Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Marie Mutsuki Mockett graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Past honors for her work include a Pushcart nomination, semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel contest, finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Short Story Competition, and a Rona Jaffe Award nomination. Her essay, "Letter from a Japanese Crematorium," originally published in Agni 65, was cited as notable in the 2008 Best American Essays. Picking Bones from Ash is her debut novel.

A week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Let the Great World Spin, by Collum McCann

I've been a fan of McCann's since reading his beautiful book, Dancer, which traces the life of the great ballet danseur, Rudolf Nureyev. Dancer friends tell me that they too have loved the book and prefer it to some of the more formal biographies of Nureyev which have come out in recent years. And it's not hard to see why; embedded in Dancer are observations about beauty and art. Plus, McCann cares about language; his scenes are musical and moving. Complete art. I'm midway through Let the Great World Spin and will be rooting for its National Book Award win. McCann is also, by all accounts, a good person, who has worked very hard at his art. Add to that the fact that all of McCann's books tackle different subject matter and different locations--he's a true artist, never settling for one world view. And as a writer at the start of her career, this is inspiring to learn and to see.

Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales by Michelle Li

I do my fair share of reading literary novels; it's important to be supportive of your fellow artists. But I also do a lot of nonfiction reading. In particular, I will engage in what I sometimes call my "weird" reading. This year, I've been re-examining Japanese fairy tales in part because I realize just how much they impacted me as a child and subsequently as an adult, but also because I've started to deliver a one hour lecture on the subject. In this talk, I cover everything from animated poop cartoons, to Miyazaki's Spirited Away, to the classic Japanese fairy tale about the "Bamboo Princess." One day, while browsing on Amazon, I came across the title you see above. The product description is as follows: "This book aims to make sense of grotesque representations in setsuwa--animated detached body parts, unusual sexual encounters, demons and shape-shifting or otherwise wondrous animals—and, in a broader sense, to show what this type of critical focus can reveal about the mentality of Japanese people in the ancient, classical, and early medieval periods." I'm always trying to deepen my understanding of Japan--and consequently, find new and creative ways to tell stories. My own novel has demons and ghosts and I find that if I read good scholarly work on the things that are attractive to me-the bizarre and strange-and understand how they fit into the culture, then that will make my own creative work more precise, and more convincing. This book sounded like a fantastic read, and I'm eager to get started.

Eight Million Gods and Demons, by Hiroko Sherwin

Quite possibly the most under-rated, and overlooked novel in the English language that I know. The author, Hiroko Sherwin, was born in Japan, but lives in the UK. Though English is her second language, Sherwin managed to write this stunning novel about pre and post-war Japan. That she wrote in English is an accomplishment in and of itself. But beyond that, her use of language, metaphors and emotion, the unfolding of her characters' lives and their fates, her understanding of those who suffer due to war, are simply breathtaking. That Sherwin's novel has not been shortlisted for any of the major prizes speaks to our tendency to overlook books by women--and minority women in particular--as "quiet," in favor of men. In recent years, it has become common for western writers to try to emulate Japanese writers. I call this kind of book "Beautiful Japan" writing; like a collection of travel pictures, these novels are pretty on the surface, and convince travelers who don't really know or understand the psychology of the culture they are visiting that they might in fact have some insight to what is worthwhile about the place. The most recent example I can think of is Jonathan Bernard Schwartz's The Commoner, which purportedly tells the story of the Crown Princess of Japan, complete with wabi sabi descriptions of beautiful burn victims, and our heroine escaping to freedom in the West. Because, of course, America is the answer to all immigrants everywhere (just as it was for Arthur Golden's grey-eyed geisha). Woe betide the Asian woman who chooses to stay in her homeland! But Sherwin's book is that rare thing; a gorgeous novel about people grappling with intense emotions at a time of war, of social change, of family obligations, of love and of broken hearts. It's absolutely devastating, and if I could convince people to read one novel about Japan, it would be Eight Million Gods and Demons.

The Fairy Tale Tarot, by Lisa Hunt

This might just become my default Christmas gift for 2009. I wrote above that I've been re-examining Japanese fairy tales. I originally picked up a copy of Hunt's card deck/book because it looked like fun. Then I found out that she not only illustrated the deck of cards herself, but that she correlated each card to a fairy tale. The stories she has selected come from Western Europe, from the Balkans, from India, China and beyond. I'm impressed. Not only has she created something incredibly fun, but she seems to have spent considerable time trying to apply some scholarly knowledge to her work. I'm always happy when someone pairs "fun" with "deep." A person could spend a long time playing with this gift.

Tulips, Water, Ash by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

I mentioned above that Collum McCann's use of language impresses me. The very best writing for me is always musical. Of course, ideas are important too, but I love it when someone has a gift and ear for language. Sometimes when I feel I am working too quickly, or not paying enough attention to my environment, I will calm down and read some good poetry. No one takes care with language the way that a poet does. I have to come clean here and say that Lisa is a friend of mine--I met her online when I wrote to tell her how much I admired a poem she had written. Since then, we have become friends, and I was thrilled when she won the Samuel French Morse prize with this, her first collection. The poems range from funny to curious to profound. All pay very close attention to the use of language. All are accessible. And all make me stop and observe my own world with more thought and more care.
Visit Marie Mutsuki Mockett's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue