Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A literary conversation with Sei Shonagon

The first time I dipped into The Pillow Book, written by eleventh-century Japanese courtier Sei Shonagon, I was amazed at the freshness of her writing and social commentary, still razor sharp 10 centuries later.

Sei's voice reminded me of my own aunts, particularly one who I used to call Aunt Beautiful, in its cattiness and sharp wit. And her constant poetic lists were both fresh and beautiful. In the fragment, "Things that Give one a Clean Feeling," she lists:

"An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as it pours into a vessel.
A new wooden chest."

The delicacy of her observations and her obsession with the layers of silk robes each courtier wore also hold a depth of feeling embedded in the courtly and high-stakes game of love, played out in a background of symbolic branches, poems and gifts. In the fragment "On the Day after a Fierce Autumn Wind" she writes:

"On the day after a fierce autumn wind, everything moves one more deeply. The garden is in a pitiful state with all the bamboo and lattice fence knocked over and lying next to each other on the ground. It is bad enough if the branches of one of the great trees have been broken by the wind; but it is really painful surprise to find that the tree itself has fallen down and is now lying flat over the bush-clover and the valerians. "

After falling in love with The Pillow Book, I read through several histories of the Heian court, hoping to find echoes of her voice in other writers. But the literary trail went dead. No one I knew had read Sei Shonagon, nor loved her writing as deeply as I did. That is, until I discovered Sarah Micklem's Firethorn fantasy series.

The series follows a dreamer, Firethorn, in an alternative world that suggests the British Isles and France in the early part of the Middle Ages. While the plot of the novel has Firethorn leaving her small village and following a knight to war, the first two books are poetically stitched together by a series of "true dreams" where Firethorn gains access to knowledge of her past, as a war orphan, to the mythic understanding of shadows and seeing, and to a depth of herbal knowledge that allows her to find a role in a traveling war party.

The first novel draws primarily on Celtic myth and African American herbal knowledge, suggesting books like Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo in their connection to pre-literate knowledge of land and healing. In the second book of the series, Wildfire, Firethorn journeys to a land where the wealthy are consumed with elaborate banquets and political rivalries and Firethorn is taken under the wing of a courtesan, Aghazal, who attempts to educate her in the literary and erotic arts of their profession.

This section is one of the most pure literary conversations I've ever encountered with the spirit of Sei Shonagon. Micklem plays with the Heian court's obsession with lists -- everything is catalogued including types of hopeless love, reasons for duels and erotic positions -- bodily purity, poetic contests, and sensation -- banquets begin with a course based purely on smell and only later move to taste. She also creates, in Aghazal, a character who is both earthy and intelligent, independent, sharp-witted and loving, capturing the community of women Aghazal supports with her earnings, as well as her own obsession with "Lightning Love," even as she works as a geisha.

Wildfire is literary homage in its best form -- clever and evocative, a conversation across centuries that evokes Sei's keen intelligence in new form.