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Sei Shonagon's 21st Century Appearance

Sei Shonagon's 21st Century Appearance

Author Jan Blensdorf's poetic debut rediscovers a legendary Japanese figure through the lives of three women.

By Nayla Huq

Australian journalist, Jan Blensdorf’s first novel, My Name is Sei Shonagon, deals with the lives of three nameless female characters living in Japan, who either refer to themselves, or are referred to as Sei Shonagon, a historical figure. Progressing through the novel, the reader is able to break down the barriers between these women and figure out how they are related to one another.

Blensdorf’s poetic descriptions and talent for interweaving confessionals, folktales, mythology, anecdotes and stories render the work a pleasure to read despite the loosely-hinged plot.

These characters' namesake belongs to the 10th century author of The Pillow Book, which gives us insight into life in Japan’s Heian Court. While Sei Shonagon served as lady in waiting to the empress, she wrote this highly personal piece containing observations of courtly life, anecdotes, poems and stories when she was not engaging her many lovers. Historians seem to be undecided on exactly when to date this period, but it takes place somewhere between the eighth and the late twelfth centuries in the Common Era.

(Quotation marks are used when referring to the characters who refer to themselves as Sei Shonagon. The actual historical figure will be referenced without quotation marks.)

The novel is set in contemporary Japan in which the three characters give their personal accounts. The opening narrative belongs to the hospitalized “Sei Shonagon", as I will call her. Her mind is alternately active and inactive; her body and verbal communication are debilitated. Lying practically paralyzed, hospitalized “Sei Shonagon" decides to tell some nameless, possibly even lifeless person about how she came to be known as Sei Shonagon. “I don’t even know if you’re still alive. I’m going to talk to you anyway. I’m going to tell you everything I can remember."

The second “Sei Shonagon?" character sits behind a shoji screen, listening to her clients unburden themselves by "[speaking] before the unspoken begins to destroy [them] from within.She is “Sei Shonagon" behind the screen. When not pouring their souls out, her clients, all of whom are male, are engaged by her in historical and cultural discussions mostly about the Japanese Heian Period. All transactions take place with the screen between the two entities above The Bridge of Dreams incense shop.

The last “Sei Shonagon" figure, whose narrative dominates among the three is a "hapa," a person whose ethnicities are mixed with Asian. The story of this half Japanese/half American character takes us through her pre-birth life to adulthood. Having tragically lost both of her parents, her evil maternal uncle robs her of her childhood while she lives in his “Spartan" home, an environment characterized as rigorously self-disciplined or self-restrained. She will be referred to as “Sei Shonagon" of the Spartan house. This "Sei Shonagon's" uncle maintains this austere condition in his house. 

She is rescued by the surrogate mother figure, Mrs. Matsu, who arranges for her enrollment in an international boarding school that encourages free thinking and self-expression. To her uncle’s deep shame, she decides not to "[cultivate] onna rashisa . . . the Japanese version of femininity which covered everything from polite submissiveness to graceful movement. This is all the worse since she is “only half Japanese", and has lived in the United States, and though her residence in the decadent West lasted for a very short time during childhood, the damage is done. Instead of learning of Heian samurai culture and the almighty sword from her uncle, she writes a pillow book of her own. Ironically, her uncle expects her to be the embodiment of Japanese femininity.

The connection to the historical figure, Sei Shonagon is loosely based. The characteristics of the “Sei Shonagons" share some commonality with the 10th century lady-in-waiting, but not enough for these characters to take on her name. The strongest connection between the characters and the historical figure is the social commentary generously given by “Sei Shonagon" of the Spartan house.

The love story at the end of the novel is unconvincing; it is underdeveloped. The love birds just seem to be thrown together. Furthermore, a revelation at the end of the novel comes too late, and proves ineffectual to the overall plot.

Despite these shortcomings, My Name is Sei Shonagon has many commendable attributes that render it a worthwhile  read. For instance, the various narratives, lore and anecdotes are craftily arranged; they naturally flow into each other and are a pleasure to read. Some of them are even uplifting. They stimulate an interest in Japanese folklore and mythology. Furthermore, Blensdorf uses beautifully poetic language, especially in her descriptions of “how he loved me."

It is also important to note that the fact that Jan Blensdorf is Caucasian and Australian does not impinge upon her ability to write a novel about Japanese culture as a Japanese person would. Though her main character makes harsh judgments on the Tokyo consumerist lifestyle, the character’s voice should not be arbitrarily confused as the author’s, even if they could or actually do correlate. Besides, some of our best literature consists of biting social commentary of one’s own culture.

More insight on the author and the novel can be found here in an interview with author Jan Blensdorf.

Asia Pacific Arts