I hadn’t even tried: the phrase seemed too obscure to be worth the bother. After all, what were the odds that I would ever encounter it again?
The next class meeting Selden-sensei asked me to write chimi mouryou on the blackboard. Of course, I couldn’t. She sighed for effect. Then she handed me a photocopy of a page from another short story and asked me to read it. Lo and behold, there it was: 「魑魅魍魎」. And then she handed me a photocopy of a page from another story and told me to read it. 「魑魅魍魎」 again. And then another, and then another. Finally, with a playful grin, she said, “I’m just trying to show you how utterly common chimi mouryou is.”
I went home that evening and spent half an hour practicing writing out those four characters: 「魑魅魍魎」. I was prepared for her the next class meeting. But she never mentioned it again.
One of my homework projects for that class was a translation of Higuchi Ichiyo’s 1895 short story, “Kono Ko” (This Child). Selden-sensei as always read through my draft with remarkable care, correcting not only the Japanese but also the English style, making subtle suggestions for how to render the figurative language with more precision. Her attention to detail transcended the realm of scholarly precision; it became an ethical question. She was teaching by example about the responsibilities of being a scholar and a teacher.
Nearly twenty years later, she contacted me to ask if she could include that translation in the volume More Stories by Japanese Women Writers that she was co-editing with Mizuta Noriko. I couldn’t believe that she remembered my homework assignment after all those years. Then again, I knew that she had always treated with serious attention even the assignments of a first-year graduate student too lazy and conceited to look up vocabulary items. That was the kind of teacher she was; that was the kind of person she was.