Following the brush
In the past several years, I have often encountered zuihitsu and been delighted by what I’ve found. I latched on to “Zuihitsu for Yushan” in Jennifer Huang’s Return Flight, “Zuihitsu” in Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, “Zuihitsu” by Kien Lam in the Rumpus, and the many beautiful ones in Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, to name a few. I was struck by the seemingly spontaneous juxtaposition of images and ideas, the freedom of the asymmetrical lineation, and the sound of a voice carrying me through and across these leaps.
After reading Kimiko Hahn’s “The Zuihitsu and the Toadstool,” an essay on the genre in a 2021 issue of American Poetry Review, I became curious: How would other poets interpret the genre? What work might it incite or permit with its tradition of hybridity, irregularity, and imperfection? What would it look like for Asian artists to write in a genre that originates from Sei Shōnagon—an aristocrat and a Japanese woman who lived more than a thousand years ago?
With the help and advice of Kimiko, we at The Margins selected twenty-one writers to share work created in the spirit of zuihitsu, many of which were written in just a few weeks during early 2022. We have collected them here, along with some of the writers’ thoughts on the genre, in the 随筆 | Zuihitsu notebook. Satsuki Shibuya then created original art in response to the poets’ pieces, her two paintings like zuihitsu themselves with their lively and elegant brush strokes.
The writers’ interpretations of this elusive genre are full of delights, intimate reflections, and swift changes of subject. Much of the work relies on gesture and fragment and repetition. In her American Poetry Review essay, Kimiko Hahn highlights this crafted imperfection and irregularity within the zuihitsu. In her own three zuihitsu for this portfolio, she uses fragments, asides, varying line lengths, and parentheticals to create a sense of jaggedness, but brings it together with an organizing principle indicated by each zuihitsu’s title. A strong, improvisatory voice carries through each of her pieces, an impulse that seems taken up in Betsy Aoki’s piece, with its assured and humorous speaker, and the voice in Marwa Helal’s “poem for the beings who arrived“ (“i know you know we know when i dip you dip we dip this one / goes out to all the women in the world you see me everywhere i go”). Here and across the portfolio, personality and voice often emerge from stretches of irregular syntax or imperfect logic. “I might be wrong,” writes Hahn in one of her zuihitsu. “But I think I’m correct.”
Many notebook contributors embrace the zuihitsu’s tradition of lists, recreating the pleasure found in abundance and in simultaneously apprehending the difference and similarity between things, like between the “the moon in a lake” and “a flute in a trumpet case” in Jee Leong Koh’s “Things Out of Place.” And for some, like with Rajiv Mohabir’s “Erotic Things,” the form of a list allows a rich, multidimensional inquiry into a topic like eroticism and language. In these pieces, the list offers a form of looking, of observing the variousness and nuance in our daily lives. Even Band-Aids and ketchup, as in Wo Chan’s two zuihitsu, can become a site of wonder.
Other notebook contributors play with the hybridity of the zuihitsu. Both Juliet S. Kono and Gail N. Harada shuttle between poem, research, and narrative in their pieces about different moments of Hawaiʻian history (“Tsunami” and “Orchid Near the Door,” respectively), which seems to gesture at the patchwork texture of memory and the disparate sources we use to recreate the past. And for some contributors, that hybridity and shifting of registers in the zuihitsu breaks open a space to explore queerness, as in Ching-In Chen’s “Queer Poetry: a zuihitsu,” and to refuse containment, as in Vani Natarajan’s “grieving, leaking.” Sasha Stiles takes that hybridity a step further by cowriting her piece, which she dubs a “kind of cybernetic zuihitsu,“ with her AI-powered alter ego, Technelegy. For many, the zuihitsu seems to dissolve boundaries or rules about what or who belongs in a poem.
Throughout the notebook, many writers delve into the diaristic possibilities of the zuihitsu with pieces vividly chronicling a period of time. In “Zuihitsu: Jackson Heights, 2020,” Joseph O. Legaspi conjures fear and entrapment and the search for joy during the pandemic’s early days. A few of the pieces—such as Tina Chang’s “Motivated: A Zuihitsu,” Sokunthary Svay’s “Manchester Chinatown 2022” and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Winter Walks: A Zuihitsu”—were largely written in 2022 and set down, in part, the experience of walking around in public as an Asian woman. Within the space of a zuihitsu, they describe with tenacity and care how it feels to be followed or watched or harassed—what it feels like to survive the notions of others—and also to protect one’s joys and inner life.
This journal-like quality of many pieces, combined with some of the writers’ tendency to juxtapose memories, surfaces in several as a meditation on time itself. Kazim Ali’s 2005 zuihitsu “Train Ride” depicts a trip to Aix-en-Provence, France, but as the ride progresses, swirls with questions about time, completion, and change. Sahar Romani’s “Fourth Decade” drifts between question, research, quote, and aphorism to tenderly attend to age and a changing body. And in Leslie C. Chang’s “Fan, Or a Fan’s Notes,” scraps of childhood experiences are laid down next to each other in a reflection on the circular, repetitive nature of memory. Time becomes embodied in these pieces, not as some number on a clock but as something we feel riding on a train, reminiscing after smelling sandalwood, or pondering the scars on our body.
Across almost all the pieces, writers use the technique of juxtaposition. Tamiko Beyer’s two zuihitsu swerve from question to observation, and Jenny Xie’s “Umbrian Paces” flows from aphorism to description to question. In Sahar Muradi’s “Zuihitsu for the New Diaspora,” different life stages and memories converge through the piece’s leaps. With their startling connections and nonlinear logic, these pieces seem to suggest understanding some of our most slippery concepts—the mind, home, language—is not attained through easy proofs and definitions, but in the layering of phrase and fragment.
Every piece in this portfolio does much more than what I can perceive or describe here, which I hope you will discover and enjoy in reading them. In “Umbrian Paces,” Jenny Xies writes, “To plunge a brush into the ink of your most private voice.” Many of these pieces do feel like listening in on that most private voice of a person—and what a pleasure it is to trace those voices as they are swept across the page.