Anna Maria Jones responds to Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

Erica Kanesaka Kalnay finds in Grace Lavery’s Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan a call for Victorianists to attend more closely to the work of scholars of color and for the field of Victorian studies to engage more directly with fields such as Asian American studies, which have much to say about the topics that Lavery’s book addresses. For Kalnay, Quaint, Exquisite underscores the problem of “aboutness”—that is, it raises the question of what it means for a work to be “about” its object. As Lavery’s chapter on the Mikado shows, the privilege of the Orientalist is both to be able to assert and to avow expertise, to speak with authority on one’s subject and to deprecate that knowledge when expedient. For example, Kalnay points to Lavery’s exploration of the claim that the Mikado is “‘not about Japan,’” arguing that the oft-repeated claim “continues to provide pretext for willful indifference and ignorance toward the harm of racial caricature.” That Gilbert & Sullivan’s racist little opera, complete with yellowface performances, has continued to be a crowd pleaser in the United States and the UK well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, demonstrates how immediate this problem of “aboutness” is for us. And it shows why the questions that Lavery raises about “Victorian aesthetics and the idea of Japan” are ones in which we, scholars of the nineteenth century, are implicated. For, as Kalnay points out, with a nod to the strategic presentism endorsed by the V21 Collective, one of things that Lavery’s book is “about” is the “ongoing unfolding of the Victorian past in our present moment.”

Reflection by Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

Kristin Mahoney responds

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