Reading Group Guide
"When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one." —The Teahouse Fire
The answer to Aurelia Bernard's prayer—made at a Shinto shrine in the Japanese city of Miyako—comes in the form of a fire that consumes her Uncle Charles, the last blood relative she will ever know. The fatherless daughter of a French woman raised in New York City, Aurelia lost her mother on the eve of their departure for Japan with her Catholic missionary uncle. Now orphaned from both her family and her culture, she seeks refuge in the Baishian teahouse, where she is befriended by a beautiful young girl named Yukako, daughter of the great tea master who heads the Shin family. Despite Aurelia's ignorance of their language and customs, the Shins take her into their household, giving her a new name, Urako, and introducing her to the ancient rites and rituals of Chado—the Way of Tea.
Ellis Avery's The Teahouse Fire offers an intimate window onto the dramatic social upheavals of late-nineteenth-century Japan, as an ancient Eastern culture attempts to remake itself in the image of the rapidly modernizing West. The story of Urako—born of one society, educated in another, forever an outsider to both—mirrors the story of Meiji-era Japan as a whole, seduced by the strange new ideas of a foreign world but still tied to the ways of the past. Urako learns the temae, or steps, of the tea ceremony from the Shins, whose family has taught the ritual to Japan's rulers for nearlythree centuries. At the same time, she is indoctrinated into the rigid social order of the day, where one's position in society is determined by birth and a woman's fate is determined by the wishes of her father and husband. But within a few years of Urako's arrival these engrained traditions have begun to erode, bringing new hardships alongside new opportunities.
The Emperor declares the era one of Meiji, or "Enlightened Rule," and the centuries-old social order of Japan vanishes overnight. The old caste system—with the venerated samurai on top and the despised eta, or "unclean," as the lowest of the low—is abolished, and many fortunes reverse dramatically. The tea ceremony is declared an archaic "pastime" to be abandoned, and the imperial stipends that supported the Shins' tea school, and the families of its samurai pupils, are abruptly discontinued. At the same time, the new social mobility of the era raises ambitious members of the merchant caste to positions of power and wealth, so much so that Yukako is gladly offered in marriage to a bumbling former pupil, whose merchant family's affluence now far surpasses that of the young samurai she was once promised to—and whom she still loves.
But while the old traditions have been officially disavowed, there remains a craving amongst the newly elevated classes for the trappings of the old aristocracy. Seizing on this sentiment, Yukako revives her family's business by tossing aside old taboos and teaching the once male-dominated Chado rituals to the young girls in the nation's now-Westernized school system. As years and decades pass, Urako stays loyally by the side of her adopted "older sister," accepting her role as dutiful vassal while secretly nurturing her desire for more. And eventually Yukako's growing ambitions run aground, culminating in a heartbreaking evening tea ceremony that leaves both her relationship with Urako and their beloved Baishian teahouse in ashes.
ABOUT ELLIS AVERY
Ellis Avery studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto, and now teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice
, Publishers Weekly
, Kyoto Journal
, and Pacific Reader
, as well as onstage at New York's Expanded Arts Theater.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:"In the tea world there is a phrase, ichigo ichie. One moment, one meeting. Every moment is what it is...in the end, in the deepest sense, there are no mistakes." As with many aspects of the tea ceremony, this concept seems to speak to a broader truth about life in general. Does this idea tie in, in your mind, with the overall themes of the novel? Which characters best embody this ideal? Do you agree with their approach to life?
Although certain aspects of nineteenth century Japanese society—such as the caste system—are quite foreign to the Western world, the underlying constrictions seem similar: Urako's uncle creates a fictional dead husband for her mother in order to hide the shame of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, much as characters like Aki and Hazu must hide the shame of their own parentage. In what other ways are similarities between Eastern and Western society evident in the novel? In what ways are those societies fundamentally different?
In the novel, Japanese names carry great significance—enough so that Koito's connection to Yukako's family and the Baishian tea house is revealed by analyzing the characters that make up their names. How is the Japanese way of naming different from the way it is done in Western societies? Do the differences say anything significant about the differences between each society as a whole?
When Urako is assaulted by Jiro, she mentally compares the experience to being menaced by her Uncle Charles years before. Do you think Aurelia is responsible for Uncle Charles's death? Do you think her apparent lack of guilt is justified?
The Teahouse Fire is filled with objects whose significance goes far beyond their function: Jiro's Lightning tea bowl, Yukako's final gift of a wastewater bowl made of wood salvaged from Baishian. Does Yukako's mass-marketing of tea wares dilute the meaning of such objects? Or, like Urako's Saint Claire medal, do objects gain their significance not through the care with which they were made, but through the meaning we attribute to them?
In many ways, Yukako's success in marketing her tea sets represents a surrender of traditional culture to the demands—and opportunities—of modern capitalism. How do you feel about this trade-off? Does the commercialization of the tea ceremony—or any tradition—erode its purity? Is the revising of ancient cultural practices to fit modern needs something to be mourned or celebrated?
Urako makes three prayers in the course of the novel. The first—any life but this one—is followed by the apparent death of her uncle; the second—make something happen... make him [Nao] leave—comes shortly before Kenji and Aki attempt suicide; and the last—to be happy—is made as Urako prepares to make a new life in America. What do Urako's prayers tell us about the evolution of her approach to life? What meaning do you place on the way those prayers are "answered"?
While it seems certain that Yukako started the fire in the Baishian teahouse, it remains unclear whether she did so intentionally. What do you think happened?