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Friday, February 27, 2015

Lydia Yuri Minatoya

At a glance
The Strangeness of Beauty
by Lydia Yuri Minatoya

W.W. Norton
384 pages, $14

As the controversy over the recent Clint Eastwood film “Letters from Iwo Jima” shows, some Americans still hold hard feelings toward Japan because of its actions during the first half of the 20th century.

Internet chat rooms were filled with heated debates over such topics as the Rape of Nanking, Japan’s invasion of Mongolia, its attack on Pearl Harbor and the brutal treatment Japanese soldiers handed out both to non-Japanese civilians and American prisoners of war.

But no country, just as no person, should be defined by the worst things it has ever done. Thus, in celebration of Japan Week 2007, which will be held between April 21 and 28, The Spokesman-Review Book Club has chosen as its April read the book “The Strangeness of Beauty” by first-time Seattle novelist Linda Yuri Minatoya.

Minatoya, whose best known previous work was the memoir “Talking to High Monks in the Snow: An Asian American Odyssey” (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $13 paper), tells a story of acculturation and cultural dissonance at the same time.

She focuses on a woman named Etsuko who, in 1918, leaves Japan with her husband for a new life in Seattle. But things don’t turn out the way she’d hoped. His career dreams dashed, her husband dies in a fishing accident and, some time afterward, Etsuko’s sister dies, too.

This leaves Etsuko to become mother to her newborn niece, even though this means returning to Japan so that the girl can be raised with knowledge of her Japanese ancestry and an appreciation of the culture’s rituals, traditions and attitudes.

But the time really couldn’t be worse: Japan is preparing for war with China, which ultimately will bring it into conflict with the United States. Etsuko is reunited with her emotionally distant mother, a woman who literally disowned her infant daughter following the death of her first-born son, and she even gets involved in the anti-war movement.

Much of Minatoya’s novel – written as a faux autobiography, or “I-story” – details how hard it is for Etsuko to live in a world that is neither Japanese nor American. And as the work progresses, we see how Etsuko reconciles this quandary.

“What separates this full-hearted novel from others – like Gail Tsukiyama’s ‘Night of Many Dreams’ or Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s ‘Namako’ – is how very funny Minatoya can be, even in the most emotional of moments, and her gift for fabulously apt description,” wrote a reviewer for the literary journal Booklist.

“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,” wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. “While sometimes weighted down by bald passages of history, this highly unusual story offers valuable insights into Japanese culture.”

One example of how Minatoya portrays Etsuko’s world is the following excerpt, which describes Seattle’s Japantown in late 1921:

“This was Nihonmachi … 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 boys in knickers and golf caps flipped milk 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 Ninonmachi – 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 prostitutes.”

In other words, the entire range of human activity existed there, in Seattle’s Japantown of 1921.

And the funny thing? Take away the obvious references to Japanese culture and you could be describing any neighborhood in any big American city of the same era.

That’s the thing about art: At its best, it stresses our similarities even as it emphasizes just how different we all are.

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