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Exotics and Retrospectives

Exotics and Retrospectives (1898) is among Lafcadio Hearn's earlier works on Japan. It starts off with the author's account of his arduous climb up Japan's Mount Fuji (3,776 meters). Because it's more personal in nature, I preferred it to the dozen or so other essays in the collection, which, in Hearn's oftentimes meandering yet lucid style, cover a heap of subject matter, from Japan's singing insects, frogs, and thoughts on death and Buddhism, to his notions and flights of fancy on such topics as memory, evolution, the nauseating orange-red of sunsets, beauty in sadness, and even azure, the color.

More so than this collection, I've enjoyed Hearn's later works on things Japanese, particularly his telling of ghost stories and a mishmash of other fantastic tales. His passion for writing about insects, which he does in this and later books, is also unique. I find interesting not just the ways he describes or documents these tiny beings but also how he personifies them, sometimes matching their characteristics with elements of Japanese culture as well.

Hearn was born in Greece in 1850 and raised in Ireland, he emigrated at a young age to the U.S. and became a successful writer for newspapers, living in and writing about Cincinnati and New Orleans. Defying a law against interracial marriage, he married an African American woman in his early 20s (1874), later divorced her, then headed to Japan, where he had a family and is well known to this day as Koizumi Yakumo. The Paris Review published an excellent article about Hearn in July of last year, which gives a much broader picture of his life, interests, and achievements.

Also, something I didn't know until recently, Hearn's grave was only a few blocks north of the building where I lived in Bunkyō-ku in the 1990s, and where I first read his work. I took a lot of walks in that area but somehow overlooked Zōshigaya Cemetery, the location of his grave in Minami-Ikebukuro.

Exotics and Retrospectives can be downloaded here free and legally thanks to Project Gutenberg.


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