‘Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko’ (Review)

IMG_5499It’s the last day of Women in Translation Month, and even with time differences conspiring against me, I’ve managed to squeeze in one last post 🙂  Today’s offering is something a little different, a kind of hybrid featuring biography and poetry for younger readers, but in one way it fits in very nicely with the theme of the month.  It features a woman unfairly treated and attempts to rescue work which had been long forgotten…

Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (review copy courtesy of Chin Music Press) is a beautiful forthcoming little book which looks at both the life and work of children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko (where Misuzu is the family name).  Long forgotten even in Japan, Misuzu returned to public attention when one of her poems, ‘Are You an Echo?’, was used in place of television commercials after the Fukushima disasters.  However, there’s a lot more to Misuzu’s story than just that of a long-forgotten writer.

Misuzu had a rather interesting (and difficult) life, and writer and publisher David Jacobson decided to devote the first half of Are You an Echo? to explaining her background, from her happy childhood and her first steps in poetry, to her rather more miserable marriage and early death.  This short story is actually enclosed inside another narrative, in which poet Setsuo Yazaki stumbles across one of Misuzu’s poems but is unable to find more.  Years later, with the help of Misuzu’s elderly brother, he tracks down her diaries (containing all her poems) and is able to help get them published.

While there are several poems scattered throughout this charming story, the majority are saved for the second half of the book, and there’s another treat in store here as this section has the poems in both English and Japanese.  Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi are the translators attempting to bring Misuzu’s work into English, keeping the light tone while avoiding some of the aspects of the poems which might not work in English.  In their own words:

However, English is limited in its capacity to convey Misuzu’s subtle feminine sensibility and the elegant nuances of her classical allusions.
(Chin Music Press, 2016)

On the whole, considering it is a book for children, the translators have done a great job in avoiding making the poems too saccharine.

In the first part of the book, we see Setsuo sitting in his university library, astounded at the simplicity and poignancy of Misuzu’s imagery:

At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold funerals
for the tens of thousands dead.
‘Big Catch’

What comes across repeatedly in the poetry and in the reactions to it is Misuzu’s ability toIMG_5500 put herself in the position of both animals and inanimate objects.  In later poems she uses hats, rocks, sand and whales as the focus of her work, constructing poems with a unique slant, and it’s this that sets the young student off on his quest to discover more about the forgotten poet.

Part of the charm of the book is its appearance, with Toshikado Hajiri’s illustrations contributing much to its success, beautifully hand-drawn colour pictures enhancing the text.  This is as true for the pictures accompanying Misuzu’s life story as for those surrounding the later poems.  Even the sections depicting some of the darker moments in the poets’s life are given warmth thanks to Hajiri’s work.

While I loved Are You an Echo? and think it’s a great book for kids, it would be remiss of me not to talk more about these ‘darker moments’.  Misuzu suffered through an unhappy marriage, neglected (and infected with STDs…) by her husband, and when he demanded she give up her daughter at the collapse of their marriage, Misuzu took her own life.  As Jacobson says:

The thorniest problem we faced in publishing this book was how to handle Misuzu’s life story.  Many in both Japan and abroad counseled against mentioning the darkness of her personal life and suicide.  Not only would it be traumatic for children, our intended audience, but it might color how readers understood her poetry.

I can see why it was important to include this information, and it was probably the right WITM Logodecision.  However, after a lot of thought, I decided not to show this to my nine-year-old daughter as I simply wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t be upset.  I suspect that each parent would have to think about how their own child might react before letting them read the book.

On the whole, though, Are You an Echo? is a wonderful little book, both for the story and the poems (not to mention the illustrations), bringing a talented voice to the Anglophone world, one that reflects on matters most people gloss over:

I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.

I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.

I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.

I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”


#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 10
Welcome to the last of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews🙂

Having already visited Japan at the start of the month, and having looked at children’s literature earlier this week, I suppose it’s time to look at some poetry.  Unfortunately, that’s not exactly my strong point…  From memory, the only previous work of poetry by a woman to appear on the blog was also from Japan, Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary (which was very pink, but not really for me!).

Luckily, though, I know where you can find some much more reliable sources.  The Best Translated Book Award has been running since 2008, but you may be unaware that there are two awards, one for fiction and one for poetry, and in recent years, female poets have been doing very well.  With Elisa Biagini’s The Guest in the Wood in 2014, Rocío Cerón’s Diorama in 2015 and Angélica Freitas’ Rilke Shake in 2016, that’s three wins in a row for women 🙂

If you have a look at this year’s shortlist, the predominance of female poets is even more startling – of the six shortlisted collections, all but one were by women.  In addition to the winner, there was a best-of collection from Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo, two books by Chinese poets (Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs and Yi Lu’s Sea Summit), and, perhaps the most intriguing contribution, a collection entitled Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan.

While I may not be up to speed with poetry, the people over at Three Percent obviously are, so you could do worse than browse through all the previous longlisted books, either at the site or on the Wikipedia page – and buy some, of course 😉

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