Let's Back to Book Festivals

I passed my qualifying exams!

What an odd process the whole thing was. Days of answering written questions, followed by a tense three hour interview. Each of my committee members was very different, and it was surreal for all of us to pack into a tiny, bland little classroom to determine my fate in the program. I am glad I do not have to do it again.

I saw a squirrel carrying an easter egg, pausing to nibble at whatever candy was inside. I too sometimes feel like this.

I saw a squirrel carrying an easter egg, pausing to nibble at whatever candy was inside. I too sometimes feel like this.

2019 has been strange. Because of my exams, I only went to one day of the LA Times Festival of Books. Making things even stranger, because YALLWEST has been moved to mid-May, I will not be attending this year, as I will be on the East Coast. So, there will be no reunions, no panels, and no wondering about the future of my writing as I eat grilled cheese from a truck.

But there were a few nice things at the Festival of Books. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau showed up in force with their excellent carnival game, where participants try and guide a metal loop around a winding wire without touching the wire. I won chopsticks this year.

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The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in Culver City, had their debut at the Festival and decked out their tent like an old school carnival. One of their tables was a stack of lovingly wrapped books, the covers hidden, and the contents summarized in a post-it on the cover. Blind dates with books. They brought their famous one-eyed dog for photos, as well as a wheel for prizes. I bought one of the tote bags. I bought it because it was cute, but after a week of lugging books back and forth from the university, I can review this tote bag and give it five stars. 10/10. Would purchase again.

The tote in question.

The tote in question.

A young patron selects a bookmark design at the International Printing Museum’s booth.

A young patron selects a bookmark design at the International Printing Museum’s booth.

Another standout was the International Printing Museum, which brought a pair of 19th century home printing presses, which they demonstrated. Festival-goers waited in line for their own freshly printed bookmarks. As someone who has crudely attempted print-making, the bookmarks were lovely, and it makes me want to go to Torrance to visit their museum.

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I drifted through some outdoor YA panels, not because of disinterest, but because when the conversation turns to the market and writing, you have a tendency to hear the same things over and over. And, the sky was very blue and there were so many other things to do.

With the day at the festival over, I joined a friend for Korean bbq, and we drank cold beers and grilled an absurd quantity of meat. Devoured many little plates of banchan. It feels like summer is just around the corner.

Let's Easter

Wow! I cannot believe that I am almost done with my dreaded qualifying exams. Tomorrow is my orals, which means I will sit in a room with a handful of professors and they will determine whether I pass or fail. Whether I continue in the program, or not.

The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least. I’ve woken up and read and taken notes until I can’t any more. Gone are my mornings writing, and in the evenings when I get home, I’m too tired to do much besides make dinner and brainlessly watch Netflix, like a hunchbacked zombie bent over my bowl of spaghetti.

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There are a few things that have pulled me from this state. A few weeks ago I got to visit Joshua Tree while the dessert flowers were blooming. We holed up in a little cabin down a long, dirt road that intersected with other long, dirt roads with celestial names like moonbeam or stars. Dried out shrubs and little homes dotted the rolling landscape all the way to the mountains. When night fell, celestial bodies came out in full glory, the stars as bright as clear as strings of beads. I managed to build a fire in the pit outside the house, terribly pleased with myself. (Now, I realize that it was probably the desert air that did most of the work for me.)

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Nineteenth century explorer John Frémont called the Joshua Trees “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom,” which makes me laugh a bit because they are not especially graceful. Joshua Trees look like they were a fringy tangle of arms designed by Dr. Seuss. I don’t find them repulsive, but a bit strange. I’m glad we have the park, which was designated so in the mid-nineties, but the true rescue and preservation work was performed by Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a woman so moved by the desert that she shipped plants and trees as far as New York and London to help people understand the beauty here.

Driving through Joshua Tree National Park revealed pockets of trees and yucca, cacti, and flowers in bloom. We made our way to the cholla cactus forest in the center of the park, where I was surprised to see dead, dried out branches on the ground that revealed the cactus branches to be spotted with even holes and hollow, like sponges. Despite being so different, there are many plants in the desert that remind me of ocean flora.

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I made a little time to write too, at the picnic table. I’m still stuck, or at least reluctantly making my way through a romantic scene. Enkō and Ayame are on their date (still), but since the last blog post here they have stepped off the bridge together beneath the blooming cherry trees.

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One of my favorite charms in my collection is an eggplant with a golden frog inside when you unscrew the top of the eggplant. It’s meant to be a pun. Eggplant is pronounced nasu, which can also mean to eliminate, in this case to eliminate bad luck. The frog is a pun on “to return” and his golden color refers to wealth and good fortune. Eggplants are not in season, but there seemed something oddly fitting about this nesting charm for this post, for right now. I’ll take it with me to my exams tomorrow.

The second break in the exam preparation came today, on Easter. Last night I stay up until midnight making croissants, because I could, and I was rewarded with hot, buttery pastry that shattered when I bit into it. I then washed my hands and went to sleep, to wake and go to church, to the farmer’s market and lunch. I had a table-full of chocolate and vegetables for lunch. One of the chocolate eggs when broken had a white chocolate chick inside, and it made me think of all the ways this season is about nesting. Both the nesting of birds and their eggs, and the nesting of meaning and finding unexpected things.

Let's spring... into action

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by  Ling Luo .

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by Ling Luo.

This past week a group of Japanese tea ceremony practitioners visited my university, and we got to watch a demonstration. They brought tea bowls with them from Osaka, decorated with cherry blossoms. The flowers have been blooming in some parts of Japan—and in Los Angeles too.

So, when I was going to open this blog post, I went through my omamori collection to see about a charm with a cherry blossom motif. There were a few pink ones, but to my surprise, there was only one charm with a sakura design… and it is the first one I ever purchased. I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was my first time in Japan. I could read and write the alphabets, a smattering of kanji, but I could barely string a spoken sentence together.

We visited Kiyomizudera, a big temple complex in Kyoto famous for its healing waters and view overlooking the city from the eastern mountains. I bought the charm by myself and attached it to my belt loop, because I had no bag. In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was thinking. I jangled when I walked, and my companions joked that they’d always be able to find me, like a lost cat. I did get lost on that trip, in a lot of ways. But, I’ve still found my way back. Something must have worked.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

So, in the spirit of the cherry blossom theme, I went into my photos and discovered that I did not have many cherry blossom pictures either. But I did see a couple taken in Nagoya, with the reconstructed castle in the background, during an illumination, which is when a site puts up lights and lanterns and permits guests after dark.

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Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

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In Southern California, it has rained more than usual. As a result, in the past couple weeks, the California poppies have been blooming at spots in the mountains. Last week, an entire small town had to shut down the highways because so many people were coming in and overwhelming everything.

I woke up early this morning and a friend and I drove a few hours north of Los Angeles to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a state park known for the flowers. It was as if someone had split orange highlighter ink on the hills. There were little brown butterflies who were not interested in the poppies; stubby yellow flowers and purple blossoms. The mountains, ordinarily brown and dry, had turned a warm green. Spring has come to Southern California, marked by the native poppies with that silky glimmer to their orange petals.

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As I walked the trails, I thought about how difficult it was to describe what I was seeing. Was it orange highlighter ink splattered? Split? If I called the petals “silky” to explain that gleaming line where the sunlight hits the curve of the petal, would anyone understand that? Or would they assume “silky” referred to touch? So, I had to add “glimmer,” but that’s not quite right either. English is difficult. It also contains gaps of darkness, where words ought to be.

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Speaking of gaps of darkness, writing Kabuki-ish continues in fits and starts. This past week I wrote a romantic scene that has been on the ol’ To Do for weeks. It took three days to write. I had a problem with the scene that was not plot or writing, but primarily a failure of process and my own imagination. I knew that it was a date scene, a romantic scene, like one in a musical where a character comes around and realizes they’re in love. My imagination had supplied a haze. Romance, in my imagination sometimes, is a song. It’s a color. It’s a wordless swell.

This is all to say that I had a bullet point in my Outline that was basically, “Enkô and Ayame go on a date. Ayame realizes he has feelings for Enkô.” Or, something to that effect. To put it even more bluntly, this was lazy planning on my part. This is not, it must be said, the first time I’ve run into this problem.

So, there’s a date scene, and I haven’t done the imaginative work to imagine the specifics. And, dates are all specifics. It’s funny, because romance is a sensation, a haze, but it is built on piles of terribly specific details. So, I sat down to try and think of what those were. It was clear, when I began this process, that I would not be writing this like a normal scene. (I tried to write sentences, got distracted multiple times, and gave up). It’s not giving up. It’s like backing up to realign your car when parking.

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I began to try and get down to the gritty details, the foundation of the scene really. It was springtime. This would be a springtime scene. What is springtime? I listed words. Eventually, the words started spinning out into phrases. One of the considerations I have to make with Kabuki-ish is whether the prose is going to be written in a quasi-rhyming, beat-driven manner. There are a few scenes written in that way. If I like a word, I try to guess a useful word with a parallel sound. Eventually, I decided to not do that mode for the scene, deciding on straight prose style. I could begin to imagine the setting.

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I knew what poem I wanted to adapt. At one point in the scene, Ayame sings while Enkô dances for a small crowd on a bridge. My brain went to one of the opening poems of the Man’yōshū, a romantic poem that would be interesting here. At this point, Ayame thinks Enkô is a boy. Furthermore, at least in the first draft, this scene runs entirely from Ayame’s perspective, which means that Enkô is rocking male pronouns, we don’t see Okuni, and Ayame has a lot to sort through emotionally, even without all this stuff he does not know. One of the themes that this draft in particular has grappled with, is the idea that gender is performed and perceived. There’s a fluidity, yes, but a fluidity from these two categories.

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So, when Ayame sings like a man who rules supreme over his land of theaters and pleasure quarters, there’s something else going on here with gender too. He sings this song, unwittingly, to a woman performing and perceived as a man.

So, over two more days, I took the pieces and strung them like beads into a complete scene. I feel like with these kinds of scenes, it can be hard to see to what degree it works, tonally and emotionally. I had to correct the pronouns on Enkô so many times. I may decide against shifting them in the second draft, but it makes sense the way it is. We’ll see!

My favorite scenes are ones that are miniature novels. They begin with a problem, the problem worsens, and then there is a resolution of some sort for the problem. In this scene, it’s not about the romance. I mean, it is. But it’s about Ayame coming to terms with the nature of his fame, his relationship with his fans and patrons, and the lack of trust he comes to realize he has with them. This trust being shifted to Enkô is the backbone of the scene. Trust, ideally, is the backbone of a great romance.

I mean, obviously there’s a lot he doesn’t know, and that’s a problem for another chapter. But this was a good challenge to work through this week. “A problem for another chapter,” I write. Who knows when this book will be done? Maybe the poppies know.

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Let's Happy New Year

Well, it was the Lunar New Year, last week, I think. It is the year of the Boar, and my boar stumbled in late to the party. Los Angeles had a big parade celebrating the New Year in China Town. It’s been raining for weeks, and the weather is unseasonably cool, but the skies turned blue for the dancing dragons and the big parade. As we walked towards the downtown area, we passed a group in kilts with bagpipes who had just finished their march on the parade route. There were school marching bands, and baton-twirlers, and local politicians riding in cars and waving.

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I have been busy with my qualifying exams reading, which amounts to about six books a week, and I have not had much time for writing or even reading fiction. So, when I see the parade, I think of Confucius, strangely enough, and the significance he places on rites. Rites in the modern world, in America perhaps, are celebrations and mourning, like funerals, and maybe this parade. The cynical academic would call such rites “fraught with meaning”—”fraught” meant to convey a displeasure over gathering over something that is likely imperfect or lacking at some point in time or another. I don’t mean to say that there is a dark past to the parade in Chinatown. Just that when I saw the little children in the karate outfits or the middle-aged man with his bagpipe, I was filled with a sense of happiness that for some accident of the heaven bodies, some accident of history, we were all on this street celebrating together.

Despite being a fairly cynical person, actually, I feel the same way about Valentine’s Day. Married, dating, single, lost in some polyamorous triangle, happily or miserably—to treat oneself or a loved one to a chocolate lava cake, a card, a glass of wine, or a tableful of waffles, those are things worth doing. It is nice to have reasons to celebrate, even if they are merely “societal constructions” (what isn’t?) or a “corporate holiday” (so, what?).

To celebrate is to enjoy life, enjoy a moment with someone else. It is nice to have a reason to. Or, at least to do something peculiar on a certain day, that has its pleasures. I think I realized this and embraced holidays while in Japan when I realized that Mother’s Day was very much a very modern creation but it was embraced with such enthusiasm that I could not help but enjoy it too. I found myself smiling at the red carnations in the shop windows, the “traditional” flower to give on Mother’s Day or even the most rabidly commercial displays because it somehow felt like we were all celebrating something together, even if it were only by walking past carnations.

The old notebook for previous scene reference and the the character list in the new one. I always forget characters’ names. That doesn’t bode well.

The old notebook for previous scene reference and the the character list in the new one. I always forget characters’ names. That doesn’t bode well.

In other news, I am officially on notebook three of Kabuki-ish. It is the novel that will not die, the story that will not shrink. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I have completely given up on any kind of deadline. It is okay, I whispered to myself as I stood in the bookshop, purchasing the new notebook. It is okay.

This morning I woke up and went to the coffee shop and wrote a passage that I suspect will make it into the final draft:

He felt a moment of unease, unsettling familiarity at that particular look of fear. He had seen it on a prostitute confronting her mistress behind the bars of the brothel; Enkō in the burning clearing as she tried to tell him what happened, as if she could; himself, in that room in the castle when he could speak the truth, but found himself trapped against the great, immovable boulder of authority which laid against the mountain so immense and a constant feature of his every living moment that when confronted and told—speak—to speak, he was being told to move that boulder with the knowledge that even if he managed to shift a single pebble beneath it, the boulder would simply roll over and crush him. Umehito knew that look of fear.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the longest sentences I believe I have ever written.

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Meanwhile, I am updating a new page, Curios, on Japanese charms called omamori. I have been promising myself for years that I would photograph my collection and share them online. This little boar is not officially in the collection. A friend of mine found him at a yard sale. He appears to be a bell, but at some point he was broken and lost the jangle inside that makes him jingle and then was glued back together. But, he is still a boar nonetheless!