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Photo: Guenter Schneider/Kaoru Akagawa
An artist rediscovers kana script, used in medieval Japan by women for secret communications. “I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA,” Kaoru Akagawa says.

In childhood, I loved the idea of secret languages, mainly for hiding thoughts from grownups, I believe. I never learned Pig Latin, but when I was about 10, my friends and I spoke almost nothing but Goose Latin, which involved throwing a lot of f’s into words.

In medieval Japan, women developed a secret script to hide their thoughts from other authority figures — men. Today the artist Kaoru Akagawa, among others, is giving the mostly forgotten kana calligraphy new life.

Elizabeth Dearnley writes at the Guardian, “Anyone who has ever fired off a text in haste will sympathise with the first point on 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s list of ‘infuriating things’: ‘Thinking of one or two changes in the wording after you’ve sent off a reply to someone’s message.’

“This list, her messages, and her Pillow Book in which they’re recorded – a sparklingly acerbic, blog-style frolic through the lives of Heian-era aristocrats – were written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life.

“Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji – characters modelled on written Chinese which represent individual words – and began using kana, which transcribe words phonetically. A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.

“ ‘Reading my grandmother’s letters was always difficult for me as a teenage girl,’ recalls Akagawa. ‘Her handwriting looked like scribbling, and I used to ask her to write properly.’ But years later, during Akagawa’s calligraphy training, she had a revelation while taking a journey along Himekaido, a historic trading route favoured by women travellers. Reading documents written in kana housed in castles and temples, Akagawa says: ‘I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA.’ Far from being scribbles, she realised, her grandmother had been writing to her using the same script.

“Akagawa uses the forgotten kana in a style of calligraphy called kana shodo, and also fuses traditional calligraphy with new techniques in a style she’s named kana art, where thousands of minutely painted kana form larger images and paper sculptures

“ ‘When people talk about Japanese calligraphy, they normally mean kanji shodo,’ Akagawa explains, ‘a style imported from China, practiced by samurais and monks.’ Kana shodo uses a script which was known by the 10th century as onnade, or ‘woman hand’, she continues, which became ‘the backbone of a female-dominated literary culture’.

“Sei Shōnagon’s contemporary Murasaki Shikibu wrote her masterpiece The Tale of Genji – often called the world’s first novel – using kana, which were often associated with private and emotional life. Men who wanted to reply to love letters sent by noblewomen used kana themselves to reply. And the tradition lasted for hundreds of years; the 19th-century novelist Ichiyō Higuchi used kana script for her sympathetic portrait of the life of a geisha, Nigorie (Troubled Waters).

“Japan’s government standardised writing in 1900, establishing the system of kanji, hiragana and katakana characters used side-by-side in modern written Japanese. … By the second world war, knowledge of the older kana had almost vanished. One of the last generation to use the script in daily life was Akagawa’s grandmother, born in 1921: ‘When I told her I was learning kana shodo, she was very pleased.’ …

“Whether writing Japanese classics, love letters or embroidered messages, women have circumvented official communication channels in creative ways throughout history. As Akagawa remarks, such handwritten texts frequently feel very personal: ‘I’m always surprised how such a simple action as handwriting can affect audiences’ emotions so deeply.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Kirk Crippens/ Insight Garden Program
Today’s post is about an illicit prison garden, but a 2014 story at NPR, here, suggests that approved gardens are finding favor with corrections officials. The photo is from San Quentin.

This story from the Marshall Project on twitter is about a secret garden behind prison walls — and what it meant to the gardeners.

Matthew Hahn, an ex-offender, wrote the article in collaboration with the online magazine Vice.

“I used to be a vegetable smuggler. It’s not how I got to prison, but it’s what I did once I was there.

“I wasn’t alone. The men with whom I worked in the garden on ‘China Hill’ at California’s Folsom Prison were there with me, every day, waiting in line to get back into the prison building and hoping the guards wouldn’t discover the vegetable contraband they had secreted away in their clothing.

“In my left boot, slightly smashed and carefully wrapped in a sandwich bag, was a single jalapeno pepper. In my right, bundled tightly and also wrapped, were a couple dozen shoots of green onions. …

“Officially, we were landscapers. There were about 20 of us, and we had been assigned to the landscaping crew atop the grassy knoll within the prison’s walls known as China Hill, spending our weekdays in what felt to us prisoners like the wilderness. …

“We had a hill, and a job on it, and a single guard, also our supervisor, who expected us to work only a couple of hours per day, after which he permitted us to while away the rest of our time as we saw fit.

“We weren’t actually allowed to garden, but that didn’t stop us from doing it. The unspoken agreement between the guard and us men was that we would keep China Hill from becoming an overgrown jungle, and in return he would pretend he didn’t see any of our vegetables growing there. It was motivation to keep us working.

“The vegetables we grew were the kinds that never would have made their way into the chow hall: We had squash, peas, chili peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, green onions, tomatoes.

“China Hill was divided into sectors, just like the prison yard. Black guys had the land in one spot, the Southsiders (a Mexican gang) in another, the White Boys near the Southsiders and the “Others” near the Blacks. Despite the determined segregation, it was peaceful. If the Southsiders wanted to eat some peppers with their burritos, they could trade a watermelon to the Others. …

“There was another aspect of working on China Hill that wasn’t usually shared with the men on the yard, but which made it one of the best jobs in Folsom: It offered the potential, at least, for solitude. The lack of noise — that was the feeling of belonging to the Earth again, and having a small part of it belong to me, and to us. …

“We were never able to smuggle in enough vegetables for entire meals — just morsels, just momentary freshness in our stale world. But we smuggled in memories when we smuggled in those tastes: memories of freedom.” More here.

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May-Day-basket

Happy May Day, Everyone.

Not to take anything away from other things that get celebrated on May 1, but it’s in the ancient rituals of girls dancing ribbons around poles and secretly leaving  baskets of flowers on doorsteps that the deep magic lies.

May-Day-flowers

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