I mentioned in a previous post, wanting to write about the female characters from Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman. The novel, based off a 9th Century Japanese folk-tale, centers on Kistune, a fox who falls in love with a nobleman, Kaya no Yoshifuji, and uses fox-magic to win his love. And while Kitsune is more than deserving of her own blog post, allow me to introduce Shikujo.
While not the protagonist, Shikujo is one of three first person narrators who brings the folk-tale to a level intimate with the voices of women. Shikujo is Kaya no Yoshifuji’s wife. But she is so much more than a rival or a foil for Kitsune. Through Shikujo’s diary (her “pillow-book”) her loneliness and desire and anger become palpable. We see her as no one else does; we see her behind the screens, behind her floor length hair and behind the pretty poems she writes, playing marriage politics with her husband.
She is the perfect wife and Kaya no Yoshifuji resents her perfection. But she merely plays the role of wife, the way she believes she ought. Gender is a performance and Shikujo wants nothing more than to be perfect and never raise her voice or contradict her husband or reveal that she has emotions to withhold. She wants to be the wife out of Japanese folk-lore.
There’s a beautiful moment, maybe three-quarters into the novel, where Shikujo has left her husband (though not divorced him) and returned to the capital. She enters back into her old life serving the Princess, an old woman who knows she is dying. And from Shikujo’s friendship, the Princess sends her a poem, telling her to live her emotions and embrace her imperfections. The Princess writes:
Where I go now the nights are endless
in keeping with my sadness.
We will not meet again in life.
We will meet again in the Radiant Land. Be brave and be
Be brave and be alive.
I have the quote on my wall now to remind me that perfection (even self-imposed perfection) is another bar in the prison of gender. It is bravery to drop our mask. It is bravery to fall from the pedestal of womanhood. But it is worth it. To do so, means we are human, making mistakes and living through them.
Shikjuo is more than a favorite female character: she is a woman we can all benefit from remembering and living by the advice she receives.