January 2018 | Nate Pedersen

Big in Japan: 19th-Century Memoir Written by a Female Slave

IncidentsInTheLifeOfASlaveGirl.jpgIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a memoir by Harriet Ann Jacobs about her early life as a slave in North Carolina and subsequent escape to freedom in the North, was first published in Boston in 1861. One hundred and fifty two years later the book was published for the first time in Japanese. It has since gone on to become a "quiet bestseller" in Japan, its success continuing to build each year to a very impressive 25,000 copies sold in its first month in paperback in summer of 2017. (The hardcover, meanwhile, has already made it to its eighth edition).

Jacob's memoir was originally thought to be fiction, but an extensive investigation in 1981 determined it to be autobiographical. Its Japanese translator, Yuki Horikoshi, first downloaded an English version of the book on her iPhone while commuting on a train in 2011. She was quickly enthralled. She later said in an interview with Forbes, "There is definitely an imbalance in Japanese society. There are many girls who live outside of Tokyo who can only see themselves as becoming a school teacher or a nurse, at best. They face adversity. But this is the story of a woman who was born a slave, who fought against all odds, who learned to read and write and eventually won her freedom. I hope that the girls and boys who read this realize that they can do anything they want, become who they want, if they apply themselves. There are people who've faced worse odds. This is a story about triumphing over adversity."

When the Japanese translation of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published, it met with critical acclaim, and popular enthusiasm for the book soon followed.

(Meanwhile, the original 1861 American edition of Incidents is quite scarce on the ground; a quick search online at the usual spots turned up no copies currently for sale).

Image from Wikipedia Commons

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