Academic journal article Hecate

The Waiting Years: Enchi Fumiko and the Subjugated Voice of the Mother

Academic journal article Hecate

The Waiting Years: Enchi Fumiko and the Subjugated Voice of the Mother

Article excerpt

Enchi Fumiko (1905-1986) was one of post-war Japan's most prominent women novelists. Her novel entitled The Waiting Years (Onnazaka, 1949-1957; 1957; tr. 1971) is set in early modern Japan and spans the four or so decades leading up to the end of the First World War. It is a narrative of feminine constraint loosely based on the life of the author's maternal grandmother. The protagonist, Tomo, lives her life subject to the intransigence of the discursive construct of good wife and wise mother (ryosaikenbo), the sole normative role permitted to women of the era. This role demanded silent acquiescence to a set of maternal and wifely duties designed specifically to promote the expansion of Japan's Imperial project, a project which largely negated the independent subjectivity of women. Thus when Tomo speaks in public she can only do so in a subjugated voice that confirms her ontological marginalisation. Even her private voice passes largely unheard except in brief solipsistic monologues she delivers at various points throughout the narrative.

In an investigation of philosophy and the maternal body, Michelle Boulous Walker examines strategies that permit the foregrounding of the mother's unheard voice. (1) Drawing on the work of Walker, this discussion examines the subjugated voice of Tomo, the protagonist, and of other significant women featured in Enchi's narrative. It might be noted that, almost without exception, all the adult women in The Waiting Years are mothers. The discussion will, therefore, pay particular attention to the articulation between the subjugated voices of these women and their 'motherness.'

Since Walker's work draws on a strong Western theoretical tradition, the analysis given here might be considered vulnerable to the types of criticisms levelled against scholarship which examines non-Western material through an essentialising Western framework. In feminist scholarship, criticism of this nature has perhaps been most famously made by Chandra Talpade Mohanty in her groundbreaking analysis of the tendency of Western theorists to erase historical and geographic specificity by constructing essentialist terms such as 'third world women.' However, the invocation of Walker should not be interpreted as advocacy for a model in which Western thought is used to 'other' or essentialise the position of women in Japan. On the contrary, this discussion argues that by listening intently to the subjugated maternal voices resonating throughout Enchi's text, researchers from diverse backgrounds can establish collective alliances from which to develop understandings of the common lived experiences of women, particularly as these relate to mothers and maternity.

Enchi Fumiko (2) was one of post-war Japan's most prominent women novelists. Active as a playwright in her youth, Enchi made a conscious decision in the 1930s to switch to prose fiction in order to more fully probe the interiority of her protagonists. (3) The vast majority of her narratives feature women who are either birth mothers or who have a mother type relationship with a young woman or man. (4) While it would be misleading to claim that Enchi's material is autobiographical, (5) the author herself, who gave birth to a daughter in 1932, has noted a dependency on her own life experiences as the primary source for many of her texts. (6) In addition, a number of critics comment on the oblique articulation between the experiences of the women in Enchi's narratives and the experiences of the author and other women in her family. (7) This discussion focuses on the subjugated maternal voice in one of Enchi's most well-known works, The Waiting Years. Originally an intermittently serialised novel, The Waiting Years drew widespread critical acclaim when published in book form in 1957. (8) The work is loosely based on the life experiences of Enchi's maternal grandmother passed on to the author in conversation with her mother. In other words, it is a text in which Enchi speaks the body of her grandmother using material provided by the speaking subject of her mother. …

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