Faculty Spotlight: Jana Tuzar
Feb. 25, 2014
By Hannah Lorenz
Jana Tuzar, part-time faculty in the English department, was born in Prague and moved to Chicago when she was 9. Her stepfather, a graduate mathematics student at the University of Prague, was taken to a concentration camp at the beginning of the Holocaust.
“A lot of people don’t remember what the Holocaust was about and that it was not just a Jewish holocaust,” Tuzar says. “The Nazis were equal opportunity haters. They first went after the intellectuals… The Nazis came in the middle of the night and just took everybody from the university to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, and of the thousands who went there, only a couple hundred survived.” Luckily, one of those survivors was her stepfather, and he later earned a fellowship at the University of Chicago and moved here with the family.
Tuzar says she teaches Holocaust literature when she has time—“I kind of do that as a duty”—as well as other literature and drama courses. But ever since she started teaching at Columbia in 2000, she’s taught a science fiction course and a course on J.R.R. Tolkien every semester.
She became interested in fantasy and science fiction through, of all things, the Russian classics. Tuzar got her degree in Russian from Northwestern University. She found out Fyodor Dostoevsky and Karel Čapek both wrote short fantasy stories (though they would never be labeled that way in a book store).
“The best writers who do use non-realistic forms are not considered fantasy or science fiction,” Tuzar says. “You’ll never find Kurt Vonnegut in science fiction.”
Tuzar discovered Tolkien when Lord of the Rings became popular in America in the 1960s. She was struck by the similarity to Beowulf, which she was studying in school. (Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, was the ultimate authority on Beowulf.)
She was drawn to the real-world themes of the fantasy series. Tolkien had begun writing in the trenches of World War I as an officer, and Lord of the Rings became his tribute to the common soldiers.
Despite its dark roots and serious nature, The Lord of the Rings—along with other fantasy and popular novels—is often not considered real literature.
“There is a feeling that if something is very popular, it can’t be good,” Tuzar says. “There’s very elitist bias in the arts. Shakespeare was popular! That was the popular theatre of the day. We keep forgetting that.”
Tuzar herself was pretty enthusiastic about science fiction in her day. She says she attended sci-fi conventions in the ’70s—“I never really got into the fantasy conventions, so I missed all the really gruesome stuff,” she says—but she never went so far as to learn Tolkien’s elvish, though she’s studied several languages.
She’s bilingual in her native Czech and English. She speaks Russian and has a reading knowledge of French, German, and Latin, but she never learned Greek.
“Until I learn ancient Greek and can read the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek, I refuse to take the time to learn elvish,” she says. “My conscience won’t let me.”