The “diva” is a common trope when we talk about culture. We normally think of the diva as a Western construction: the opera singer, the Broadway actress, the movie star. A woman of outstanding talent, whose personality and ability are both larger-than-life.
To commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Chameleon Press will publish a new collection of poetry in which contemporary poets from Asia interpret themes Dante’s opus with a particular focus on Beatrice, the object of Dante’s youthful love, his muse and guide.
One of the most fascinating and mysterious literary phenomena is the process by which one author, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Dante, or in this case, Hafez, comes to loom so high above all their talented and successful contemporaries. Most poetry lovers outside of Iran will not recognize the names of any of Hafez’s rivals and colleagues, and would be surprised to learn that they once enjoyed reputations equal to his.
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Marilyn Chin is one of the most celebrated contemporary Chinese-American poets. Winner of the 2020 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, her collections include A Portrait of the Self as Nation (2018), Hard Love Province (2014), Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002), Dwarf Bamboo (1987) and The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994, 2009) alongside a novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (2009). Also a translator, she has translated poems by the modern Chinese poet Ai Qing and co-translated poems by the Japanese poet Gozo Yoshimasu.
In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.
The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon. Wherever poetry, music and mime have been practised with virtuosity, great women performers always take centre stage. Traditional Asian divas are however less well known and understood among English language readers than the great divas of Mozart and Puccini. Whether from Shiraz at the court of the Injuids, from Delhi during the twilight of the Moghuls, or from Yangzhou under the last Ming emperors, these Asian divas constitute the first identifiably modern women.
In 1415, the English forces under Henry V inflicted a terrible defeat on the French army. After the battle, under a heap of dead soldiers, they found and captured a young man who turned out to be Charles, duc d’Orléans (1394-1465). He was taken to England and placed in honorable captivity, but Henry V ordered that he not be ransomed, so he remained in England until his release in 1440. During his 25 years in England, he learned English and wrote a great deal of well-regarded poetry in that language, and when he finally returned home it was remarked that his English was better than his French.