“All of my kanji-kus are dead, and you can see their husks if you follow these links.”–Deena Larsen


So writes Deena Larsen on her website in 2014. But this is not true anymore: Undergraduate Researchers in my lab––Kathleen Zoller, Moneca Roath, Mariah Gwin, and Andrew Nevue––led by project manager Holly Slocum, have reconstituted this intellectually complex and visually stunning work so that it can be accessible to the public for years to come. 

Kanji-kus are, according to Larsen, “short poems based on the Japanese kanji or ideogram for the word itself” that figure largely in her web-based work from 1999-2002. Larsen’s hypertext novel, Disappearing Rain (2000), for example, is described as “compendium of many kanji-kus” (Larsen). But there were 17 that comprise Larsen’s collection she refers to as her “Kanji-Kus.” Some of these, such as “Mountain Rumbles” (1999, New River), “The Language of the Void” (1999, Riding the Meridian), and “Sea Whispers” (2001, Currents), were published independently. None, however, were functioning properly on current web browsers.

Here is the way they worked: A visitor to a webpage containing a Kanji-Ku would run their cursor over a word or phrase located on the Japanese character. As they did, words of a small poem would appear in the space to the right of the character. Moving the cursor over the character would result, therefore, in a series of poems, each connected in some way with the words or phrases with which the visitor interacted and to the character itself. To create this effect, Larsen created each Kanji-Ku as a series of frames (known as a frameset) and produced the interactivity with Java Applets.

Unfortunately, frames, which became available with the release of Java 1.0 in 1996, was discontinued in the current HTML5 standard and, so, now is considered obsolete. While most browsers still can today display websites created as frames, webpages that use them are not easily findable by a Search Engine because their content is not all contained on one page but rather pulled from other pages into the site. 

More challenging to the ongoing viability of Larsen’s Kanji-Kus, however, is their reliance on Java and Java Applets. Apple disabled Java on its Safari Browser in 2012. In 2015 Chrome quit supporting Java Applets; in 2017 Firefox no longer supported them; in 2018 with the release of Safari v. 12 for Mojave, Apple also dropped its support. 

Thus, the use of frames and Java Applets rendered Larsen’s Kanji-Kus unfindable and their functionality inaccessible on contemporary computers running the most recent popular browsers.

If you think about it, there are three levels of death for a work of electronic literature. The first is when the work ceases to function. Maybe the software is outmoded. Maybe the floppy disk where the last copy of it has been saved becomes corrupted. Maybe the app hasn’t been updated to the most recent damn Apple OS. Something has happened that has resulted in the work not working.

Okay, so imagine a work was published in a web journal in the 1990s. Imagine that scholars appreciated the work enough to write about it in various print books. Perhaps the artist wrote about it, and other artists alluded to it in their own works. Years later, through the natural life cycle, these scholars and artists die. What you are imagining is a work’s second death, the one when people who interacted with that work no longer exist, but traces of the work live on through scholarly and artistic documentation. 

The third is when any reference to that work cannot be found or disappears entirely. The web journals that published them or contained scholarship about them have gone dark. The print books that documented them are moved into deep storage or pulped. No one born in the generations after the work was produced can access information that refers to the work, meaning that no one can know that the work ever existed. Its final death has arrived.

The Electronic Literature Lab works to deny death as long as we can by keeping hardware and software needed to access electronic literature works and by documenting the works in a variety of ways in a variety of locations, both digital and print. Deny, however, does not mean defy. Unless someone else in a future place and time picks up this mission, then, well, all bets are off.

In the meantime––going back to Larsen’s Kanji-Kus––we were able to read them in the lab on the G4 iMac (the “Lampshade” model) circa 2002-2004, running Mac OS 10.4.11 (“Tiger”). This allowed the Undergraduate Researchers to reconstitute them by 1) moving the code out of frames and into a standard HTML5 and CSS3 webpage and 2) recoding the interactivity as Javascript, thus eliminating the Java Applets. Holly did the translating and completed the first few as a guide, then the other Undergraduate Researchers helped to complete the rest. Some of the newer Undergraduate Researchers to the lab had not yet coded in JavaScript before, so all of us were pleased that they had learned so much about coding in this language in so short of a time.  The final result is that they were able to retain much of the look and feel of the original work for contemporary computers running contemporary browsers. What’s more, Holly researched and implemented the code that would allow for the works to still function on the original hardware and software. 

A lot of work and love have gone into this project. Most importantly, the work was all the students’. Nicholas and I simply provided moral support and a sounding board for their ideas––and sometimes frustration. Deena funded it with a donation to the lab for the student labor. We much appreciate this support.

The Undergraduate Researchers are showing their project at the university’s Research Showcase event taking place on Thursday, April 11, from 9 a.m. to noon PDT in the Firstenburg Student Center. Holly has also submitted a Summer Mini-Grant to WSU that would provide her the funding to develop an interface for the 17 Kanji-Kus and a template for others to produce this type of electronic literature. Fingers are crossed that her grant is funded.