Lafcadio Hearn, born of an Irish surgeon and a Greek mother, became known later in life as Koizumi Yakumo after marrying in Japan and taking Japanese citizenship to preserve his wife’s inheritance. Hearn or Koizumi was a journalist and an author, and one of the early English writers to introduce Japan to the outside world during the Meiji era. Two recent novels—The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong and Black Dragonfly by Jean Pasley—have centered around his life, but in two very different ways.
In The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong tells Hearn’s story from the perspectives of the three women closest to him throughout his life: his Greek mother, Rose; his first wife, Alethea; and his second wife, Setsu. Woven into these stories are excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland, a young American journalist who traveled around the world in the 1890s as part of a competition with fellow writer Nellie Bly. Bisland published a biography of Hearn in 1906 and Truong uses excerpts of this book in between the sections narrated by Hearn’s mother and his two wives.
Truong’s method of telling a historical story through the eyes of these women gives the tale more depth than would a straightforward narrative of where Hearn lives and works. Hearn was forty when he arrived in Japan in 1890, the same year Bisland set off on her voyage. Hearn had been a newspaper journalist in Cincinnati when he was married to Alethea Foley, a freed slave. The couple had no biological children—she adopted a five year old, but he never formally did—and divorced. Hearn had stints writing in New Orleans and Martinique before setting off to Japan for an assignment that didn’t pan out. He met Setsu when he hired her as a maid.
They married; after the birth of their first of four children, Hearn took on a Japanese name with Japanese citizenship. Truong has Hearn in the third person and only tangentially at that: it’s the women who tell their stories in the first person, addressing other people and not Hearn. This style may seem oblique at first but it comes together at the end.
Despite the focus on the three women, Hearn’s story is clearly delineated. Jean Pasley, however, puts Hearn’s point of view front and center in her new novel, Black Dragonfly. Pasley resides in Dublin, next to one of Hearn’s childhood homes there. She starts almost at the same place as Truong—with Hearn’s mother sending him to Ireland to live with her husband’s family—but brings him to Japan almost immediately.
After an assignment with Harper’s fell through, Hearn found sponsorship to Japan from the president of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company and Steamship Lines. In return for passage and a stipend of $250, Hearn was to “write about the joys of travelling to the East” on one of the Canadian Pacific steamships.
Hearn arrived in Yokohama and spent one of his early days in Japan at the large outdoor Buddha in Kamakura. In Pasley’s words, Hearn noted his initial reactions:
I lay on the ground under a giant cherry tree, luxuriating in the delicate fragrance wafting down from the fragile blossoms that filled the overhanging branches and blotted out the sky. I have never seen such a delicate shade of pink and in such gentle profusion as to have an effect that was truly intoxicating. The experience well deserves its reputation.
Hearn taught English at university, but writing was his passion. When he met Setsuko (as she’s called in this book; Truong mostly leaves out the affectionate -ko suffix), he viewed their marriage as one of convenience; he never planned to stay in Japan longer than a few years. Hearn’s sights were set on Martinique. He didn’t know how Setsuko, and later their first son, Kazuo, would figure into these plans.
Yet as time passed and the couple had more children—two more boys and a girl—Hearn, now Koizumi Yokuma, realized he wanted to stay in the Island of Dragonflies, one the ancient names for Japan that is referenced in the novel’s title.
After a lifetime of wandering, he found what he had lacked in his youth: a stable base and a family to love and support him. In 1904, after fourteen productive years there, he died of heart failure at the age of fifty-four, leaving a legacy of work chronicling every aspect of life in a unique and ancient culture that was rapidly vanishing as the modern world encroached.
Both novels interrogate international cross-cultural relationships, rare then but not so much now. Hearn—popular once again with several new editions of his books recently released—may resonate because he was one of the earliest examples of the western literary expat in Asia who “went native”, immersing himself into local life and culture and finding a new home. A century or so later, Asia’s “Foreign Correspondents Clubs” are full of Lafcadio Hearn’s fellow travelers.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.