Biography, Politics, Source, Women's History

Reading as Life Line: A Literary Mother from 11th Century Japan

“For we think back through our mothers, if we are women,” wrote Virginia Woolf  in A Room of One’s Own, the book in which she reflected on women as writers and pondered the scarcity of women’s writing in world literary history, and therefore the paucity of mothers for women to “think back through.” I was deeply influenced by this comment of Woolf’s when I first read it.  I am a scholar of Japanese classical literature.  An engagement with feminist criticism that began with reading Woolf stimulated me to devote my energies to making the literary works of the women of the mid-Heian period 900 to 1100 CE better known, primarily through translation. After all, this is one of the most remarkable eras for women’s literary production in pre-modern history, and the authors are potential “mothers” for us all.

The extant body of texts includes five major autobiographical works, the now world-renowned novel The Tale of Genji, and reams of poetry.  That so much writing by women before the advent of print culture has been preserved is the first miracle. Moreover, this is a body of texts that was never completely marginalized.  The Tale of Genji, in particular, had an extraordinary reception in every age, until it has come in the modern era to occupy a place of importance in Japanese literary history roughly equivalent to the position of Shakespeare’s corpus in English literary history.

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My most recent contribution to the project of making womens’ texts of this era more accessible has been to collaborate with a Japanese scholar It? Moriyuki to produce a new translation and study of the Sarashina Diary  (Columbia University Press, July, 2014). The author of the Sarashina Diary, Takasue no Musume (1008 -?) gives an autobiographical account of her life from the age of twelve to her late fifties. Rather than dated entries giving synopses of events, her account of her life focuses on heightened moments of consciousness that are often crystallized in a poem. She portrays herself as a passionate reader of fiction, particularly of The Tale of Genji.  In fact, her work is a testimony to the enthrallment that The Tale of Genji cast over its first generation of readers. On the surface, the Sarashina Diary author spins a narrative line lamenting her addiction to romantic fiction and the fantasies it generates; she reveals that she worries that she has wasted her life on illusions instead of being more assiduous about religious devotion.  Yet, the lyrical passages which predominate in her text tell another opposite and deeper truth, that to be able to read and write, to bring the magic of imaginative language to bear on the unavoidable suffering of life is as much a consolation as religious faith itself.

This is a subtle work produced for subtle readers, which gives it a curiously contemporary aspect. The author identifies herself primarily as reader and writer rather than wife or mother and this too makes her seem somewhat “modern.” Certainly in this respect, Virginia Woolf would have found the author congenial. The diary also contains a number of exchanges with the author’s working colleagues at court, for she did serve at court in her early middle age, even after marrying.  The tone of the communications range from bantering to melancholy nostalgia, and while the fact that they are all centered around the exchange of poems distances them from our world, they remain fascinating windows into the social dynamics of fellow women workers a thousand years ago.

Sonja Arntzen (c) September 2014

Should this brief description intrigue anyone reading this blog, I recommend the Columbia University Press website for further information.

At the risk of blatant advertisement, I should also add that the press is currently offering a 30% discount on orders from their website with the use of the promo code “SARSUG”

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