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Original Essays

Tea and the Writing of The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery
  1. The Teahouse Fire
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Teahouse Fire

    Ellis Avery

If I had known that Japanese tea ceremony was a living art, I would have studied it in college: I grew up with my mother's enthusiasm for Japan and majored in Performance Studies, a cross-cultural mix of anthropology, theater, and religion. And, then as now, I loved tea: my college best friend and I held a tea every Friday afternoon, a practice I continue now in New York City with a massive tea party every summer in Central Park.

I first saw a tea ceremony performed in 1998, at a teahouse by the Shishigatani canal in Kyoto, as a tourist on my first trip to Japan.

I was seated upstairs in an exquisite room built, I later learned, in the early 20th century, whose architects had incorporated an exotic western element — glass — into the traditional geometric harmony of shoji, tatami, and wood. I didn't understand the unfamiliar tools and gestures used by the kimono-clad woman sitting on the floor across from me, but I gladly accepted the bowl of foamy green tea and the confections that looked like marzipan cherries but tasted, I discovered, like dense sweet cream. Through the slightly wavy panes of old glass fitted into the shoji-paper window, I could look down at a garden, rich yet spare, which drew the eyes up through the planted moss and trees to the "borrowed scenery" of the mountains that ringed the city. Sitting in that room with every sense saturated — by tea, sweets, the trickling of the nearby canal, the cool woven tatami and the warm glazed teabowl, the "borrowed" mountain and an accidentally "borrowed" line of flapping white tee-shirts hung to dry — I felt humbled and elated by so much beauty.

When I came home to New York, I began studying tea ceremony at the Urasenke Chanoyu Center on East 69th Street, a lovely complex of tearooms erected inside a former carriage house that had served as Mark Rothko's studio in the '60s. At Urasenke I learned that while my canalside tea ceremony experience had held for me what seemed like an ancient, transcendent power, in actuality, the elements that had appeared so timeless in Kyoto — the glass-and-paper teahouse, even the kimono-clad woman making tea — were the result of events in Japan's not-so-distant past. I refer here to greatest cultural upheaval to face Japan since its encounter with China in the 6th century CE: the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and the intense period of Westernization that followed.

The question that confronted me early in my studies was this: why were all the historical tea people men, when almost all my fellow tea students were women? Until recently in its four-hundred-plus-year history, I learned, the Way of Tea was in fact the province of warriors and well-off men, with women welcome infrequently, and often expressly forbidden. Doing research, I discovered one of the two heroines of The Teahouse Fire: a woman named Yukako.

Inspired by a real 19th century figure, my character Yukako Shin is the daughter of Kyoto's most prominent tea ceremony family, whose luck plummets as Japan enters a phase of rapid Westernization. Yukako, like her historical counterpart, changes the fate of tea ceremony in the 1880s by getting it included in the curriculum of the newly formed girls' schools, breaking down the barriers to a male-centered discipline while weathering the sudden devaluation of Japan's traditional arts.

Knowing only too well the limits of my Japanese language and cultural experience, I decided to tell the story from the point of view of another heroine, Aurelia Bernard, a nine-year-old American girl whom Yukako takes under her wing, and through whose faithful but necessarily limited vision both women's stories are told. These two characters, Yukako and Aurelia, gave me a lens with which to explore cultural exchange at its most dramatic, both on a large scale — the enormous changes Japan underwent after "opening" to the West in the 1850s — and on an intimate scale: the experience of a child suddenly compelled to grow up in a new world, a new culture, a new language.

After three years of studying tea ceremony and two years of studying Japanese, I began work on The Teahouse Fire in the summer of 2002, at Arts Workshop International in Assisi, where I studied with Maxine Hong Kingston, who gave me all the room and tools I needed to imagine my whole way through a first rough telling of this story.

For the first year and a half, I wrote for an hour every day, Monday through Friday, and then would research the book for another hour. Doing a little every day made it possible for me to write and teach at the same time, and I liked ending each session hungry to write more. In 2004 I worked for two intensive, four-page-a-day months: a January retreat at the Vermont Studio Center, who had awarded me a much-appreciated Writers' Grant, and a summer stint in London before leaving for Kyoto in August.

In Kyoto, I spent five nonstop weeks studying tea ceremony daily through the generosity of the Urasenke Foundation, who funded my study at Midorikai, their tea ceremony program for non-Japanese. I had the opportunity to learn about a vast array of tea-related arts, and wearing kimono every day while eating, cleaning floors, and rushing to class helped flesh out my experiential knowledge of my characters' daily lives.

I remained in Kyoto through March 2005, in an old neighborhood between the Kamo River and the Takase Canal, completing the first draft of the novel and researching traditional Japanese dress, foods, and seasonal festivals. Much of that time I lived and wrote side-by-side with my partner, Sharon Marcus, who was finishing a book of her own called Between Women.

I returned to Kyoto for the summer, where I lived in a very traditional Japanese house, washing nightly at the local bathhouse and making each trip to the toilet — installed outside, in what had once been the outhouse — with a smoking mosquito coil in hand. During the too-hot-to-procrastinate weeks between Kyoto's two most glorious summer festivals, I finished rewriting The Teahouse Fire.

The teahouse that first inspired me is still there in Kyoto, but it has been bought by a local cosmetics chain called Yojiya, itself worth a visit for its Japan-centric take on a product usually marketed in Asia using Caucasian models and ideals. You can no longer see tea ceremony performed in the teahouse — now the Yojiya Café — and the upstairs is closed to guests. But you can still drink a bowl of frothy tea with traditional sweets, sitting on the fragrant tatami in the paper-and-glass room downstairs. And if it isn't raining, you'll see the "borrowed" mountains when you walk through the mossy garden, same as ever. You'll see the laundry on the line next door. spacer

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