16 Oct / The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby + Author Interview [in aMagazine: Inside Asian America]
Six hundred years before the Western world saw its first novel, Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s brilliant tome, The Tale of Genji, was a major hit in the royal courts of 11th-century Heian Japan. Now almost a millenium later, Liza Dalby, previously most noted for being the only Westerner to become a geisha, brings the world’s first novelist vividly to life in The Tale of Murasaki.
Calling it “literary archaeology,” Dalby, an anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture, meticulously gathered Murasaki’s extant writings, including what is left of her diaries and poems. In The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby weaves together fact and fiction to create a vibrant, delightful, entertaining read. As a companion to the book, check out Dalby’s extensive website by clicking here.
Where did your initial interest in Japan come from?
My father gave me Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji when I was 16. [Today’s definitive English translation is by Edward Seidensticker.] Reading Genji was my first experience with how powerful a great piece of literature can be. Coincidentally, the next year, I had a chance to go abroad to Japan. I knew nothing of Japan except what I had learned from reading Genji and my father’s previous business trips. I tried to study Japanese before I went, but growing up in Indiana, there wasn’t much Japanese to learn there. So I was basically a blank slate when I arrived. I went to Kyushu where nobody spoke English, so learning the language was a matter of social survival. My host family treated me as a Japanese girl because they knew no other way of treating me, so I absorbed much of Japan’s social customs and culture along with the language.
Why choose Murasaki as the focus of your first novel?
In a way, I came back to Murasaki. I’m not a literature specialist. In college I studied anthropology, which helped me come to terms with what I had experienced that year in Japan. This eventually led to my research on geisha for my Ph.D., which became my first book, Geisha. During that research, I developed an interest in kimono, which became my second book, Kimono. While doing the research for Kimono, I became utterly fascinated with the 11th century. The names of kimono and their color combinations had a poetic logic all their own – which led me back to Murasaki’s descriptions of clothing and color combinations. Waley left out huge chunks of these descriptions in his translation and Seidensticker complained about having to translate these passages in his Genji companion piece, Genji Days. But Murasaki spent so much time on them, so I wondered what it was that made her so interested, and what she had experienced in her life to cause her to write Genji.
I started to obsess about her. It took several years to figure out how I could get a handle on her, especially since literature is not my field. There is no way I could have written a scholarly biography or history of her because there are too many gaps. I decided that the only way I could try to approach this text was by using fiction to fill in the gaps, but at the same time, I would get as much knowledge of the culture and historical circumstances as I could to make the story plausible. I was not interested in writing another Shogun – those are western novels with a western flavor. I wanted it to take a Japanese shape. But because it is written for 21st-century western readers, I knew it must have some sense of western rhythm. Ironically, I noticed that when reviews are critical, it’s because readers are expecting a western novel like Shogun. …[click here for more]