Book Research, Japan

My research in Japan has been more amorphous than my research in Seattle and Hawaii, where my days were scheduled into tight timelines of meetings and archives appointments.  Which is not to say that my time here is freewheeling by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, my trip to Japan is charted by the geography and trajectory of my book.  My days here are organized by research.

It’s just that the nature of this research is different.  In Japan I visit temples, shrines, Taisho buildings, specific houses and villages that appear in the book, the few remaining pre-war Tokyo neighborhoods.  And even as I make careful notes on architectural detail and landscape and historic references, I understand that my research here also encompasses a more nebulous set of impressions and observations and thoughts.

Here I am tracing a vanished landscape.

One of the great challenges of writing this book set in Japan and Hawaii and a few other places during the second World War, is that so little survives of that landscape.  Places are paved over, torn down, bombed out, rebuilt.  And in some ways this confers both a freedom of imagination and the obligation that comes with it.  We can know these places only through invention, through the access fiction alone can give us to our past.

For the section of the book that’s set in Japan, I am gathering the intangible.  I am looking for a felt sense, an imaginative access point.  For all the small cues and sensations that later become the fuel and spark and sustenance of creative work.

I do not know yet what they will be or how they will enter my work.   Only that they will arrive as I remain present in these places, and that I will trust in the unforeseen ways they might infiltrate and populate my book.  So much of artistic process is this gathering, this blind trust.  Allowing ourselves to float suspended and see what connects.

Sugimotodera

I arrived at Sugimotodera Temple just after four o’clock, after a long afternoon of being lost.  My map was stretched to fit the dimensions of the page on which it was printed, and so northbound streets slanted west, and the map’s roman alphabet transcriptions of road names meant nothing next to the Japanese street signs.  I was actually aiming for Hokokuji (not, as it turns out from subsequent days’ explorations, too far away), but I came upon Sugimotodera first and stopped, transfixed by that light.

I was lucky the monk let me in; it was late in the day for Japanese temples.  Most close around four or four-thirty.  But I’d been walking such an awfully long time by that point, and I suppose it showed.

By the time I arrived, the temple had emptied of anyone who’d visited earlier in the day, and I was here in this space by myself.  Striking, how quiet and bright it was on the hillside after the busy grey streets.  How the air cleansed.  I stayed until the border of my welcome, drinking in this yellow light, these white banners, which in my foreign eyes turn to pattern and shape.  It is so liberating to be freed of text.

The stairs here are cobbled and worn by footsteps.  They slant and waver, tilt into themselves and tumble together.

The wooden temple glows in the afternoon light, the warm boards coppered and golden.  Under dense roof thatching, it stands on its slender stilts, this steady scaffolding.

These Women

As I get ready to leave for Japan, I think a lot about these women.

In the 1970s my mother traveled alone to Japan on her annual leave from Pan Am.  This photo is from shortly after her return: my mother (on the left) and my aunts.  These strong, ambitious, adventurous women who are part of the tapestry of people I love and on whose support I stand.

Bookshopping: Powell’s

Powells

I’ve been going to Powell’s Books for decades; it’s my favorite bookstore.  During my few days in Portland, I went to Powell’s in the afternoons to do a little bookbrowsing and miscellaneous research-trip preparation (and to visit this novel, which arrived home the day I posted about it.)

Powells

One of the things I like about Powell’s is the way it mixes new and used books together on the same shelf.  So you can find all the copies of a book in one place and pick the one — and the pricepoint — that suits you.  There’s a way that this arrangement makes the experience about the books themselves and not about which spending bracket you fall into.

This is echoed even in the featured shelves of award winners and recommendations.  New and used books are mixed together here, as well.  And the Award Winner shelves don’t only promote this year’s winners, but mix in award winning books and writers from all different timeframes.  These books have value and weight and contemporary relevance at Powell’s far after date of publication.  Good books resonate.  In an era of flash news, it feels good to be someplace where we can circle back on an novel, revisit.  Where these books from decades apart are weighted together in the same conversation — alphabetized on the feature shelves so that they stop being temporal and abut each other across time and content.

Powell’s has a whole huge room devoted to its featured shelves and tables — and does a remarkably creative job at recommending books to us.  There is a “Choose Your Adventure” table full of books about people traveling to other places, and a “Knockout Narratives” table of essay collections, where Consider the Lobster and Sloane Crosley’s new collection and Marilynne Robinson all feel at home.

Their recommendations in general are robust and wide-ranging, including both the oft-cited new books receiving critical acclaim and well-written new books that have gotten little attention.  Because in the end there are so many wonderful new books written, and we wind up reading and hearing about so few.  Powell’s allows some of those we’ve missed to resurface.  I find things here that I wouldn’t otherwise, and am grateful for the books I come across when I visit.

Powell’s has multiple branches scattered through Portland and one of the most active, ambitious reading series in the country.  So huge its main location requires a map and several solid days to explore fully, Powell’s is a cornerstone in our national literary culture.

I am fortunate that it has also been a recurring fixture in my life as a reader.  On this visit, I was thinking about how I might write about Powell’s, and I thought about how it’s a place to check in with regularly, to visit and revisit.  It’s a part of the rhythm of my reading.

Even during the years when I’m not able to visit in person, Powell’s is my default for ordering books online.  And in those moments when you aren’t able to buy from a local bookstore, I urge you to do your online buying from Powell’s, too.  Because this bookstore is an integral part of how we think and talk about and read books here in our country, and it’s important that we support it.

Reflective Day in Portland

Reflective Day in Portland

Between stops on this research trip, I planned a few days in Portland, Oregon.  My extended family is from Portland, and I used to visit every few years.  Growing up, I always believed I’d wind up living in Oregon.  Still for me, there is a sense of coming home when I go to the Pacific Northwest.  My body relaxes into belonging.

On this visit, I stayed at my great-aunt and uncle’s house on the hillside.  I love this house — its energy and views and the way it admits daylight.  I wish I reserved the word love for places like this one.

I’ve learned on this research trip how important these few days of reflection can be.  For the most part, my research has been conducted on this trip at a pretty relentless pace.  In between Seattle and Japan, these few days in my great-uncle’s study overlooking the trees gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, to process information and impressions.

It felt right to do so in this space that belonged to my great-aunt and uncle, who had their own connections to both Japan and Seattle.  In the sunlit quiet of their living room, I looked through their 1930s jazz records, poured tea from their Japanese teapot.  It felt good to be connected with them across time through these shared spaces.

Recent Reading: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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I started reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North on this research trip, and I can’t put it down.  I also can’t quite manage to carry a copy of it with me (I’ve got to keep my luggage lithe and light on this trip).  So I’ve been picking up a copy of Flanagan’s novel every time I set foot in a bookstore and reading a dozen pages of it each time.

His writing is so rich and lyrical.  “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” the novel starts.  “Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother.  A wooden church hall.   Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women.  Women who loved him.  Like entering the sea and returning to the beach.  Over and over.”

I’m transfixed by the lyricism and syntax of that opening, and by the sense of this writer’s authority .  The perspective is unexpected in modern fiction: a third that is both intimate and distant.  We occupy a sweep of time.

And there is a sentence like this:

“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.”

Which is so perfectly evocative and so fully rendered it takes my breath away.

Set in Tasmania and then in a Japanese POW camp during the war, the novel feels like apt reading for me at this juncture in my story collection — and my research trip.

I cannot wait to see how Flanagan realizes the rest of this novel, which I have ordered from Powells (where I have been reading it the last few days) and which will be waiting for me when I get back home.

University of Washington

As I’ve been walking through the University of Washington campus this week researching for a story in my collection that’s set, in part, here in Seattle in the 1930s, it’s occurred to me that my father’s father was a student at the University of Washington not much after that.

My father’s father, who died a few years ago, wasn’t one to share much about his past.  But he came to school here at the University of Washington as a newly orphaned teenager.  He played the flute and the piccolo and diligently studied science.  In just a few years his life would take an entirely new arc: he’d join the army, study medicine, go oversees, settle east.

In subject and content the stories in my collection have nothing to do with my family.  Yet the idea for the first story sparked from a letter my mother’s father wrote home from wartime Hawaii.  By coincidence, through the winding intricacies of research, the last story in my collection has led me to Seattle.  Somehow, twelve years and 3,000 miles later, this book that started with the letters of one grandfather has now brought me to the other.

Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!

Fang Lijun Woodblock, Seattle

One of my research stops in Seattle was the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.  I was primarily there to visit some of the older pieces in the collection, but I stopped into the contemporary galleries, too, and was completely captivated by this large-scale woodblock print No. 19 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun.  I really like the linear textiles contrasted against the soft sinuous shadows.  The piece renders its figures with such sensitivity — and on a monumental scale.