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The Morphing of Madame Butterfly

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In Siem Reap there’s a magical little restaurant where the ferns part and the lanterns sway in the tropical breezes. At night, the lights go on and the place twinkles charm. It’s called Madame Butterfly.

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I’m not sure when it happened, but through the years the story of Madame Butterfly has become embellished and turned into a Mikado-esque fanfare. If you google “Madame Butterfly”, “Madame Butterfly Geisha” pops up. These two subjects have merged, and in many people’s minds are the same.

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Both subjects offer plenty of mystique, glamor and pique our interest in the exotic. I believe it’s a result of this misunderstanding that the two are so often confused. I know. Opera is dramatic. It’s supposed to be. I get that. Puccini’s is one of the most beautiful ever written. Despite the superiority of the score, the opera is still a sentimental favorite, due to the potent mix of tragic love and gorgeous sets; parasols swaying, silk rippling and falling blossoms, all the trappings we’ve come to expect. Those who have attended a performance, or read the backstory know Cho-Cho-san and her horrible ending.

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We feel her love for Pinkerton and we go with her on her na├»ve journey, as she waits, ever faithful, scanning the horizon line for him to return. Touching and poignant. If you’ve done you’re homework, or poked around my blog you’d know the story is largely made up, a myth the Nagasaki Tourist Board shamelessly exploits. It’s based on scant historical evidence. An old photograph and a kimono. The book, Madame Butterfly was published in 1903 by an American lawyer who was influenced by Loti’s famous Madame Chrysanthemum. Are you following me? Because here come’s the geisha connection.

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It seems Loti’s story too chronicles a naval officer married to a Nagasaki geisha. Bingo. The novel was so influential in it’s day that it shaped western views of Japan. Or, more precisely of kimonoed Japanese women sitting around all day, emoting for officer lovers. But it did little to promote the truth about the real geisha as artist who studied her craft from an early age. In other words, a story that had no real basis in truth-the Glover House-the photograph of one of his many women wearing butterflies-and a novel became the image we see today; Madame Butterfly the Geisha.

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Of course, this is largely due to ignorance and perpetuation of early 20th Century stereotypes of Asian woman as exotic sexual object. To be fair, some includes admiration for La Japonaise style, a craze for everything Japanese, albeit through western filtering at the time.

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The geisha and the woman purported to be Madame Butterfly, if she existed at all, are not remotely connected. Period. But through the magic of cinema, novelists and dreamers they will likely be intermingled for a long time to come. And, I guess that’s not such a bad thing as long as people have the opportunity to learn the history and appreciate the craft of the geisha without being confused or sidelined by stereotypes and misinformation. One of the problems is that the geisha community itself, shrinking every decade is closed and guards it’s secrets well. I wonder how they feel about Madame Butterfly, and whether they are annoyed by the morphing of a fictional character into their realm?

It’s still a darn good story that refuses to go away and that’s okay by me.

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Building The Perfect Book is a Temple

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As a writer of Asian fiction, I am drawn to Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple. I can’t get enough of it. It’s so mysterious and incredibly beautiful that I have multiple pictures in my home, writing space and office. It uplifts me. It makes me chillax and it reminds me how something great can be brought forth from ideas and stone.

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But first, there was the jungle.

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Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple complex. The largest ever built in the word. It’s a 12th century Khmer king’s dream come to life. It’s still standing. The temple broke from Shavism tradition and instead celebrated Vishnu, and there is a legend that holds construction happned in a single night by divine help.

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The temple’s gradual focus shifted from Hindu to Buddhism. This amazing place was abandoned over the years, as regimes came and went but never completely. And it had protection. The jungle prevented destructive encroachments. The vines and the snakes actually preserved the jewel inside.

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Our drafts. Just like this magnificent temple, they are laid out scene by scene, page by page from nothing. They age. They take shape and they become overgrown. Time to prune.

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The writing process can feel as if we are enveloping our beautiful words in a morass of vines. So we put the book away. The proverbial shut the drawer moment. Maybe we write something else because we grow bored. Can’t sell it. Can’t fix another scene. Can’t face it.

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But it’s when the vines are at their worst tangle that we know some hidden jewel awaits us. Some books can’t be fixed, and some are meant to teach.

Here come the Ifs.

If you can’t get that story out of your head, if you followed a linear path, if each scene flows from outward progression, if you follow goal-motivation-conflict, it’s all there. You just need to edit. Cut back. Combine scenes that don’t work. Try cutting anything that’s boring. Odds are cutting will save that book.

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So, if you’re still haunted by the book in the drawer, there is hope. Think of the temple in the jungle, because it’s true. Greatness comes from drawing out the bits that excite and entertain us. Nothing great came from the easy path, if that were true we’d all be living in log cabins.

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I’ll take the temple and the jungle, please.

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Blogging A-Z Highlights

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So I actually committed and made it through the Blog A-Z Challenge. To pat myself on the back, I’ve written two books but this was different. Blogging is different.

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I had a lot of fun. I loved the camaraderie, meeting new peeps taking the challenge and seeing how they came up with inspiring content. I hope they’ll still come around. I hope when the excitement wanes, they won’t too. I will visit my new friends, and often.

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The numbers shot up too. Nice. There were moments. After a few in the restaurant, I had to really pull myself to the Surface to get it done. Tax night? Yah, reason why the Ikebana Post was not getting much love, I was literally doing turbotax and the post at the same time. It wasn’t my best, but I didn’t want to quit. And hey, it was “I”.

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Some posts were surprisingly popular.

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Cherry Blossom C. Kyoto K. Good eye candy. Everyone loves cherry blossoms.

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Life of Oharu, okay that was X but it got good comments and it’s a fantastic film.

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This one was close to my heart.

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The Real Madame Butterfly M.

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Zelda in the Shadow Z.

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I can see the value of blogging often. I feel energized. Great challenge with like-minded people. Wouldn’t have missed it.

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Zelda in the Shadow

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I’ve always thought a duel biography of Zelda and Nora would be interesting. Both married literary giants, Fitzgerald and Joyce. Both were incredibly unhappy. But since this is the last night of the A-Z Blog Challenge, Zelda gets the honors. After all she was the original flapper.

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Zelda goes down in history for being the model of Daisy Buchanan, in Great Gatsby. But she was a frustrated writer, largely misunderstood who suffered in the shadow of her husband. It’s ironic that she was the quintessential It Girl, rebellious, hip and bohemian enough to break the rules of society yet she struggled with identity. It nearly destroyed her.

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She seems not to have much confidence in her own abilities, but much of her witticisms made their way into her husband’s books. As a product of post-War America, she was the embodiment of woman who turned away from traditional roles of wife and mother. She was not domestic in the least. She contributed to a column of favorite recipes, this is what she wrote, and I quote:

“See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.”

Love that.

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They had a difficult marriage. Unconventional, he, raging alcoholic who expected her to bask in greatness, she who suffered bouts of depression, commitment and suicide attempts. Hemingway did not like her. It was mutual. He thought she was crazy. She detested his “faux machismo”. The marriage issues stemmed largely when Zelda was left at loose ends while Fitzgerald was deep in his manuscripts. She wanted what he had, but on her own terms.

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One of the more bizarre attempts at carving her own way was her obsession to become a ballerina. At 27. She practiced all hours of the day. It’s a bit like deciding to become an Olympic skier at age 32. She had a minor talent, and was invited to study in an Italian school. But she never went. She dropped the whole idea, just as it seemed she had got what she wanted. Or did she?

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Zelda wanted to write. Can you imagine being married Fitzgerald, yet he never encouraged her, one suspects he was jealous and fearful of sharing the limelight. She was hospitalized in 1932, yet in that time she was able to complete an entire novel, Save Me The Last Waltz She sent it to her husband’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald exploded. He accused her of using intimate details of their marriage, yet he was more angry because she had beaten him to the punch; he was planning on using the same martial for Tender Is The Night, a novel that took him years while she banged Waltz out in six weeks. There was no pride, no encouragement. Her efforts, met with suspicion.

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Fitzgerald forced her to edit out the scenes, though the novel was published by Scribner. Ah, connections. It wasn’t a success, though today her writing has been described as more sensual and verbally rich. It is best remembered, as one woman’s attempt to stop being a “backseat driver” in her husband’s life. Fitzgerald called her a Third-Rate writer. This broke her heart and she was never the same. She made about $120. And that’s why no pictures of him appear in this post.

This is about Zelda. Not F, or S. Those letters have been done. And I dedicate the blogs in this A-Z Challenge to her memory. Over and out. It’s been fantastic.

ZELDA

You and You Alone

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I remember in college a professor suggested I work on a paper with another student. I knew the subject matter like the back of my hand, in fact I was passionate about it and could write it cold. 35 pages. I knew the other student didn’t know half as much as I did. To prove it, she went to the library and checked out all the books. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to collaborate. I owned half of them anyway. I would go it alone. I got an A, while she got in the lower end of the alphabet I recall.

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Writing is an intensely personal experience and sometimes we feel me vs. the rest. The way we see life is just so different. We need refuge away to make sense of the world around us. We need to write. Even if we don’t enjoy it, it’s just who we are.

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That’s why it’s important to understand the journey we take is a long, lonely one and to most of our non-writer friends and family, it seems masochistic. A waste of time. Incomprehensible. But they don’t see the inner flame inside that keeps shoveling coal into the furnace of despair and insecurity. They never had a dream. Some don’t, you know. They’ve told me. Many people just never had a dream, and I don’t mean to get all MLK but think about it, as hard as it is, and as windy and twisty and bumpy as this road is, you can say, you’re living your dream. And you did it by yourself, because no one but you is going to sit down when the ice cream man rolls around, to tempt you with his treats. You’re going to keep sitting down and getting the writing done. You’re going to edit the work over and over. Because if it was easy you wouldn’t do it. Because it’s a dream. It’s all yours and you did it alone.

Now go hit the keys.

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It’s just sometimes, I know that’s the way I’m supposed to go….I say someday I will.

Xtremely Good Film-Life of Oharu

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This was a hard one for me. I looked up a bunch of words beginning with X. I even consulted a Scrabble prompt but they all seemed a variation of Xylitol, Xanthium, or other pseudo-scientific sounding names that gave me no inspiration. I’m stumped, as I am “Xausted” but Blogging A-Z has been so much fun.

So I’m moving on. Back to Japan. If you are looking for a wonderful Japanese film that explores the world of the concubine, look no further than the 1950’production, Life of Oharu.

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It stars the famous Kinuyo Tanaka in the title role who was considered the Bette Davis of Japan. The movie adapts Saikaku’s Life of an Amorous Woman, and opens on a down and out old woman. As she recounts her story, we see her as a young daughter of court nobles, a great beauty but through her own nature, spoils her rise through the ranks as a daimyo’s concubine by a life of pleasure and rebellion.

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It is a cautionary tale of what can happen to the courtesan when beauty runs out in this world that prizes beauty above all else. It is Mizoguchi’s most important film that actually made him some money. Interestingly, the film almost never got made. It was a crazy idea. To bring a lush, historical, 17th century tale of a courtesan’s exploits when such dramas were forbidden by the American occupation. It had everything going against it. Accept passion.

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The director wanted greatness and he reeled in his leading lady, Tanaka to stake their reputations on the film. It was like the Japanese Gone With the Wind. In this post-war austerity, the country had never seen anything like the drive and scope it took to get the picture made. The film went over budget and the critics complained that Oharu was being treated too sensitively. Both the director and his leading lady soon grew exhausted.

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The film shut the critics down and won a major festival in Venice. There are so many moments to this film that are brilliant. The silent recognition when Oharu sees the son she gave up as a child on the road and a later glimpses him as a man. One of the most poignant moments-Oharu overhears an aged courtesan singing a tune, and she herself will sing this in the same circumstances as a mendicant nun, showing how difficult it is to escape one’s destiny.

Wharton Blazing Trails For Women

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What gets you running for the hanky? I think of Lily Bart and I’m there. The House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton. Wharton is my favorite American writer. Win-win.

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It’s been a long time since she published. Yet with her unique perspective, humor and the emotion she poured into stories she inspired me in a big way to become a writer. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She lived within the constraints of a stiff, manacled culture on her terms when few women had aspirations outside the cotillion room.
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The House of Mirth
tells the story of Lily Bart-a poor relation on the fringes of high society. What’s interesting here is that Wharton could have started the novel at a much earlier time. No. Instead, we get a sense of Lily’s past as the belle of the ball, but things haven’t turned out the way she hoped. She’s 29 and on the sunset of her beauty. The money her father left has dwindled and that makes the novel all the more taut, full of razor-sharp tension and projects impending doom for Lily as she tries one last grasp at the brass ring, to arrange a good marriage.

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She drifts on good graces and invites from regattas to house parties, racking up debts from cards and clothes she can ill afford. The irony of her situation is all the more acute, since she needs these props to make that advantageous match before her beauty runs out. The promises of an inheritance held as a carrot become spoiled by her own behavior and her desperation to be accepted.

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Lily’s conflict-the trappings of wealth pull against her attraction for Seldon who offers her a chance to be herself-as they come crashing down in scandal where she has the means to destroy happiness in one sacrifice. Perhaps the most heartbreaking is Lily’s utter inability to be anything other than what she is; a product of that culture she longs in-part to escape. Her attempts to hold down a job at a hat maker end with realization that she is “a useless sort of person.”

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The novel is not a light-hearted beach read but I guarantee you’ll never forget it.