Let's finish... Kabuki-ish!


I finished the draft in a Tokyo Starbucks, after realizing that I could actually finish in that sitting. I had backed up, for a couple weeks in fact, to write a part that occurs earlier in the novel. And, just out of curiosity, I went to check where I had left off in the last chapter. I gave a nod to myself, checked my watch, and just knew that I could finish.

Kabuki-ish has been a journey in a way that my other novels have not. While portions of The Princess and the Fox Demon were written on paper, it was mainly as a coping mechanism when I was stuck or if I was sick of staring at my computer. Serango, as I remember, was basically written hunched over the keyboard in a coffee shop. The books in between were written in the same way.

But I knew that when I had written scenes out and then had to copy them to the computer, they had been sharp. There is nothing like copying to make you realize the boring, the awkward, the unnecessary. I knew that I ought to change my process somehow, and that led to this rather insane process for Kabuki-ish. To be honest, this is the sort of book that deserves something as ridiculous as a handwritten draft, in the Year of Our Lord 2019.

Or, more accurately, 2017-2019.

Kabuki-ish arose from a moment in the shower, when I imagined how much more fun it would be if the genie from Aladdin were a woman. The ultimate wing-woman. She would wear red, be sexy, have more confidence than everyone else in the room, and she would make it her mission to achieve your dreams. She would have dance numbers. In the absence of Robin Williams, having a bombshell lady made the most sense to me. But, that’s me.

The first draft is done.

Writing a book is siege warfare.

Last page, Draft 1.

Last page, Draft 1.

From there, my imagining quickly snowballed to a story about woman who wants to be an actor, and the ghost—your ultimate wing-woman—had to be Izumo no Okuni, the quasi-mythical “inventor” of kabuki. The next time I returned from Japan to the U.S., I was reading through plays and reading about Kabuki, which only fueled the planning of the book and I was able to formally start drafting in the fall of 2017. A few things had become clear during my planning process. This would not be Edo Japan. Although much of the inspiration for the plays and setting was very much from the Edo Period, I wanted to be able to take some liberties with law, particularly concerning fashion and hair, government structure, and inheritance. Fantasy is more my sandbox anyway, and I wanted to be able to freely build the supernatural elements.

I also, well, did not want to follow history, which is a very Kabuki thing to do. Many popular plays, particularly from the Edo Period, created utterly fictional historical plays that drew on famous people and ended in “impossible” ways. It was a manipulation of world-building (sekai), based on audience knowledge, called the turn (shuko). Basically, similar to the film Inglorious Basterds where we have a cast of characters in a historical world we know, World War II, who in a turn end up killing Hitler—instead of more accurately, say, having Hitler commit suicide at the end of the war. Actors and the men who created plays were fast and loose with reality because the line between and fantasy is the best place to subvert expectations and play. First and foremost, Kabuki was a form of entertainment.

In the West, Kabuki is best known for its elaborate costumes, dramatic makeup, and over-the-top gestures, which led to “kabuki” becoming an English word meaning elaborate posturing or showmanship devoid of real content. Of course, there is plenty of content in Kabuki. I think Kabuki has gained this reputation simply because the plays are often in antiquated Japanese and Westerners can’t understand them, but that’s a conversation for another time… But there is something fun about playing with the English word “kabuki” too.

The most Kabuki thing, it seemed to me, was to walk that line between fantasy and nod to reality, and make the impossible possible in the story.

One of the fundamental differences between Edo Kabuki and modern theater, particularly Western theater, is the supremacy of the actor, as opposed to the writer and the script. Famous actors drove audiences into theaters, not necessarily the playwrights, and plays and scenes were fluid, constantly changing things. The early modern plays, to our knowledge, were collaborative. Buoyed by cults of personality and thriving print culture, Kabuki actors were the superstars of their day and they had say over what occurred on stage. Ayame, a famous female roles actor from another theater, and Donguri, who played heroes, were my two stars for Kabuki-ish. Enkō meets both of them when she reaches the city.

A writer-director figure did not get to trump his star actor. What did get to trump star actors was the government. Censorship was alive and well, as was the regulation of actors, and I wanted to tap into that in some way. Perhaps more important than governmental regulation is self-regulation, community regulation, and I touched on that as well.

Like often happens in the plays, Kabuki-ish has several plot-lines that briefly introduce new characters, drop them, move to others, all revolving around a central figure and plot line. In this case, it’s Enkō, the girl who wants to be an actor. This book is about the short time she gets to do the impossible.

It’s not about reality, but the radical power of fantasy.

Kabuki-ish is also, fundamentally, about gender. It is about the performance of gender, but also about the perception of it, and how our very close, personal relationships shape of our visions of ourselves. It’s about how history and community make up gender too. One of the unique opportunities, challenges, in this book was having characters discuss such things in a way that felt real to me for their world.

In the end, empathy, love, and imagination are all intertwined. Through fantasy and imagination, people can achieve an empathy that allows them to change the world. That is to say, when audiences watch something and see a world different from their own, it allows them to imagine a different, more empathetic world where things can be better for those they love. That’s what the book is about.

As often happens, life gets in the way of writing. I had to travel, which messes with getting writing done, and I had to pass my qualifying exams to remain in my doctoral program, both of meant that there were months when I wrote very little. It is slower to write on paper.

By the end of draft, I had four notebooks, three of them filled. At some point, I stopped trying to estimate a word count, but I suspect it is over 120,000 words. That is conservative. I will not know until I have typed up the pages, a process that also forces me to edit and make a second draft.

I hope to update here as I type. I am happy with the book.