Call Me Mieko

Mitchell Hagerstrom

Twenty years ago a b&w xerox of the Balthus painting, Japanese Girl with a Black Mirror, kept me company as I began writing what was eventually published as Miss Gone-overseas. With a colored pencil I doctored the woman’s white sash.  I made it red — instead of mimicking the painting’s red cloth on the small table. This morning as I look up from the keyboard, across the room my closet doors are open and I note the line of hanging garments — an entire battalion of white, grey, black, and beige. The only color — two red sweaters, and a red silk kimono someone recently gave me. Some parts of ourselves don’t change.

It’s a common literary envy, that of Melville’s bold opening: “Call me Ishmael.” One cannot expect such an opening gambit from the pillow book of a Japanese woman in the World War II era. My Mieko never introduces herself. In the two most famous “real” pillow books one never learns the names of the narrators in the text, but only in the titles given by the translator and/or the publisher: i.e., The Pillow Book of Sei Shongaon, and in the English translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s with the subtitle, Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. I do admit to considering and discarding Mieko’s Diary as a title.

I am curious as to how readers feel about a narrator who remains nameless. To keep her company I also left nameless two other characters, the governor general and the corporal. My personal library diminishes each year (by choice), but one keeper is Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman, an exquisite little novel with nameless characters: there’s only the woman, the man, and the child.

It wasn’t until the final rewrites that I contrived a way for my narrator to name herself: one brief sentence near the very end when she discards her name to assume another. The name I chose for her is quite similar to my own (the discarded nickname of my youth: Micki). May I borrow a phrase?  Mieko, c’est moi.

May 27, 2013 2:40 pm

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