“We have a saying here: sumeba miyako. It means, wherever you live becomes home.”
The year is 1890. Western influences are flooding into Japan. A nomadic Irishman arrives to record this unique culture before it vanishes.
In this richly imagined novel, late nineteenth century Japan is brought vividly to life. Based on the remarkable experiences of the Irish writer, Lafcadio Hearn, and drawing on his letters, essays and books, Jean Pasley explores not only Hearn’s stark, lonely childhood in Ireland and his scandalous time in America but also how Japan changed him and how he went on to become one of Japan’s most celebrated and cherished writers.
Can a person fall in love with a place?
Can nature change a man’s life?
“Nature here is not the nature of the tropics, which is splendid and savage. No, nature here is domesticated. It loves man and makes itself beautiful for him in a quiet grey and blue way.”
Black Dragonfly is a beautifully imagined novel about Lafcadio Hearn’s life story, but it is also a love story between a man and a foreign country he will eventually call home. Hearn is one of the most popular authors to document Old Japan: its people, culture and nature. In his words he spoke about the tragedy of war, and the beauty of folklore and faith. He meditated on the relationship of language and culture to a community’s lifestyle and values, with no details spared — from the minutiae of Japanese interiors, to the varied implements of its fisherfolk.
“In this world of paper walls and openness nobody seemed ashamed or afraid. Whatever was done, was done more or less in public.”
“In such an atmosphere he found that it was impossible to remain either nervous or impatient, or to be ill-natured, or to conceal anything.”
Lafcadio Hearn served as a strong bridge between Japanese and Western people as far back as the nineteenth century. His works remain popular today especially his collection of Japanese ghost stories such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things; with new editions like Japanese Ghost Stories and many more published in recent years. In her first novel, Jean Pasley takes us to a compelling journey of self-discovery through the eyes of the iconic man.
“This concept of conquering by yielding permeated every aspect of Japanese life.”
“Force was never opposed with force, rather the power of the attack was redirected back at the attacker and even skilled small men overcame strong muscular opponents with ease.”
Pasley weaved a story so immersive that I was absolutely transported to late nineteenth century Japan while reading. Though I must say that as much as I enjoyed exploring Japan’s culture and unique beauty through Hearn’s perspective, for the first half of the book I was quite unsure if I liked Lafcadio Hearn or not. Of course I have heard about his popular works but in reading about him as a person and being privy to his personality and his unfiltered thoughts, it was honestly a bit hard for me to like the man. In the beginning it was almost cringey how Hearn sees Japan. As an Asian myself, my experience has taught me that there is only a thin line between perceived admiration and exoticizing when it comes to foreigners.
Hearn can also be too harsh and abrasive in more than one occasion that it was hard to read about his interactions and decisions. In this aspect Japan definitely played a major role in smoothing out his rough edges. I believe he was reborn a better man when he finally got his Japanese citizenship and chosen the name Koizumi Yakumo for himself. But before that, it was especially tough for me to read about Hearn’s initial thoughts about his wife, or rather his thoughts about what an ideal wife should be. For me it was a bit backward, but it is probably a sign of the times, or a sign of Hearn’s misguided immaturity. And so, I am glad that his wife Koizumi Setsuko proved to be more than a match for him. In fact she was not only his partner, but his savior in so many ways. It then turned out that some of my favorite parts is reading about how his relationship with Setsuko evolved from simply being an arranged marriage to a lifetime partnership where they continue to give and take and learn from each other, and love each other in a gentle way that gives not only security but comfort.
“All his life he had been a creature of circumstance, drifting along in the direction of least resistance, resolving to love nothing yet always loving too much. And when things had fallen apart, he had moved on and the past had taken on the unreal quality of a dream.”
It is truly a remarkable experience, to read about a man’s journey of breaking free from his dark past to fully embrace and immerse himself in his present. Sometimes we fail to recognize paradise when we are right in the middle of it. I could not blame Hearn for taking a bit longer to acknowledge his own. In the end, I did find myself liking the man, more than his body of work or his legacy. I finally saw him as a man living with his own demons, and carrying his own ghosts everywhere he goes. I recognized in him the same vulnerabilities that I have, and the same aversion against humanity I sometimes feel. He was just too sincere with his feelings, and did not have time nor patience for superficiality. The undesirable side of his personality is also a product of his not-so-happy upbringing — always finding himself unwanted and abandoned by people who should be protecting him and loving him unconditionally. As Jean Pasley wrote, he was “The half-Greek gypsy boy with sallow skin and dark eyes… viewed with suspicion in Ireland.” It is always tough to be the odd one out, but it is only after overcoming this inhibition can one start to feel whole. Being different can also mean that we can be the change we need in the world. What helped Hearn overcome his insecurities could be his own self-awareness, in the way he was always meditating and looking into himself in his pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around him.
“But what an idiot I was, a detestable young man. I like to think I have changed, but sometimes ghostly reminders of my despicable old self surface, and I am filled with self-loathing and torturous doubt about my abilities.”
“Thinking about the past sometimes distressed him so much he felt unwell; it was a deep, probing, cruel nausea that brought back the sense of isolation and fear that had prevailed during his early childhood.”
I couldn’t help but feel for Hearn: a man with ideas too progressive he might as well be born in the wrong era, but I am also grateful because only he would have been able to preserve the memories of Old Japan in such an honest and heartfelt way. He is one that recognized the dangers of progress, of too much too soon, and of the evil that is capitalism.
“I blame this hideous industrial age, the reckless consumption of profiteers and the wastefulness of the rich who casually devour what nature has taken centuries to create. The insatiable cannibals of civilization are more cruel than those of savagery, and they require more flesh.”
We witness Hearn’s relationship with his writing, how he is a slave of it, and at the same time how it became the catalyst for his healing process. Pasley noted that “He also felt sure that the moment he felt satisfied, progress would stop.” Was it his writing that healed him, or is it the object of his literary pursuits? Is there even a boundary between the two? Hearn, in all his brilliance was still just a restless soul looking for a place to belong to. I have always loved stories of “found families”, and in Black Dragonfly I have witnessed not just that, but how a lonely man was renewed by finding a country that speaks to his soul. It’s so fulfilling to see the love he gave to the world return to him tenfold, more so after his untimely death.
Hearn’s life is a testament to how people are not defined by race, skin color, gender, or the country where they were born in. Our life and our definition of self is ours to make. In the end he has more than proved the sincerity of his love not only for Japan but also for nature, for humanity, and for literature.
“Literary success of any enduring kind is only achieved by refusing to do what the damned publishers want, by refusing to write what the public wants, and by absolutely refusing to write anything to order.”
“Strange words were compelling and exotic. They whispered and rustled; they wept and raged and rioted… Words did not need to be fully intelligible to move the heart of the reader.”
For most people the things that we don’t understand are the things we often fear the most, and in this way I have decided that Hearn had a special kind of strength, in how he took things as a challenge, and made learning his passion. Donna Tartt once said that beauty is terror, and Hearn’s bravery made it possible for him to face the greatest beauty he had ever met without fear: the unique beauty and grace of Old Japan.
As to why the title is Black Dragonfly, I will not give out any spoilers. Go read the book and live the lovely days of Old Japan. You won’t get a better guide than the one and only Lafcadio Hearn, and we have Jean Pasley to thank for bringing his voice back to life, in between the pages he so well loved.
Big thanks to Balestier Press for gifting me a copy of Black Dragonfly with a request for a review.
About the Author
Jean Pasley writes mostly for film but also for stage and radio. Her screenplays have won numerous awards and include How About You, based on a Maeve Binchy short story. Her most recent screenplay as co-writer, The Bright Side, won The Audience Award at Cork International Film Festival 2020.
She lived in Japan for many years but now lives in Dublin, next door to one of Lafcadio Hearn’s childhood homes. This is her first novel.
Black Dragonfly by Jean Pasley
Paperback, 260 pages
Published April 15th 2021 by Balestier Press
Edition Language: English
Genres: Historical | Japanese | Multicultural | Biographies