Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Envisioning the Invisible: Sex, Species, and Anomaly in Contemporary Japanese Women's Fiction

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Envisioning the Invisible: Sex, Species, and Anomaly in Contemporary Japanese Women's Fiction

Article excerpt

In his widely influential study Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, Sheldon Pollock argues that, for a variety of historical reasons, modem Western apprehensions of South Asian literature are distorted by, for instance, anachronistic divisions of sacred from secular and of modem from premodem. He suggests that we need to unthink concepts such as nation, genre, and language in order to "understand literature in relationship to a place," which is "as much a matter of understanding how literature can create places as it is a matter of understanding how it is created by them" (11). Finally, Pollock provides an inventory of potential techniques for accomplishing this rethinking of literature as "how people have done things with texts" (18), including in this list such strategies as "listening to the questions the texts themselves raise," "refusing to segregate literature from the rest of the culture," "learning to think in a historical-anthropological spirit," exploring "what relationships have existed between literature and the often simultaneous orders of oral, manuscript, and print cultures," and uncovering how canons were established and "what norms, aesthetics, and readerly expectations these embody" (13-15). Indeed, many of Pollock's ideas find resonance in work by Donald Haase ("Decolonizing Fairy-Tale Studies"), Kenneth Pimple ("The Meme-ing of Folklore"), and Jack Zipes ("The Meaning of Fairy Tale Within the Evolution of Culture") to the extent that each of these studies encourages a "move beyond typology" (Haase 27) and advocates a privileging of performative context.

I find these ideas useful for thinking through the place of folklore in contemporary Japanese fiction because they encourage us to think about folklore as a lengthy and dynamic interaction between place and the social functions of narrative. What happens, for example, when we begin to unthink folklore as the category of inquiry, seeking instead to identify autochthonous modes of composition and to trace some of the ways in which these modes have shifted over time?1 What aspects of contemporary Japanese women's fiction might become newly or differently legible if we start to trace continuities and permutations in the social functions of certain traditional narratives, if we think anthropologically about "how people have done things" with these texts?

In this article I attend to the particular social and revelatory functions that the folkloric has been made to perform in the Japanese literary tradition. I focus on a particular kind of folklore, which we might term interspecies sex tales: stories in which human women have sex with nonhumans or in which human women, in expressing or repressing sexual desire, become nonhuman.2 This type of text, in Pollock's sense, provides the nexus around which literary cultures adhere over time and across genres. In thinking about what types of work the folktale performs in the long Japanese tradition, I am selfconsciously not attending to the full range of contexts in which folkloric texts were put to use in Japan. I specifically omit contexts pertaining to everyday, lived experience: tales told by the iron (sunken hearth) on a winter's night or around the bonfire on a summer's night (the sorts of storytelling scenes so often romanticized in Japanese scholarship). Nor am I concerned with roadside exchanges, teahouse performances, or the sorts of settings to which an anthropologist or ethnologist in the field might have access (Fine; Finnegan).

Rather, I focus on the uses to which folklore has been put-the functions for which it has been used-in self-consciously literate and generally didactic settings: the gazetteer (fudoki) and the explanatory tale (seisuwa), to cite two of the key premodem sites of collection, and the modem feminist short story, to reference the particular subgenre that I treat more fully later in this article. That is, I am interested in thinking about state-related functions of the folktale, a concept of folkloric utility that Japan most likely encountered first in Chinese sources, such as collections of "anomaly accounts" (zhi giiaí) and compilations of Buddhist miracle tales (yanji). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.