Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Stir fried vegetables with subtle flavors

I recently have found some joy in writing fiction again. I'm sure it helps that I've been stressed out with house hunting, deciding whether or not to sell my property, and applying for another job. Whenever I get pulled in too many directions, fiction comes in to remind me to have fun.

I've just been playing with a book called Sister Soul that I have wanted to write for a couple of years. It's inspired by the book I wrote for my nephew a few Christmases ago about him in this fantasy adventure story. The story was too scary for a 7 year old, but his mother and aunt--both big readers--loved the idea. Sister Soul will be about them discovering they have super powers and different aspects of Japanese-American culture, including the interment camps. It will also include an experience from their childhood in which one girl lodged a chopstick into the back of her throat and was paralyzed for several weeks. (In my story, this sets off much of the conflict and magic.)

Here's some very rough first draft material. Since it's for an audience of about 3, I'm hoping to write it in just a couple of drafts:

The rhythms of the taiko drums were building to a climax. On the folding stage, arms and mallets moved in intricate patterns like the inner workings of a clock. Maria watched with a smile as she waited in the shade of a fig tree for her own performance to start. Around her, the sidewalks were packed with people. It was the launch of the Grand Parade in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Nisei Week had begun.

Maria’s hair was pulled up into a bun, and her face had a light coat of makeup: rouge and lipstick—she never liked to put on too much. She wore a kimono that was mostly white, gradually transforming into a rich panel of glistening blue silk just over her right shoulder. Her obi was black and adorned with a simple pattern of red gingko leaves.

Maria had been dancing with the Kikuta Kai dance group for over ten years, ever since she was a young girl. Having been born and raised in Southern California, the dancing was one of the few things that kept her tied to her Japanese culture, something she was always afraid of losing. By now she was one of the more experienced dancers, even though several of the other women were years older than she was. After performances, strangers often came up to tell her on how talented she was. At the same time, Maria always felt like she was never quite good enough. Even at her best, she constantly felt slight errors in her arm movements and the angles of her head. The art demanded so much precision.

“You’re just being too hard on yourself,” her sister, Lynn, would tell her. But there was no denying it. In videos, she always found something to criticize about her performance.

The taiko players finished to thunderous applause. They always delighted the audience. As they prepared to leave the stage, the dance groups stepped into the street, the mingled colors of their various kimono and yukata slowly organizing as the members of each dance group gathered with one another. The sounds of their wooden geta shoes clacked against the asphalt.

“Remind me again, are you Sansei?” another dancer, Asami Tsukamoto, asked. She had approached suddenly from Maria’s left side, startling her a bit. Asami was true Nisei, the youngest daughter of parents who had immigrated to Los Angeles from Hokkaido. She was newly retired and had only recently joined Kikuta Kai.

“Yonsei,” Maria said. “I’m the great-granddaughter of immigrants on both my mother’s and her father’s sides. My father was actually born in Santa Anita.”

“Ah, really?” Asami said with wide eyes as she was struck by the realization of what that meant. Both of them suddenly became aware of their surroundings. A few minutes before the Grand Parade didn’t feel at all like an appropriate time to bring up the internment camps…or what it would have been like to still be living in Japan.

I've also been reading Murakami's "epic" 1Q84. I find myself hungry to read it every morning and evening. It's a strange book because the prose itself doesn't feel very sophisticated, but the story is so intricate and interesting. It's a page turner. I also joined a book club and will soon be reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I know nothing about this book yet. But I like the title and the cover.

What's Peanut eating? Hot dog chunks.


  1. I like it. The prose reminds me of Kawabata, the parts of Kawabata I enjoyed. There's a lot of forward motion. I have never heard of Wolitzer. I'm reading Chekhov again.

    1. Thank you, Mr. B! I didn't think of Kawabata, but as I just reread it with your comment in mind, I can definitely see that. I often wonder about why I like Japanese literature. It must have something to do with style, since the subject matter of different writers varies so much. I think it has something to with the isolation of detail or something. I'm sure it helps that I'm fairly ignorant about the real culture.

      Murakami's book references Chekhov quite a bit, especially his book Sakhalin Island. The book also really focuses on Janacek's "Sinfonietta." I plan to listen to it soon.

    2. Oh, I just realized I'm familiar with "Sinfonietta"!

    3. There's a sort of precision and clarity that your writing shares with the Japanese authors I've read. "precision and clarity" doesn't quite say what I mean, though. It has something, yes, to do with which details are brought forward, but there's also something having to do with the rhythm of the sentences. I have to think about this some, but there's the appearance of simplicity, though what you say can be as sophisticated as any other writer. I think about my favorite scene from "Rooster," where the mother steals a grapefruit from her neighbor's garden and eats it while enjoying her private knowledge of the bad brother's murder. That's an ecstatic scene, a kinetic scene, but it's also still and clear and calm. I don't know how you do that. Your writing is like a glass of cold water, where mine is like a thick, dark mixed drink.

    4. I hear you, brother. I see that same difference. In my experience, the mixed drink writing tends to feel more like a solid world. When I read that kind of writing, the image in my mind is richer and more total. The glass of water writing has, in my mind, a white background, with objects floating here and there. I crave both depending on my mood.

      Would you say that the writing in this blog post ( is more of the mixed drink kind, or is it still a glass of water?

    5. The excerpt you linked to is maybe a dirty martini. The problem with my style of writing is that sometimes you can't see the foreground because the background is so dark and it's easy to trip over things left lying in the road. It's messy. Sometimes what you really want it a cold glass of water; sometimes that's just what hits the spot. You're right about the objects floating in front of a white background. Maybe that's what I mean when I say "clarity." It's like you're holding things up in the air for me, where my stuff has things strewn all over the ground. Or something. Too much of a good metaphor can be a bad thing.

  2. This sounds like a lovely story, Davin. I remember reading an Amy Tan novel a long time ago, and I have always been fascinated by inside looks at other cultures from a modern perspective.

    What does Peanut eat on his hot dogs? I like relish and ketchup, and some sweet onion.

    1. Hello Ms. Robynne Rand! Thanks for reading! I'm excited about doing the research on the internment camps. I think that will bring a rich historical element to the fantasy book.

      Peanut only got a few pinches of hot dog with no condiments. And he only got it because he did a trick and looked very cute.

  3. Sorry it took me so long to get over here, Davin. I've been avoiding the Internetz as much as possible since I've been rewriting my Big Ol' Country Music Book. I really like this excerpt you put up. I agree with Scott that it feels clean and precise, which is something I've always loved about your writing. Some of it feels different than others, but you're always so detailed about just the right things, and those details move your story and your characters forward at the same moment. It's something I've always strived to do in my own writing, but I'm not nearly as good at it as you are. I think that's why it makes Scott think of a glass of water, because it's clear what you're doing, when with his "thick dark mixed drink" his details paint a rich canvas you can practically lose yourself in just looking at it. Both appeal to me. Both are wonderful.

    I'm not sure I've ever read any Japanese writers. Do you have any you'd recommend?

    And again, I really wish you'd publish your stuff. I was dead serious when I said I'd help.

  4. Michelle, I think that's a great analysis. I do always ask if my details are pointing at something...and whether they're pointing at the right thing. I learned that from Mary Yukari Waters, who is a beautiful writer and is also half Japanese. You've read Banana Yoshimoto. She's Japanese. There's also Yasunari Kawabata (who you probably won't like) and Haruki Murakami (who I think you might like, though there is often a little bit of graphic sex and violence in his books).