Talking Points – Why Certain Women are Lost to History
Book launch season. We’re celebrating the publication of a scholarly tome. We’ve got Chinese in white take-out boxes with chopsticks. Outside, the art critic in her wide-brimmed hat works furiously on her cell phone; she is in a panic to find her husband.
Inside, and unaware that he is missing, the ever-cheerful husband zips around, his belly nicely balanced by a large, round, bald head. He carries an umbrella although it isn’t raining. He emanates man-about-town. But he has a paper napkin stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
“When are you having another novel out?” he says. “Is it about Toronto?” I lie that it is and he’s in it.
But to an old friend, a historian I haven’t seen for ages, I admit I have fallen into a research hole. “How lovely,” he says, “what is it?” I tell him Edo Japan and the woodcut print artists. So much to learn about the rulers, the townspeople, the censorship, the food, the fashions. Such difficulty finding records of private lives.
“R.H.” for Research Hole also stands for Rabbit Hole. Remember, Alice got to Wonderland by falling head over heels into a long tunnel that went “down, down, down”, passing shelves stocked with marmalade jars and other enticements and only hit bottom at the glass table with the gold key and the little bottle that said “Drink Me”.
I have been in my R.H. for a while. I have searched the pantry shelves. I know what is filed away, and where it is. If anything is known that I don’t know, I know who knows it. It has been fun but I am unsatisfied. The truth is that my heroine is lost to history. She has disappeared.
This happens. Feminists will tell us it isn’t women themselves who vanish. It is historians who “subvert, silence or interpret” women’s actions to the point where they disappear from their own narratives. If the Historical Record can’t fit a woman into an expectation, it goes dumb on her.
So. In 1853 Katsushika Oei, daughter of Hokusai and well known artist in her own right, fell off the record. At least she fell off the radar. My scholar-guide thought it might even have been because she fell off the wagon. “Or did something else self-destructive,” he said, gently.
I refused to believe it. I know this woman. She wouldn’t. She was in her prime. She had finally come into her own. She was free of family duties. I explain all this to my friend. I just can’t find out what happened to her.
“You’ll just have to make it up then won’t you?” says my friend. “Aren’t you lucky? This is where you leave all of us-“ he gestured to the university campus beyond the windows- “behind.”
He’s right.. Funny how it takes so long to say goodbye to lovely facts. Thank you fiction gods. And thank you, friend. You have just given me the gold key. Now for the little bottle that says “Drink Me”.
On to Wonderland.