Q&A: Gergana Ivanova on Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic

Ivanova elucidates the complex reception of [The Pillow Book] as an ongoing dialogue between the irretrievable past and the dynamic present. I cannot think of a better match between a scholar and her subject. It is a dazzling accomplishment.

~Paul Schalow, Rutgers University

August is Women in Translation Month, and we’re celebrating by highlighting recent and backlist translations authored by women. This week we are focusing on works from Heian-era Japan, including The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, a lady of the court who served the Empress Teishi around the year 1000. Written at the height of Heian culture, The Pillow Book offers an intimate look at life in the Imperial Court. Today, Japanese literature scholar Gergana Ivanova discusses with us the legacy of the Sei Shōnagon’s classic work and her new book, Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic.

Remember to enter our drawing for your chance to win a copy of this week’s featured titles!

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Jake Purcell: Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions about your recent book, Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic. First, what brought you to Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book?

Gergana Ivanova: Thank you for this opportunity! I first read The Pillow Book in a Bulgarian translation by Tzvetana Kristeva as an undergraduate student and was instantly drawn to it because I was amazed that a literary work written about a thousand years ago could be so accessible and resonate with readers in the late twentieth century. Later, in an article about The Pillow Book (Mark Morris, “Sei Shōnagon’s Poetic Catalogues,” 1980) I learned about the large number of textual variants of the work, particularly the textual lines into which modern scholars had classified the extant manuscripts of The Pillow Book, and how each differed significantly from the other. Reading this article further piqued my curiosity to find out specifically how other versions of The Pillow Book differed from the text I had read.

Finally, at this point, I had too many questions that existing scholarship did not answer, so I decided to find the answers myself.

During my time as a graduate student, this question would dominate my interests as I began to deepen my knowledge about Sei Shōnagon’s writing and The Pillow Book’s complicated textual history. I wondered why all these versions of the text—from the extant handwritten manuscripts to early modern printed editions to the most recent manga adaptations—were titled The Pillow Book despite the tremendous differences among them. This question of course led to more questions about why readers recognized all these different versions as a singular work known simply as “The Pillow Book,” where the identity of a literary work lies, and what a literary work in general is. Additionally, I began to wonder how each version of The Pillow Book changed over the centuries to suit new contexts and new audiences and how these changes impacted readers’ views and their relationship with the eleventh-century writing. Finally, at this point, I had too many questions that existing scholarship did not answer, so I decided to find the answers myself.

JP: Did you feel drawn to a previous version or interpretation of the book? If so, what was it about that version or adaptation that fascinated you?

GI: Yes, there is an illustrated adaptation of The Pillow Book titled Picture Book Mount Asahi (Ehon Asahiyama, 1741) that drew me into exploring how The Pillow Book was disseminated and read in the Edo period (1603–1867) when commercial publishing made classical texts available to large audiences for the first time. Unfortunately, there was very little information about Asahiyama and almost no scholarship on it. I spent a lot of time tracing the history of this eighteenth-century text. I needed to figure out what parts of The Pillow Book had been included and had been left out. I also examined how the images were related to the text and how they contributed to new interpretations of Sei Shōnagon’s work.

It also serves as a vivid example of how a literary text can be repackaged in diverse ways to offer different views to various audiences in the same setting,…

Then I learned more about the artist Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1750) and the publisher and found out that the two had collaborated to produce many works targeted at women readers. Adding this discovery to my analysis of the text and images of Asahiyama helped me conclude that the work was intended for women’s education. I kept going back to this same work as I was moving on with my project because I also found out that Asahiyama had influenced the production of an erotic parody a few years later and that excerpts from Asahiyama were included in a larger book for women that highlighted women’s erudition yet a few years later. Asahiyama had “replaced”—to use Michael Emmerich’s term—The Pillow Book and had come to represent it for early modern readers. It also serves as a vivid example of how a literary text can be repackaged in diverse ways to offer different views to various audiences in the same setting, ranging in this case from a digest of The Pillow Book describing women’s work and pastimes, to an erotic parody that provides insight into the intimate aspects of male-female relations, to an educational text that presents women’s literary erudition as an essential aspect of the ideal of womanhood in male-centered society. Asahiyama is also dear to me because of the small victories I felt I had achieved every time I came upon new information or made a discovery about how the work had been produced and how it had reached diverse readerships, which continued to invigorate, encourage, and inspire me to research the history of such a dynamic literary work.

JP: Were there any particularly surprising ways that the earlier reception of The Pillow Book shaped the way it’s read or taught now?

GI: As I was combing through primary and secondary sources, I came to realize how early scholars sometimes made unfounded arguments about the text, and how later scholars continued to build on these earlier arguments without questioning them. This discovery is exactly what made me so excited and enthusiastic about my project. The Pillow Book is usually described as a miscellany (zuihitsu) of approximately three hundred disconnected lists, diary-like entries, and essay-type passages that reveal the refinement of the Heian (794–1185) imperial court and the strong character of its female author. Most interpretations of the text and representations of its author emerged centuries after The Pillow Book was completed, specifically in the years between the seventeenth century and the early twentieth and none of them are based on engagements with the manuscript written in Sei’s hand

…The Pillow Book was completed, specifically in the years between the seventeenth century and the early twentieth and none of them are based on engagements with the manuscript written in Sei’s hand.

In my book, I examine and trace how various aspects of our current understanding of The Pillow Book emerged over the centuries revealing their carefully constructed nature based on the particular time period, the political or social context, and the targeted audience. Examining the contexts in which these perceptions or rather misconceptions emerged helped me realize The Pillow Book had been marginalized within the Japanese literary canon precisely because literary scholars in the past had used problematic approaches to examine, understand, and describe this work and its author. For example, the label zuihitsu was first applied to the work by a literary historian Ban Kōkei (1733–1806) and soon came to be viewed as the work’s natural generic category. Unfortunately, Kōkei did not provide a definition, or logical justification for his classification of The Pillow Book as a mere zuihitsu, thereby singling the work out as different from other Heian period writings he classified as court romances (monogatari) and diaries (nikki). However, because of this genre attribution in the subsequent centuries The Pillow Book was often presented as a collection of random and sporadic jottings and as such was considered a lesser work among other classical texts.

JP: Students are often a little disgruntled to learn about manuscript traditions and how much distance there can be between an author’s setting down of a text, the first surviving manuscripts of it, and the version of a text that’s in front of them. How close to Sei Shōnagon’s writing can we get? 

GI: I wish we had answers to all these questions such as what exactly Sei Shōnagon wrote, when she completed the work, who read it, what happened to the manuscript(s) she brushed, and which of the extant manuscripts is the closest to the one written in Sei’s own hand. Unfortunately, these questions will always remain unanswered because there are no extant primary sources that offer information about them.

The current understanding of the textual history of the work is based on the surviving manuscripts and early-modern printed books, but we don’t know what else existed and was eventually lost or destroyed. Additionally, various versions of the text were considered authoritative at different times mainly because they were copies produced or annotated by influential scholars. Thus, it is not productive to search for the text closest to what Sei actually wrote and ask what it meant to its limited initial audience, but rather to think about how and why the work has been read over the centuries and how later readers of differing genders, classes, and literacy levels interpreted it at various times. Also, instead of focusing on one rewriting of The Pillow Book it is much more productive to see how multiple versions have influenced each other and have shaped various discourses regarding expectations of womanhood and erotic sexual practices to ideals of Japanese identity and nationalism.

…it is much more productive to see how multiple versions have influenced each other and have shaped various discourses regarding expectations of womanhood and erotic sexual practices to ideals of Japanese identity and nationalism.

Considering the work’s multiplicity helps us realize how readings are shaped in specific contexts for certain audiences and equips us with the knowledge necessary to dismantle taken-for-granted truths. For example, manga adaptations of The Pillow Book always depict Sei as an erudite and career-driven woman who is also a divorcee. I understood how this image of Sei had been influenced by modern scholarship of the eleventh century text and current trends in Japanese society only after having examined adaptations of the work in the previous centuries. Specifically, in the Edo period, Sei was presented as an ideal woman worthy of emulation due to the quick wittedness and learnedness she demonstrated during her service in the imperial court. This depiction encouraged Japanese women to cultivate these same qualities to help increase their desirability on the marriage market. In the early twentieth century, however, for exactly the same reasons, Sei was vilified and criticized for being aggressive, self-centered, and boastful, and thus lacking in feminine appeal because she competed with and challenged men.

JP: Do you have a preferred translation of The Pillow Book that you use? Where would you put it within the broader Pillow Book history?

GI: There are a few translations I use depending on my purpose. As for translations into English, the up-to-date language of Meredith McKinney’s translation (2006) and the fact that it is based on the manuscript line currently considered as authoritative (the Sankanbon) makes it very useful in the classroom. When writing about Edo-period materials, I cite from Ivan Morris’s translation (1967) because it is based primarily on the Nōinbon manuscript line, which was widely disseminated in early modern Japan, and as such it contains all the passages included in adaptations of the work that emerged then.

In terms of modern Japanese translation, I particularly like Hashimoto Osamu’s “The Pillow Book: Translated into Peach Hip Girls’ Language (Momojiri goyaku Makura no sōshi, 1998). It includes a rendition of the complete Sankanbon text of The Pillow Book into current girls’ slang, followed by a research-informed explanation of various aspects of Heian political life and culture that are presented in an engaging way. The accompanying commentary frequently draws parallels between present-day society and Japan of a thousand years ago to make the work relatable and thus accessible to young readers—those who are preparing for university entrance exams and those who deem classical literature unworthy of reading in the late twentieth century. This translation combines the merits of both scholarly and popular editions and offers a new approach to understanding and appreciating writings from the past. Hashimoto’s approach has greatly inspired not only my work on The Pillow Book, but also my teaching by showing me how to bring the topic of my courses on premodern Japan closer to my students living in twenty-first century American Midwest.


Complete your Pillow Book collection by taking advantage of our WITMonth sale! Save 30% on your copies of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic.website for the complete list when you used coupon code WIT2019 at checkout!

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