Obituary: Miriam Silverberg
Miriam Silverberg, whose new book, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, I was looking forward to reading, died on March 16th. She had suffered from Parkinsons. James Fujii wrote this about her on H-NET:
After a long bout with illness, Miriam Rom Silverberg passed away in the early hours of Sunday, March 16, 2008. Miriam spent her formative years in Tokyo where she graduated from the International School of the Sacred Heart before returning to the United States. With an M.A. from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (1984), she would establish and maintain close associations with such historians as John Witek, Harry Harootunian, Tetsuo Najita, Fujita Shozo, and Fujime Yuki, and with Peter Rabinowitz, Masao Miyoshi, Bill Sibley, and Maeda Ai in the field of literature. She, in turn, would profoundly influence countless colleagues, students, social activists, and others on both sides of the Pacific, and from all walks of life. Her Changing Song: the Marxist Manifestos of Nakano Shigeharu, winner of the John Fairbank award for East Asian history, and translated into Japanese in 1998, demonstrated the extraordinary power of literature and history when freed from their arbitrary disciplinary homes. It remains a peerless example of how to read literature as social critique. One of the most self-consciously theoretical historians of modern Japan, at the same time Miriam's work has remained steadfastly moored to explorations of subjectivity, whether in affirming the efforts of oppositional figures such as Nakano Shigeharu and Sata Ineko, or in exploring the figuration of women as consumers, critics, laborers, and intellectuals. Internationally renowned for landmark essays on the Japanese "modern girl" ('The Modern Girl as Militant," "The Cafe Waitress Sang the Blues"), her work ranged broadly into Marxist literature, mass culture of the inter-war years, the rise of urban society, Japan's colonial encounters, and contemporary popular culture. Her abiding interest in the conjuncture of modernity and imperialism bookends her remarkable career: she began her studies at Georgetown with a paper on the massacre of Koreans in Tokyo and Yokohama in the aftermath of the 1923 earthquake, and her courses at the end of her career at UCLA examined colonial encounters in such courses as "Race and Culture" and "The Japanese Ideology of Empire." Miriam would bring to her tenure as director of the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA the intellectual dynamism that was so evident in her scholarly work. The diverse workshops and events held under her stewardship included the long-lived "Migrating Epistemologies", a talk by the Asahi Newspaper editor/reporter Matsui Yayori as representative of the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal (on Comfort Women), and a ground-breaking conference titled "Feminism Confronts Disability" that would fold her own confrontation with Parkinson's into the academic-humanistic register of disability studies. Perhaps most remarkable in a scholar whose reputation was international was the priority she gave to her students, particularly during her last few years when Parkinson's disease made lecturing, even while seated, a challenge, let alone completing what would become her masterful study of Japan's inter-war mass culture, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense (U.C. Press, 2007). Writing recommendations, advising, and guiding her students when she could no longer write unassisted, as her days became a succession of unrelenting confinement, her colleagues, friends, and foremost her students would visit, from across the Atlantic and the Pacific, from college towns large and small across the nation. Sometimes in groups, often alone, they would find ways of communicating with her in the hospital, in quiet and touching testimony to the singular impact she had made on all of those she had instructed, guided, and with whom she shared food, laughter and her irrepressible brilliance."
You may also find Adrienne Carey Hurley discuss her passing here.
As a young academic, Silverberg’s essay and writings inspired me to study modernity and gender issues and she remained an important influence. It’s a shame for her family, of course, and the academic community to lose such a star. I’m surprised and saddened to hear the news.
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