Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Sister Cities: Border Crossings and Barriers in David Zoppetti's Ichigensan and John Warley's A Southern Girl

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Sister Cities: Border Crossings and Barriers in David Zoppetti's Ichigensan and John Warley's A Southern Girl

Article excerpt

Both Charleston, South Carolina, and Kyoto, Japan, are internationally popular tourist destinations rich in history and culture, which share an obsession with bloodlines, a heightened sense of decorum, and a pervasive nostalgia. Both cities are also home to an elite core of society, and both present formidable barriers to outsiders, reflective of deeply ingrained racial prejudices. In comparing the novels A Southern Girl by John Warley, the story of an international adoption in upper-crust Charleston, South Carolina, and Ichigensan, by Swiss writer David Zoppetti, about a foreign student of Japanese who falls in love with a young blind woman in Kyoto, these traits come to the fore. In this paper, I will illustrate these similarities in culture as portrayed in these two works of fiction, and also show that both novels cross borders and break with established literary tradition.


From 794-1868, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan, an enduring source of local pride verging upon snobbery. Japan's literary tradition harkens back to the courts of Old Japan, where Lady Murasaki penned Tale of Hikaru Genji, widely considered to be the world's first novel. Courtiers such as Onono Komachi communicated via poetry or kept diaries, such as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, while beyond the castle walls, illiterate peasants laboured in the fields. The city has also inspired many modern poets and writers such as Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, who chose Kyoto as the backdrop for his novel The Old Capital and other works.

Many foreign writers have also employed Kyoto as a setting in their novels, including Arthur Golden, whose best-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, was written after the author interviewed a veteran of the rarefied world of Kyoto teahouses. Liza Dalby also managed to penetrate Kyoto's inner sanctum by conducting anthropological studies as a geisha-in-training. She utilised this experience in the writing of the nonfiction tomes Geisha, Kimono: Fashioning Culture, and her novel The Tale of Murasaki, in which she re-imagines the life of the twelfthcentury scribe, which are all composed in English and directed at a Western audience. David Zoppetti's novel, Ichigensan, discussed later in this essay, is unique in that it is a novel of Kyoto written in Japanese by an 'outsider' for a Japanese audience.

As for Charleston, the history of its literature is intertwined with figures representative of an American aristocracy. The Antebellum South came to life in the works of plantation owners such as Mary Boykin Chestnut and Eliza Lucas Pinckney, avid correspondents and diarists. In 1920, Pinckney's descendant Josephine Pinckney would help found the Poetry Society of South Carolina along with Dubose Heyward, another descendant of a seventeenth-century founding family of South Carolina, and other elites with the goal of building a 'constituency for literature.'1 The hallmarks of Southern literature, as outlined by Heyward, were a love for land and family. He declared that Southern writers 'have nature, history, folklore, legend, tradition; they will express their old homeland about them with its long roots reaching into the past.'2

Even after the Civil War, Reconstruction, and various financial disasters, the former planters still held sway in Charleston. Many blacks still lived in servants' quarters, and were denied education and opportunity. While the rest of the South was in the midst of a progressive movement, the defeated but proud Charlestonians resisted change for as long as they could.3

Charleston writer Dubose Heyward gained national fame with the publication of Porgy, the story of a black man which was later made into a musical by George Gershwin. Fellow Poetry Society member Josephine Pinckney's comedy of manners Three O'Clock Dinner was a national bestseller and optioned for film. The book provided Americans with a glimpse of the last of Carolina aristocrats.

Pinckney was also a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, an exclusive all-white group consisting of members who were 'plantation bred, or plantation broken'4 intent on preserving the Gullah dialect which developed among coastal South Carolina slaves and their owners. …

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