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In Session: Reading and Empathy: Textual Analyses of Connection, Community and Critique
1: The Colour of Feelings: Tōma Hiroko’s Poetics of Empathy
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
This paper presents a discussion of two anthologies by the Okinawan poet Tōma Hiroko (b. 1982): A Personal Calendar (Hitori karendā, 2009), and her more recent collection Winding Spaghetti (Pasuta o maku, 2019) that received the 32nd Yamanokuchi Baku Poetry Prize. Tōma’s poetry presents simple, everyday observations in understated language that suggests the poet’s fondness for the world around her. By alluding to Okinawa’s struggles with its wartime memories and an ongoing US military presence, these poems also offer poignant commentaries on the injustices experienced by Okinawans today.
While much contemporary Okinawan prose fiction writes against the region's political reality by foregrounding themes of violence and protest, Tōma’s poetry suggests an alternative response founded on intertextual connections to modern Okinawan poetry and Christian scripture, and multisensory uses of colour and language that produce a poetic synaesthesia (kyōkankaku) in which one might experience the inherent empathy (kyōkan) of her voice. At the same time, Tōma’s use of multilingual interjections create moments that take her readers by surprise and force them to respond to calls that they may not understand.
Following Megan Boler’s suggestion that empathy alone runs the risk of consuming and misidentifying (with) the other, this paper examines how Tōma's strategies implicate both poet and reader in a more meaningful negotiation. By translating selected poems and tracing shared critical themes across them, this paper presents Tōma’s poetry as an appealing and personal body of work that promotes cautious optimism and collective bonds in the fight for social change.