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Showing Revision 1 created 09/26/2016 by Ebony Adams.

  1. If you've ever fallen in love with a novel
  2. you know the moment:
  3. you look at the clock,
  4. it's one in the morning,
  5. and you still can't put the book down.
  6. You've been pulled into a world
  7. conjured from someone else's imagination,
  8. where the thoughts and feelings
  9. of the people on the pages
  10. are as real as your own.
  11. It's hard to imagine a time
  12. before novels as we know them existed --
  13. but there was, in fact, a first novel.
  14. And if we want to understand
  15. how it came into being,
  16. we have to look
  17. more than 1000 years into the past,
  18. at the writing desk of one woman.
  19. Her name was Murasaki Shikibu,
  20. or at least,
  21. that's the only name we can give her now.
  22. Born into an aristocratic Japanese family
  23. sometime in the 970s,
  24. she lived in at time when the name of women
  25. were rarely recorded.
  26. Instead, well-born women like Murasaki
  27. were given nicknames:
  28. usually related to the rank or position
  29. of a close male relative.
  30. She lived in an intensely-cloistered world
  31. where women were constantly shielded
  32. from public view by screens or curtains.
  33. Sometimes, it was easier to identify
  34. an aristocratic woman by the distinctive pattern
  35. of a protruding sleeve than by her face.
  36. Despite the often suffocating limitations
  37. on their lives,
  38. women like Murasaki were educated
  39. and expected to be highly literate.
  40. The granddaughter of a famous poet
  41. and the daughter of a scholar,
  42. Murasaki became conversant in Japanese
  43. and Chinese literature so quickly,
  44. she was considered something of a literary prodigy.
  45. In her diary, Murasaki recorded
  46. her father's reactions when he realized
  47. exactly how talented she was.
  48. He said,
  49. "Just my luck.
  50. What a pity she was not born a man."
  51. In her early twenties, she married a man
  52. old enough to be her father,
  53. who died only two years later,
  54. but not before they had a daughter.
  55. Instead of marrying again,
  56. the gifted young widow and mother
  57. began working on The Tale of Genji,
  58. an intricate saga of romance and intrigue,
  59. in the life of an imperial Prince.
  60. The Tale of Genji is often considered
  61. the first modern novel,
  62. because Murasaki offered readers
  63. not just a chronicle of events,
  64. but deep psychological insight into the characters
  65. and their inner lives.
  66. Her story made history because it was more
  67. than just a story:
  68. it was a complex literary portrait
  69. of what it means to be human.
  70. Although the hero of The Tale of Genji
  71. is a man named "Prince Genji,"
  72. Shikibu filled her novel with multifaceted
  73. female characters who provided a rare glimpse
  74. into how it felt to be a woman in her world.
  75. As Virginia Woolf later wrote,
  76. when Murasaki set out to illuminate
  77. the complicated life of the prince,
  78. she naturally chose the medium
  79. of other women's minds.
  80. The Tale of Genji earned Murasaki
  81. a permanent place in literary history.
  82. It may also have helped her secure a position
  83. at the imperial court,
  84. where she became an attendant and occasional
  85. tutor to the Empress Shoshi.
  86. Murasaki became quite close with the Empress,
  87. and even secretly taught her Chinese:
  88. a language only men were supposed to learn.
  89. Although it was a comfortable life,
  90. Murasaki was often lonely,
  91. and her literary fame made her the target
  92. of court gossips, who called her
  93. pretentious, arrogant, and unfriendly --
  94. complaints often heard about successful women
  95. even today.
  96. No one is sure exactly when Murasaki died,
  97. but the legacy she left behind
  98. changed Japanese literature forever,
  99. and left a mark on the broader world of fiction
  100. that can never be erased.
  101. Throughout history, great novels
  102. have traditionally been considered the domain
  103. of male writers,
  104. while tales of romance,
  105. especially those written by women,
  106. are often dismissed as frivolous or inferior.
  107. But history itself tells a very different story.
  108. Not only was the first novel a romance,
  109. but it was one of the greatest literary masterpieces
  110. in human history --
  111. and it was written by a woman.
  112. Because she dared to imagine the world
  113. in ways that no one had before,
  114. we can still hear her voice echoing through time
  115. more than a thousand years later,
  116. daring us to imagine worlds of our own.