Writing the Cycles of Womanhood


Provocative with a generous dash of genius, Hiromi Ito gained prominence in the Japanese literary scene in the 1980s. Among her English readers, Ito is best known for her work, Killing Kanoko, where she, caught in the throes of deep postnatal depression, fantasised about killing her newborn.

This November, she graces our shores at the George Town Literary Festival, which has yet again an impressive line-up of local and international writers and thinkers from over 20 countries.

Unlike Japanese literary luminaries before her, Ito does away with flowery, descriptive language, preferring instead the use of colloquial words and a repetitive style that at once captivates and shocks readers.

Penang Monthly recently caught up with Ito for a chat on why she rejects being pigeonholed as a feminist, and how brutal honesty is her go-to source of inspiration when writing poetry.

Regina Hoo: Briefly, can you describe your writings to those who are unfamiliar with your work?

Hiromi Ito: I write poetry mostly, but I’m not particular about the form. I also write prose, novels and essays about the practical life of a woman, about nature, as well as criticisms and translations – of Buddhist sutras, for example.

If and when I write, I think that everything is poetry. The theme is usually centred on being a woman and of living and dying, but this has changed the older I get.

Your poetry widely explores topics about being a woman, e.g. motherhood, postpartum depression and infanticide. How do you use poetry-writing as means to overcome these challenges?

I have always been interested in poetry, so it was only natural to write about the many cycles of womanhood I’ve lived through.

You were considered one of the foremost woman poet in 1980s Japan, yet you didn’t identify as a feminist poet, but rather as a shamaness.

It is easier to embrace the concept of a shamaness than to act as a feminist because I find it difficult to mingle with people. Besides, at that time, shamanism was almost dead.

How has the shamaness concept influenced you as a woman of letters?

Both my mother and grandmother were not people who read books, but were close to shamanism. Personally, I wanted to do storytelling (or spoken word poetry) in the same vein as shamanic chants, instead of writing literature.

I believe the use of repetition in my poetry performances is a way of producing, harnessing and expanding the energy contained in the poem.

What do you draw inspiration from?

I’m inspired by cartoons, and also by works of translation.

You once said that writing poetry constricted you, yet you’re well-known for it, especially the critically acclaimed Killing Kanoko. Can you elaborate on this?

I forgot when I said this, maybe after I wrote Killing Kanoko? But soon after, I stopped writing poems of this form and began to write prose instead.

What does your daughter think of Killing Kanoko?

We never discussed it, but during her undergraduate days as a music major, she wrote and sang a song inspired by Killing Kanoko for an assignment.

What literary works are you currently working on? Can we expect more English translations of your work?

I’m interested in writing about the immigration situation. As for English translations of my work, my translator Jeffrey Angles has been doing his best, but how busy he is… The German and Norwegian translations of my works have been completed, however.

At present, I’m focused on guiding young poets at Waseda University, where I’ve been teaching for three years now.

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