The Year of Asian Imagination ... Dreams Past, Present, Future

Asian Studies program and Humanitites Center co-sponsor year-long sci-fi reading group centered around perspectives of imagination

One doesn’t need to be an educator to understand that humans learn best about a topic they find interesting and fun…like science fiction.

Annabella Pitkin, director of Lehigh's Asian Studies program, and Khurram Hussain, director of Lehigh’s Humanities Center, both of whom are professors in the Religion Studies Department, clearly know this. Together, they are leading "The Year of of Asian Imagination ... Dreams Past, Present, Future." a science fiction reading group that will meet monthly to examine works by Asian authours. The objective of The Year of Asian Imagination is to share extraordinary science fiction stories, as well as Asian perspectives of imagination, from Asian and Asian American authors.

“The two of us talk about this a lot,” Pitkin says. “We see how hungry our students are for experiences in college that really connect with meaning they're searching for in their own lives.”

Hussain adds, “We really also want student involvement to be robust, so they can be exposed to some of these ideas, not with the mindset of, ‘we have to learn this, we have to remember this, there's going to be an exam.’”

The two professors, along with other Asian Studies faculty members, discussed how to offer programs related to Asian culture that would engage students around their interests and passions. Pitkin describes how “a planning committee of Asian Studies faculty members including Kiri Lee, Connie Cook, Nobuko Yamasaki, Tom Chen, and Shellen Wu, started brainstorming about four months ago around several ideas that we had, which we realized all connected around this theme of imagination.” When Pitkin spoke with Wu, L.H. Gipson Chair in Transnational History at Lehigh, the two discovered a shared love of science fiction.

“We both got very animated,” Wu says, “and the idea for The Year of Asian Imagination was born.” 

The Year of Asian Imagination…Dreams Past, Present and Future kicks off September 6 at Williams Hall Global Commons. Leading off the program will be Robert Campany, Professor of Asian Studies at Vanderbilt University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Campany is an ideal opening speaker. Pitkin describes him as “a famous scholar of dreams in medieval Chinese literature”. His lecture, “Mapping the Dreamscape of Premodern China,” offers a fascinating look at how medieval Chinese people interpreted dreams.

Following Campany’s lecture, the science fiction reading group will meet each month at the Humanities Center, during both fall and spring semesters. The reading group is open to students and faculty, and will meet for refreshments and informal discussion. The program will purchase books for participants.

The faculty planning group came up with a long list of exciting titles, but they understand that the reading group won’t be able to read everything this time.

“We're aware that students are juggling big course loads,” Pitkin says, “so we are mindful of the page amount. The reading group participants can decide how much they want to read. But I think these are all really fun, exciting and gripping…sit up late, can't put them down kind of books and stories.”

In April, prolific and multiple award-winning author Ken Liu will come to campus as the featured spring speaker. Pitkin describes adding Liu to the program as “huge coup for Lehigh.” Chen agrees, sharing his own unbridled enthusiasm for Liu’s work.

“I will actually be teaching a course in the spring called Chinese (American) sci-fi,” Chen says, “where students will be reading many of Ken's short stories. To read the work of an author and then to meet the author in person? What a special treat the students have in store.”

Chen gives Wu credit for making the coup happen, but Wu makes it sound easy.

“I immediately thought of him when we were brainstorming ideas for a big-name speaker,” she remembers. “I wrote him an email and he responded right away. He made a number of insightful suggestions for our reading list, and is clearly deeply passionate about sci-fi writing.”

The professors involved with The Year of Asian Imagination all have a difficult time when asked to choose just one book they would recommend. Chen has a fondness for Invisible Planets and Broken Stars, collections of short stories from well-known Chinese authors. Hussain suggests The Three Body Problem, written by Liu Cixin and translated into English by Ken Liu. Wu offers Ted Chiang’s Exhalation short story collection as a favorite of hers. Pitkin is also torn about choosing just one, but she mentions author Rebecca Kuang, whose writing will also be featured in the program. “Her trilogy that starts with a book called The Poppy War, reimagines some aspects of 20th century Chinese history through a magical science fiction and fantasy lens. Those stories help us think about the real histories of the 20th century in a different way.”

Differing tastes aside, they’re all enthusiastic about The Year of Asian Imagination. Hussain has a thoughtful take on how science fiction connects the past to the future.

“We can't write every single detail of every single thing that ever happened in history. We tend to write stories about history and about the past. In some sense, imagination and science fiction in particular, but imagination in general, also allows you to reimagine the past as much as the future.”

Lee says it can create a new horizon for students in other majors. “Through the reading of Asian-related science fiction,” she shares, “we would like to reach out to students who may not be interested in Asian or Asian American studies.”

Pitkin hopes that “this reading group will be a wonderful place to gather and think about the meaning of life, and the kinds of futures we hope to create together.”

Wu shares Pitkin’s and Hussain’s assertion about the significance of imagination. She calls the program “a great opportunity for faculty and students to talk about and imagine the future – the good and the bad of technological progress.”

“Before you can make it, you have to be able to imagine it.”
-Kurt Smith