Saturday, December 01, 2007

Reading Mura

I'm reading David Mura's Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. It's a fascinating book so far, recounting Mura's doing a fellowship in Japan, having grown up as a third generation Japanese-American.

Last night, I read a section where Mura talked about reading Derek Walcott's poem about imagining himself in Westminster Abbey where a great many English poets are buried. Here's what Mura has to say,
In its anguish, Walcott's expression of his plight helped me clarify my own. I might love T.S. Eliot or John Donne, but I realized that were I to have met them, they would have considered me either a curiosity or a savage; in any case, an unlikely candidate for a poet of the English language. And I could not help but recognize Eliot, the Anglican, royalist defender of the poetic tradition, and the cleric John Donne as two members of the elite, the voices of power. My admiration for their work would always be tinged with detachment, even anger, and a political awareness of my place in the world. Those who think this detachment and anger mean I want to dispose of Eliot or Donne distort my position out of fear and an unconscious desire to keep the tradition white and intact. (76-77).
I think it's important to be careful not to conflate experiences of people (women and men) of color with experiences of white women, but I'm interested in the ways Mura imagines Eliot or Donne considering him as a poet because I sometimes wonder what Shakespeare and the other folks I teach would have to say at the idea of a woman teaching their works.

Of course, the whole idea that one would teach early modern drama would probably shock all of them. But imagine what Knox would make of a female professor teaching The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). (It's a diatribe against women rulers, focused especially on the Catholics Mary Stuart [Queen of Scots] and Mary Tudor [Mary I of England]. Knox was a prominent protestant theologan.) The thought amuses me now, but when I first read Knox, I found little to amuse. (Nor am I amused by those who still think that women shouldn't have political or civil rights.)

While Donne might have found Mura "a curiosity or savage," what would he have thought of a 21st century feminist teaching his poetry, talking about the homoerotics of some of his sonnets (among other things)? I don't think I feel much anger towards long dead poets for their sexism and such (I save the anger for those still being sexists and such), but I am interested in the complexity of gendering and sexuality in the early modern period, and how it feeds into the complexity of our experiences today.

I think there's an inevitable sense of detachment for those of us who study earlier periods. None of us speaks early modern or Middle English as a native. As a professor, I try to get my students to sense both profound detachment and connection to early modern texts; detachment or alienation keeps us alert to the changes our cultures have undergone in the past 400 years or so. And connection helps us realize that there are important commonalities between different cultures and periods, commonalities that are well worth understanding.

Mura, David. Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. New York: Grove Press, 1991.


  1. I haven't read Turning Japanese in quite a while; you bring back memories.

    It's interesting that you picked up on this part of his memoir, because I remember being struck by the way Mura talked about and treated women, particularly his wife, who he had a lot of strange ambivalences about (coming out of race relations as well as gender, of course, and inflected by his parents' relationships too).

    I also almost wonder what would *Mura* think of a woman poet or a woman feminist scholar teaching his work?

    (BTW, I have a friend who is positively gleeful about teaching those renaissance misogynist texts, especially the ones that talk about women needing to be silent, and that "Hic Vir" or whatever it was. She often makes a point of going "nyah nyah nyah, I'm teaching you and talking and you're dead and can't do anything about it."

    Well, in a much more intellectual phrasing, I'm sure.)

  2. I'll have to look up that Mura. Interesting post. All of it.

    What I love most when reading something from a very different period (or seeing an archaeological site or museum or whatever) is seeing how people are the same, how most things never change. Not really. There were always people thinking liberally and ahead of their time, and always people with caveman mentalities, even for then.
    Feminist generations have alternated with anti-feminist ones forever.

    Had I lived in the time of whoever built parts of my city, I probably would have been a midwife or some kind of healer, and a writer. That's the thing that always gets me in the museums, where I spend hours fascinated. Not the mosaics or temple pieces, but rather the little makeup tins with ancient leftovers of lip gloss, the applicators with the soft part worn off, the everyday cups and glasses and ladles, the ink bottles, the jewelry. The things that populated everyday life and the people who lived with them.

    אין חדש תחת השמש
    and that's what I love about this world.

  3. Sisyphus, I'm really only just into the book, and ended at this chapter end the other night, so I haven't gotten far enough along to really get a handle on the gender stuff enough to comment. But this bit stuck with me through the night.

    I'd be more gleeful if I didn't realize that I'll be dead in a few years, having made none of the impact those playwrights made. So I'm not gloating.

    MSILF, Yep, we mostly live quiet lives of desperation, just trying to eat and keep our loved ones a little safe against the odds.

  4. What an interesting post! Thanks for some new things to think about.

    I didn't know about Knox until I read Laurie King's Monstrous Regiment of Women. Have you read it? It's a fun piece of fiction.

  5. TD, Nope, I haven't. Alas. But I have read Knox :(