Black Dragonfly, by Jean Pasley, Balestier Press, 242 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1913891053
When Oisín returns from Tir na nÓg, he finds his homeland utterly changed, and his loved ones long gone. The weight of centuries suddenly falls upon him when his fingers touch the land of his heart, the soil which once nourished him and into which all that he ever knew has crumbled.
In Japanese mythology, Urashima Taro experiences something similar. He rescues a turtle and is rewarded with a visit to Ryugu, the Dragon Palace under the sea, whose four sides yield beautiful views of the four seasons. Days in that enchanted place are equivalent to centuries on earth, and when Urashima at last returns to his home town, what greets him is an unfamiliar world, and the sudden onset of old age.
As the Greek-Irish-Japanese writer Lafcadio Hearn knew, the stories of Oisín and Urashima are not mere fantasies but allegories of the human condition. They probe the meanings of home, belonging and border crossing – perennial topics which know no temporal and territorial boundaries, and with which Hearn was preoccupied throughout his life.
Born in Greece in 1850 to a Greek mother and an Irish father, Lafcadio Hearn spent his life crossing borders and looking for a place he could call home. Having lived in Ireland, Britain, France, America and the West Indies, he travelled to Japan in 1890, where he taught English and wrote articles and books on Japanese customs, traditions and folklore. Hearn married a Japanese woman, Koizumi Setsuko, and eventually took Japanese citizenship. He died in 1904, aged fifty-four, and was buried in Tokyo. It was in the Far East that Hearn, always an outsider who butted against conventional ideas of respectability, found possibilities of making connections with the past, with the land and its people, and with himself. In some ways, Japan was for Hearn what Tir na nÓg is for Oisín, and Ryugu for Urashima, but Hearn sought to put down roots in that world of wonders, even while he struggled to remain true to his own mercurial identity and mixed cultural inheritance.
Newly published by Balestier Press – a London- and Singapore-based publisher specialising in East Asian themes and world literature – Jean Pasley’s Black Dragonfly plunges the reader into Hearn’s mind and world. This historical novel weaves together passages from Hearn’s essays, books and letters to create a beautiful tapestry, a vibrant, ruminative and deeply sympathetic picture of a strange turn-of-the-century world on the cusp of cataclysmic changes. Pasley explores Hearn’s childhood in Ireland, his early adulthood in America and Martinique, and his productive years in Japan, retracing his sometimes faltering yet often brave and self-assured steps from Yokohama to Matsue, from Kumamoto to Kobe, and thence to Tokyo and Yaizu. The novel presents a convincing portrait of a country which had recently emerged from a centuries-long isolationist foreign policy, and which was oozing a “strange dark energy” in its relentless pursuit of Western technology and in the first stirrings of its imperial ambitions: Hearn’s Japanese mother-in-law gave her grandson “carved Chinese solders” to play with, making the figures bend over “kowtowing to an illustrious Japanese general”. Hearn was a Westerner hired to teach English to students who were destined to contribute to the colonial, militaristic and technological advances that would transform Meiji-era Japan into a “modern” nation. His profound ambivalence to all this takes centre stage in Pasley’s vivid reconstruction of his life. Hearn’s Greek and Irish heritage, his first marriage to an African American woman in Cincinnati, and his immersion in black and Caribbean culture made him especially wary of any form of cultural and political hegemony, but he nevertheless endeavoured to come to terms with his presence in Japan as a Western gaijin (“foreigner”), even while repaying Japan’s hospitality by delving into, and capturing in words, the evanescent spiritualities of the country’s pre-modern culture.
The Japan conjured up by Pasley is richly textured, expressing peculiar national characteristics but also gleaming with universal feelings. We come across “giant paper lotus-blossoms” strewing the floor of a temple, “delicately painted dragonflies hovering over stalks of rice on the glossy black lacquered surface of a bow”, “stone lions and foxes” guarding “moss-covered rock stairways that led to holy groves”, “pine torches” and lanterns hung outside houses to “guide the spirits of the ancestors home”, ships of souls with “lanterns glowing at the prow and incense burning at the stern”, a “grass lark” whose otherworldly song carries “a deep dim memory of former lives when it trilled at night from the dewy grasses of the hills”, little jizo statues in front of which “the ghosts of little children piled up small heaps of pebbles and rocks”, and carp-shaped windsocks “made of vibrant coloured paper and cloth” fluttering in the air during the Festival of Boys. All the while, Pasley’s Hearn felt the soul of Japan – the people’s sorrows and joys throughout the ages – quivering beneath these unfamiliar sights, just like “the plaintive sound of unseen flutes” hovering in autumnal Kyoto, or the soulful throbbings of the three-stringed lute shamisen, played by a poor woman on a quayside.
To belong is to be able to relate and connect. It was not simply the pragmatics of acquiring citizenship that led Hearn to adopt his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. In a subtle way, that name embodies Hearn’s wish to belong. “Koizumi” is the surname of his wife, Setsuko, who came from a samurai family in Matsue, while “Yakumo” (which literally means “eight clouds”) alludes to Japanese mythology. While living in Matsue, Hearn visited Yaegaki Shrine, a site dedicated to love and marriage; enshrined there were the deities Susanoo and Kushinada. The name of the shrine – Yaegaki, or “eightfold fence” – is derived from an ancient poem reputedly composed by Susanoo after he slew the eight-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi to save Kushinada. The poem refers to Izumo Province (where Matsue is situated) as a place where “eight clouds rise”, and where Susanoo has built an “eightfold fence” to house his bride, Kushinada. By naming himself “Yakumo”, Hearn not only paid tribute to the rich mythological associations of his “beloved province” but also commemorated his own union with Japan, a place where he could at last belong.
The road to “home” was not smooth for Hearn, who felt vulnerable to the native gaze in Japan. Pasley depicts an amusing episode that rings so true: at a traditional inn where guests had to share the baths, Hearn noticed that everyone was staring at him “with wide-eyed curiosity, making no effort to hide the fact that they were talking about him”. He stood up – naked – and delivered a speech in Japanese: “Why are you staring at me? I’m just a human being. Nothing special. Just an ordinary human being.” Hearing this, the “entire bathhouse erupted in laughter”. It turned out that Hearn had confused the word for “carrot” (ninjin) with the word for “human being” (ningen); what he had actually said was “I’m just a carrot”.
For Hearn, to achieve a sense of belonging entailed not so much building fences of exclusion as adopting a fluid, permeable mind-set ready for connection, for fusion and union, like the “clouds” in his Japanese name, or like the smoke wafting from incense sticks at Japanese rituals and ceremonies, which connects hearts and minds. To belong, as Pasley movingly suggests throughout Black Dragonfly, is to jettison a beleaguered sense of selfhood. Particularly in the context of Japanese culture, this involves connecting with the past and catapulting – from the stances of the past and the present – the imagination into the future. Pasley’s epigraph, extracted from one of Hearn’s letters, illustrates this overarching theme of connectiveness: “the dead are not dead – they live in all of us and move us, – and stir faintly in every heartbeat”.
The “ghostly interlinkings” that Hearn detects in all lives are encapsulated in the image Pasley has chosen for the novel’s title: Black Dragonfly. She describes Hearn being fascinated by the flight of dragonflies in rural Japan – the “silent flickering of tiny lights, a zigzagging, soundless flashing of emerald, rose and azure steel”. In their transience and in the metamorphosis they have to undergo, dragonflies are symbolic of Hearn’s brief life and transformative experience in Japan. They live underwater as larvae for most of their lives before emerging to transform themselves into gorgeous, but short-lived, adult insects. In Japan, dragonflies are a “symbol of change and of mental and emotional maturity”, and of “death” too: they are regarded as souls of ancestors returning to visit their loved ones. Hearn remembers his wife’s grandfather “greeting the black dragonfly that hovered around him a few days before he died”. The old man had attributed the black colour to the completion of the dragonfly’s life cycle. In Black Dragonfly, Pasley deftly crafts the eponymous image into a multivalent symbol, of ephemeral beauty and transfiguration, of fulfilment, of relations that survive and transcend death, of connections through time and space, of the fluid, and perhaps “ghostly”, nature of belonging.
Brought up in Taiwan, Brandon C Yen holds a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge and has worked in Scotland, Ireland and England. His book on Wordsworth’s trees (co-authored with Peter Dale) is forthcoming from Reaktion Books in 2021.