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Zuihitsu: The Literary Genre In Which The Text Can Drift Like A Cloud


There is nothing like zuihitsu, and its definition slips through our fingers. It is a classical Japanese genre that allows the free movement of genres and styles.

“Who are we, if not a combinatorial of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined. Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way,” wrote Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Following Millennium, as if he were radically describing the classical Japanese genre zuihitsu, which few of those of us on this side of the world know about. A heterogeneous literary style that could be described as a volcano wrapped in a cloud.

Zuihitsu is well known for its first appearance more than a millennium ago in The Pillow Book, (that Peter Greenaway would make famous in his film of the same name). The text was written by Sei Shonagon, a lady of the court of empress Sadako/Teshi and owes its name to the fact that the author made a pillow of the pile of notebooks that she wrote. Zuihitsu can be anything, as long as the author knows how to choose the form that will best fit the content.

Today zuihitsu is taught in some literature classes in the West but its hybrid nature challenges a precise definition, and perhaps for that reason it has escaped writers’ hands and remained a literary concept, albeit a beautiful one.

The Japanese describe the genre as “a running brush” as it does not lie so much in the subjects it deals with but rather in the movement of the wind. The style consists of personal interconnected essays or fragmented ideas that respond to the author’s surroundings; however, these “essays” jump from one to the other by association, as the mind does as it distractedly meditates and memories, abstractions, extracts of other texts, lists, opinions, dreams and poems crop up. It gathers all of the inventory that we are, Calvino would say.

In zuihitsu we feel the writing process and touch the textures of the author’s mind more than the themes or subjects referred to, which is why it is often translated as “miscellany” or “miscellaneous essay;” there is no central point but rather parts that interact with each other. There could be, for example, parts in verse, and which is perhaps the best vehicle for an idea, and parts in prose, whose function is to absorb the sentimentalism in a way that verse cannot. Reading or writing zuihitsu is, in short, to see how the form changes the content.

One of the few Western authors who have ventured into the form is US-born Kimiko Hahn, who wrote The Narrow Road To The Interior. She could be compared to a carpenter of “literary bonfires;” her work is building the house that will best receive an idea and then building bridges between houses to form a heterogeneous neighborhood. Like letting thoughts talk among themselves, but always having control over the form.

Zuihitsu has no rival in Japanese literature and as a result remains popular in the present day, slowly opening a vein in Western literature. Its associative form, alive and intuitive, makes the text a dance in which thoughts can drift like clouds, even within a volcano within.

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