THE TEAHOUSE FIRE: Stonewall Award
American Library Association
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Roundtable
Stonewall Book Award--Barbara Gittings Literature Award
ALA Annual Conference, Anaheim, CA, June 30, 2008
I'd like to thank Richard DiRusso, Elizabeth Briggs, and everyone on both the ALA Stonewall Awards committee and the ALA Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Roundtable.
I'd also like to thank my agent Jean Naggar, my editor Megan Lynch, and everyone at Riverhead and Penguin, represented today by the incredible Dominique Jenkins, and of course my partner Sharon Marcus.
I'd like to thank too all the librarians in my life, both those who encouraged me to read as a child and those who encourage me to write as an adult, and especially Marilyn Parker at Columbus School for Girls in Ohio, who did and does both.
The first time I read a book with a lesbian character was in the sixth grade: THE MISTS OF AVALON, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I went on to read everything Marion Zimmer Bradley had written, where lots of lesbian sex occurred, albeit on other planets. My best friend did too, and when my mother caught us naked in bed together one morning when I was fifteen, I believed, based on what I'd read, we were the only girls like us on earth. This feeling was ameliorated to some extent by the fact that my eighth grade teacher, Sally Gilbert, was a Marion Zimmer Bradley fan too, and though she was straight herself, she made me feel less like a space alien. Thanks to all our straight allies, and to Sally for being here today all these years later.
What I'd like to do this morning, to thank you, is to tell you two stories, a short one about writing my novel, and a longer one about researching it.
My novel, THE TEAHOUSE FIRE, takes place in the tea ceremony world of 19th century Japan. I studied tea ceremony for five years, and early on I was confronted with a question: how come all the famous tea ceremony people in history were men, but all my fellow tea students were women? Tea used to be a samurai warrior's art; now it's a women's art; what happened? I did some research and discovered that there was a real woman from the most important tea ceremony family in Kyoto who single-handedly changed the fate of the art in the 1880s by getting tea into the curriculum of the newly founded girls' schools. Her name was Yukako, and she was the inspiration for one of my two heroines, Yukako Shin.
In 1866, when Yukako is sixteen, she meets my other heroine, Aurelia, whom she renames Urako. Aurelia is a western child who gets separated from her missionary family on her first night in Kyoto; Yukako takes her in as a servant and surrogate younger sister. My novel is based on the story of Yukako, who really existed, but it's told from the point of view of Aurelia, who is completely made up.
Now I have to give you a spoiler alert: my book has a lesbian happy ending. Maybe it's not the one my narrator wants, or thinks she wants, at first, but it's the one she grows into, and earns. However, that wasn't originally how I'd planned it. I'd imagined that poor Aurelia would just pine away for Yukako until she grew old and died, maybe making a couple of lesbian friends in her old age.
However, two and a half years after starting my book, five-sixths of the way through my first draft, so at the last minute, really, I changed my mind. It happened all at once on a cold day in Kyoto, on my bike, by the river: I remembered that this is still a world where most people who consider them-selves well-read have never encountered a single lesbian happy ending, and that I was a lesbian reader. And I changed my ending. After spending five hundred pages with Aurelia, I wanted more for her, and I knew lesbian readers--like me, like so many of my treasured friends--would want more for her too. I wrote the ending I wanted to read, as a member of my own constituency.
My novel is set during what's called the Meiji Era, that is, during the reign of the Meiji Emperor, which lasted from 1868 to 1912 and engineered the rapid Westernization of Japan. One of the sources I used in writing this book was Ume Tsuda. Ume was one of seven girls who were sent by the Meiji government to the US in 1872, to learn to be "Western Women." This was a bit of propaganda on the government's part, a sop to the Westerners who accused Japan of being backward and oppressive to women. There weren't any big plans in place for these girls when they grew up, and six out of the seven of them went home to live quiet lives in Japan. But the youngest one, Ume, who lived in America from ages nine to nineteen, went on to found the first women's college in Japan, Tsuda College, which is incidentally the sister school to my alma mater, Bryn Mawr.
After Ume left the US, she wrote a letter in English to her American mother every day from 1882 to 1911, and these letters were incredibly helpful to me in writing THE TEAHOUSE FIRE. Ume was the perfect informant because she was very identified with Japan and with being Japanese, so she was a sympathetic reporter, but she was also just as much of an outsider to Japan as my Western narrator was. In the ten years Ume was away, Japan had become so foreign to her that she had to relearn Japanese to speak to her own parents, and the letters she writes in what has become her first language are fluent, passionate, and vividly alive to all the little details of cultural difference that I wanted my heroine to notice too.
Needless to say, I found THE LETTERS OF UME TSUDA in the library, but there's more. As I read it became clear almost right away that Ume was not unfamiliar with same-sex love. One of the other Japanese girls who traveled to the US was named Sutematsu, and Sutematsu, who was apparently very beautiful, seems to have had an affair of the heart, and perhaps of the body, with a mutual friend of theirs, Alice Mabel Bacon. When the girls arrived back in Japan, Ume decided that she did not want to marry, while Sutematsu was engaged straightaway to a Japanese nobleman. Ume's early letters home insist over and over that her American mother not tell a soul about Sutematsu's engagement for fear of hurting Alice's feelings.
This brings me, parenthetically, to a question that's often addressed to those of us who research and imagine love between women in earlier centuries. "But were they really having sex?" they ask. "Weren't the Victorians," for example, "terribly repressed?" Or, "Isn't homosexuality the result of corrupt Western influence?" What I have in terms of hard evidence of erotic love between women in Meiji-era Japan--pornography, fiction, court cases-- falls too early or too late, and is easy enough to discount by those who have an agenda to discount it. Lucky for me, I was writing THE TEAHOUSE FIRE at the same time that my partner, Sharon Marcus, a Victorian scholar, was writing a book of her own, the Lambda award-winning BETWEEN WOMEN: FRIENDSHIP, DESIRE, AND LOVE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND. After reading the diaries and letters of more than a hundred Victorian women, both those who were married to men and those whoĐin the eyes of society, if not the law, were married to other women, Sharon concluded that we can either partition off Victorian England-- or, for that matter, Meiji-era Japan-- as "the only lesbian-free zone(s) in history," or we can take the women of the past at their word. If, like their counterparts who married men, two women considered themselves married-- if they lived, vacationed, owned pets, raised children, grew old, and were buried together-- it strains credulity to think they didn't have sex.
Back to Ume Tsuda in the 1880s, writing to her mother not to tell anyone about Sutematsu's enagement, for fear of hurting Alice's feelings. As it turned out, Alice was crushed. So what did she do? She moved to Japan. Now, in the Victorian diaries Sharon read, the women who married men never wrote, not even after their wedding nights, not even after many children, Last night I had sex with my husband. Just so, Ume Tsuda does not tell her American mother, Since she can't have Sutematsu, Alice has decided to pursue me. Instead, she tells her that Alice has moved in, that she and Alice have bought a vacation house outside Tokyo, that she is working on the index for Alice's book, JAPANESE GIRLS AND WOMEN. Similarly, she never says that she and Alice have broken up. Instead years later, after Alice moves back to America, Ume tells her mother, Alice is visiting Tokyo... Alice has found a rich woman to take her around on trips... (And my favorite) Alice has grown quite stout.
After all this, I really wanted to read Alice's book. When I looked for it, JAPANESE GIRLS AND WOMEN, first published in 1891, was only available online from antiquarian booksellers for hundreds of dollars. They didn't have it at the UC Berkeley library when I was teaching there, so I waited patiently until I returned to New York, went to the Columbia University library, and found it. The rooms are only seven or eight feet high, there, and the lights go out every few minutes unless you hit a button on the wall. It was brutally hot outside, but inside the library was heavily air-conditioned, to preserve the books. I'll never forget finding this hundred-and-thirteen year old book exactly where I looked for it. I'll never forget pressing the cold book to my hot cheek. And then I opened the book, and there was the index and the plates that Ume had worked on. And then I turned to the dedication page, where I discovered why Alice might have moved back to America. It might have been that Ume was fed up. There, in florid Victorian language about lifelong love, Alice had dedicated her book, not to Ume, but to... Sutematsu.
I want to thank all of you who work in and for libraries for this moment, this discovery of a hundred-year-old love triangle, this electrifying crackle of passion as persistent and stupid and complex as any that afflicts us today.
It's such an honor to be here this morning with Mark Doty. In STILL LIFE WITH OYSTERS AND LEMON, Doty says that "Tenderness and style are the best gestures we can make in the face of death." Just so in the face of the long-dead, those who we can only know now through what they wrote, through what librarians preserve. That's what I hope to do as a fiction writer, to approach these lives, both the historical ones and the imagined ones, with attentiveness, with thoroughness, with tenderness and my best stab at style.
Mark Doty's DOG YEARS won the 2008 Stonewall Award for Nonfiction.
Ume is pronounced Oo May. Sutematsu is pronounced Stem Otts.
THE LAST NUDE
THE TEAHOUSE FIRE
THE SMOKE WEEK