The Strangeness of Beauty

The Strangeness of Beauty

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by Lydia Yuri Minatoya

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"Minatoya offers a tenderly packaged gift. Unwrapping it is a pleasure."—Austin Chronicle
A quietly daring exploration of art, family, culture, and conscience, as three generations of women, American and Japanese, face a strained reunion in pre-World War II Japan. Etsuko and her six-year-old motherless niece return from jazz-age Seattle to the ancient


"Minatoya offers a tenderly packaged gift. Unwrapping it is a pleasure."—Austin Chronicle
A quietly daring exploration of art, family, culture, and conscience, as three generations of women, American and Japanese, face a strained reunion in pre-World War II Japan. Etsuko and her six-year-old motherless niece return from jazz-age Seattle to the ancient Japanese household of Etsuko’s mysterious samurai mother. With Japanese militarism mounting, the women must learn to make peace in an absorbing tale where mothers are childless, warriors are pacifists, and beauty is found in the common and the small. "How sad it was to finish Lydia Minatoya’s first novel. She allowed me to live inside the sensibilities of three generations of achingly engaging Japanese women and I did not want to let them go. The Strangeness of Beauty is a strange and beautiful work of art."—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author

Editorial Reviews

...[T]his historical novel is ambitious in scope — it attempts to adapt an ancient Japanese literary form to modern times and to the experience of living in two cultures while also relating the tale of a modest woman's discovery of self.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The autobiography, or "I-story," of Etsuko Sone is the basis of this lyrical first novel by Minatoya, herself author of the memoir Talking to Monks in the Snow. Etsuko emigrates from Kobe to Seattle in 1918 with her husband, Tadoa, a kite maker who dreams of a career with Boeing; instead, he settles for a job on a fishing boat, and soon drowns. Several years later, Etsuko's sister dies in childbirth, and Etsuko helps raise the baby, Hanae, whose dentist father is a gambler and an ace on the Japanese three-cushion pool circuit. When Hanae is six and anti-Japanese sentiment is on the increase in the U. S., Etsuko is persuaded to take her back to Japan for a traditional upbringing in the house of Fuji. Etsuko has never herself lived in her family's home, having been cast out as an infant by a mother still reeling from the death of her firstborn son. Although she initially feels that she belongs in neither country, Etsuko comes to terms with her past and present, finally finding her purpose as Hanae prepares for upper-school graduation and the country prepares for war with China. Minatoya's unadorned prose has the evocative suggestibility of a Japanese print, and Etsuko's incisive, often wry observations resemble resonant lines of haiku. Ironically, the problems Etsuko identifies as inherent to the "I-story"(self-absorption, narrowness, oblique indirection, dullness) are not entirely avoided here, however artful Etsuko's looping narrative. But they are present in the novel only occasionally and are more than offset by the richly detailed multigenerational and multicultural story. With candor, Minatoya analyzes the qualities ("eloquent silence, poetic hindsight, conversation crafted with the masked formality of actors performing ancient Noh theater") that make life possible in crowded Japan, but seem "ridiculous" in America. While sometimes weighted down by bald passages of history, this highly unusual story offers valuable insights into Japanese culture. Agent, Sally Woford-Girand. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Yunah Kim
...Minatoya switches back and forth among the characters of her novel, using each voice to tell the story repeatedly, in a manner reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's film "Rashomon."
A. Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
Minatoya (the memoir Talking to High Monks in the Snow, 1992) debuts in fiction with a pleasantly told, highly detailed, risk-free, and autobiographical "I-story" of Etsuko in the years between the world wars. The story opens in 1921 in Seattle, where the widowed Etsuko lives with her sister Naomi and Naomi's husband Akira. Naomi dies during childbirth, and after a few years Akira decides that the child, Hanae, must return to Japan to relearn her native culture. Accompanying Hanae to Kobe, Etsuko faces an uncomfortable reunion with her own cold and distant mother, Chie, who abandoned her soon after her birth. Hanae haltingly enters Japanese culture; the nationalist fervor in Japan swells; and Etsuko participates in antiwar activities. As the war fever grows, Etsuko and Chie achieve a modest peace and join various pacifist groups, while Hanae studies her way to the head of her graduating class of 1939. Each of these phases of the plot is authoritatively embellished with fine re-creations of Japanese culture of the era, but aside from the light pressure Akira exerts on Etsuko to return Hanae to the US, the story could just as well have occurred in contemporary Japan without impeding its general intent. Etsuko, who guides the reader through the autobiography-novel, is strangely missing from the meat of the tale: her antipathies are lukewarm, her loyalties only gently divided, and her anxieties exclusively domestic in focus. Minatoya also begins many sections with Etsuko describing the pitfalls and challenges of writing autobiographical fiction, a device that intrudes unnecessarily upon the flow of the story. Well written, nevertheless, and thoroughly researched. Minatoya evokes thenature of Japanese culture and offers explanations for many of its beliefs and habits—without which her slim storyline would never have reached such excessive length. They don't propel the reader forward, but they are informative.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

NOVEMBER 25, 1922

It has been said that at any given moment, sixty percent of Japanese are involved in writing a novel. And all of them autobiographical.

This phenomenon, though not new in form (the autobiographical novel is an ancient art), is certainly new in frenzy. There's even a word for it, shi-shosetsu, the "I-story."

Critics have questioned the motivation behind the amateur I-story. Often it seems so futile. Why would so many work so long to create novels meant for their eyes alone? The answer involves social upheaval -- in which a sudden infusion of excessive education (the progressive arts and sciences of the last two imperial reigns) has clashed with limits in opportunity, to turn a nation of habitual haiku writers half mad.

The theory is that in Japan, the self-consciousness of modernism has collided with the tradition of reticence -- of not burdening others with one's subjective experience -- to create a people just roiling with confessional angst.

It's true, I think. There seem to be few people as concerned with being understood as the Japanese.

Unless you consider the Americans.

But I'm delaying. This, of course, is my I-story.

Etsuko Sone
Seattle, Washington

Hanae's Birth

I can't imagine that Hanae enjoyed being born. To be squeezed through a convulsing corridor is, at best, an experience one would call unsettling. And to hear her mother's breath -- for months so rhythmic and reassuring -- ripping jaggedly, to feel her heart staggering. No, my niece wouldn't have liked it.

Maybe that's why she grew distant and drowsy, why she drifted toward failuhat do you remember?"

"A competent midwife, a rapid delivery, the outcome a healthy child."

But I stood there -- my arms empty, my body absentmindedly swaying in a manner that would soothe a fretful infant -- and Akira felt an obligation. He couldn't brush me aside.

So he put down the dental text he was studying and said what he knew I wanted.

"What do you recall?"

Later, at night when the house was quiet, he answered the question I'd forgotten in my relief to share my tale. What he remembered.

It was Sunday, October 23, 1921. Naomi slept until noon. Akira poked through the kitchen like an amateur, singeing a dish towel as he lit the stove.

Naomi laughed when she saw the scorched rice and watery miso soup he'd prepared. A breakfast already grown cold. She pulled at his sleeve until he sank to the bed. She unwound the eyeglass stems from his ears.

Later, brushing her hair by the window, she saw Mount Rainier. Free from its usual cloud cover, the mountain rose close and startling.

"Rainier-san is out."

Akira glanced past her shoulder. Three-story frame tenements scrabbled toward the crest of Jackson Street. A cluster of leaves, dead and dried, bounced along the buckling sidewalk.

Like a facetious Fujiyama, Rainier was floating over Oki's We Never Close Cafe.

Akira frowned. This was Nihonmachi, Seattle's Japantown.

A strange, in-between place where, by day, the streets were filled with American-style industry -- with shrieking trains snorting in and out of the King Street Station and delivery carts from Uchida's Uncle Sam Laundry or Kato's Straight-To-Your-Home Ice clattering on cobbled streets. Where truant Japanese American boys in knickers and golf caps flipped m ilk tops and shot marbles. Yet at dusk Nihonmachi became suffused with Japan -- with lantern light, the aromas of soy sauce and Japanese soba noodles wafting from upstairs windows, and the restful sight of neighbors heading home from public baths. Laughing softly, the bathers scuffed in split-toed straw sandals and cotton kimonos across improbably wide American-named streets (Main, Jackson, King) or more intimately scaled numbered avenues (Sixth through Twelfth). Still later, as midnight approached the southern edge of Nihonmachi -- the only time and place whites came into our part of town -- the mood shifted to things faster and darker: secret-door gambling clubs with knifings at blackjack and mahjong tables; hurried transactions of prostitution.

Thinking of these things, Akira knitted his brow. Though Naomi was happy in Nihonmachi, the idea that he'd brought his bride to so shabby a place always made him feel guilty.

"Look at those scurrying outlaws."

Chuckling, Naomi was pursuing the leaves, watching as they evaded a broom being wielded by Kozawa, the barber.

"I know!" She turned to her husband. "Let's go leaf viewing."

Akira looked at his nineteen-year-old wife, beyond the beauty of her tranquil oval face to the hard work of carrying a child. Naomi's legs were swollen. Her blood pressure was high. Her pregnancy hadn't been easy.

"No," he said, "you're too close to your time."

But she smiled at his stern manner.

"Just to the university," she coaxed. "Soon we'll be too busy."

Akira knotted a tie under the starched high collar of his white shirt. (Indeed, back in Japan the word used to denote a progressive young intellectual was hakara, an altered form of the English words "high collar"). He slipped on the vest and jacket to his three-piece gray suit.

Naomi dressed in a dove blue long-skirted suit (to accommodate her pregnancy, the usually fitted jacket fell from a yoke into soft gathers), high black shoes, and a broad-brimmed hat. As Akira walked sideways beside her -- lending his arm and solicitously watching Naomi's every quite confident step -- they negotiated the narrow stairway down from their second-floor flat.

They boarded a streetcar on the corner of Main Street and Occidental Avenue. Akira dropped two dimes into the glass box at the top of the stairs, watching as the motorman flipped a lever that made the money disappear, listening to the coins' clinka-clinka noise as he wound the crank that sorted the change.

The streetcar was already half full with Japanese American passengers out for a Sunday excursion. Most rode as if in Japan: in orderly anonymity, nodding whenever someone they knew boarded but not speaking, respecting one another's need for some distance in a too-crowded society.

After a few minutes, Akira felt Naomi nudge his shoulder.

"Listen to that old couple," she whispered.

It didn't take long to find the pair. The couple -- perhaps in their late fifties, dressed in worn go-to-city clothes -- were bickering loudly in Japanese.

Yet even after locating them, Akira had trouble following Naomi's instruction. A stray thought popped into his mind -- the old fellow needed a partial bridge -- and he couldn't track their conversation.

"Aren't they charming?"

Wanting to be a good husband, Akira shook himself back to the moment.

"Stay on the trolley, north to Pike Street," the sturdy wife was exclaiming. "Then take Pike east. That 's the best way to the public market."

"No, no!" said the husband. He waved his skinny arms in disgust. "Too much traffic. Get off at Yessler; go north on First, along the waterfront. Then, zoo-to!" -- the husband had made a zippy sound ending briskly with his tongue just behind his incisors -- "you're right there!"

"Your way is fast, all right," grumbled the wife, "but passes all the fishing fleets." She folded her weathered hands in her broad lap and gave a triumphant snort. "Your way stinks!"

"What's so charming about them?" Akira whispered in complaint to Naomi. "It's stupid, really. We've already passed both Yessler and Pike; it's clear they've no intention of going to market. And besides, look at their clothes. They're farmers. Probably in from Bainbridge Island. I bet they've been going to the public market twice a week for at least fifteen years!"

"And each time having the same argument." Naomi chuckled.

"They should hear themselves," Akira muttered. "So discordant. It's a disgrace."

"No." Naomi's voice turned firm. "It's no disgrace."

She looked at the couple with tenderness.

"Listen, Akira," she said softly, like a mother sharing life's secrets with a child. "In their argument is the melody of marriage."

Akira paused. Now the couple was squabbling over whether or not the husband should put on his sweater.

"That? Melody?"

"Yes," said Naomi. She listened awhile and smiled. "It's a blending, not always smooth, of attachment and independence."

"But in public? They sound so foolish!"

"To a couple it's background music, a little scratchy, perhaps, but something they play over and over, like a much loved, well-worn gramophone record."

Akira looked at Naom i with appreciation. Among the earthbound pioneers of Japantown, this type of insight, along with her beauty and high birth in a samurai family, had earned Naomi a reputation as being a bit too ethereal.

Yet he found her radiantly wise.

He gestured toward the old couple.

"Do you think we'll end up like that?" he teased.

Warm laughter poured from Naomi's lovely throat.

"Oh, Akira! We already are!"

The trolley turned east, passing big houses facing the lake. At Madison Park, Japanese houseboys -- old men with glinting eyeglasses -- raked long, sloping, shadowy lawns.

The sky was increasingly overcast. Warm light came and went, streaming like sudden sun showers.

By the time they reached the university, Akira could tell that Naomi was tired. Yet when she saw the leaves she seemed to revive.

She crunched her feet through the splendid carpet. Too big to bend over, she made him pick a bouquet of the brightest colors. She arranged them in a fan and studied them like an exceedingly good hand of cards.

The air smelled of chestnuts roasting.

In a gesture of sharing -- similar to times when she drew his hand to her kicking belly -- Naomi pushed Akira's cheek toward the grassy quadrangle.

"There." She smiled.

Amid Gothic stone buildings, the first few Japanese American college boys -- wearing flannel pants and white varsity-style sweaters -- were joking in accentless English and kicking a football around.

"That's the future," she promised.

But his eyes were too full with Naomi.

The sky had shifted. Sun slanted through branches, anointing her shoulders and hair.

Silent and satisfied, filled with mysteries and blessings, she was as luminous as a Renaissance painting.

Tha t night, well after midnight, Akira awoke with a start.

Naomi was rigid and shuddering. She clutched at the edge of the bed.

"No worry, we have hours to wait," she said with a nervous laugh.

Akira placed a cool towel on her brow and ran down the street to get me.

He knew I came as fast as I could: thrusting my feet in my shoes, grabbing my coat, not caring that he saw me in my nightdress. Yet when we arrived, the baby already was crowning.

As he paced the parlor, Akira noticed many things. The scarcity of furniture. A tear in the carpet. The endearing way that the pattern of dust around the spines of books on the bookshelf revealed Naomi's haphazard housekeeping.

Near dawn, when the quiet finally came, Akira noticed his relief. He rested his head on the cool windowpane, then drew back -- amazed and laughing -- to see the delicate lace of frost. It was so unexpected for Seattle in autumn that he thought it was a heavenly sign. A miracle, just like birth.

It was a sign, the early frost.

It meant that his young wife had died.

Copyright © 1999 by Lydia Minatoya

Meet the Author

Lydia Minatoya won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award and notable-book citations from the American Library Association and the New York Public Library for her memoir. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

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The Strangeness of Beauty 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book beautiful and enriching. I read it a while ago, gave my copy to my sister and had to go back and get a second copy.