A Conversation with Ellis Avery about The Teahouse Fire

Q. How did you come to be interested in Japan and tea ceremony?

A: If I had known that Japanese tea ceremony was a living art, I probably 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 with massive annual tea parties in Central Park. I first saw a tea ceremony performed in 1998, at a teahouse in Kyoto. I was seated upstairs in an exquisite room built in the early 20th century, whose architects had incorporated an exotic Western element—glass—into the traditional combination of shoji windows and tatami floors. I didn’t understand what the kimono-clad woman sitting on the floor across from me was doing, but I gladly accepted the bowl of foamy green tea and the confections that looked like cherries, felt like marzipan, and tasted like sweet cream. Through the wavy old glass, I could see into a garden that had been designed to draw my eyes up through the moss and trees to the “borrowed scenery” of the mountains that ringed the city. In that room with the tea and sweets, the cool woven tatami and the warm glazed tea bowl, the “borrowed” mountain scenery and an accidentally “borrowed” line of flapping white tee-shirts hung to dry—I felt humbled and elated by so much beauty. And though I didn’t know it at the time, those panes of glass fitted into the shoji-paper windows of the Kyoto teahouse would inspire the glazier character in my novel.

Ellis Avery at Tea Ceremony

When I came home to New York, I began taking tea classes at the Urasenke Chanoyu Center on East 69th Street. The more I learned, the more I wanted to inhabit the world of tea: writing The Teahouse Fire gave me a way to live there for a few years.

Q. What was the inspiration for The Teahouse Fire?

A: Not long after I started taking Japanese tea ceremony classes here in New York, a question confronted me: why are all the important people in tea ceremony history men, when all my fellow tea students were women? I did some research and learned about a real woman from one of the most important tea families in Kyoto named Sen Yukako. She changed the fate of tea ceremony in the late 1800s by getting tea into the curriculum of the newly established girls’ schools. Doing so, she transformed a men’s art into a women’s art: her story is the inspiration for Yukako, one of the two heroines of The Teahouse Fire.

Q: In what ways was the real Yukako similar to the fictional one and in what ways was she different?

A: There is a tantalizing dearth of information about the real Yukako available in English. I do know her dates of birth, marriage, and death, the year her first son was born, and the year her husband retired, at age 33, to hand over the household to his twelve-year-old son, which suggests that he was really turning it over to Yukako. By hewing pretty close to these bare facts, I was able to imagine my story all the more vividly, the way the rules of a sonnet create a taut form inside of which infinite freedom is possible.

Q. What fascinated you most about your research and how was that incorporated into the novel?

A: When I first discovered that there was this real person, Yukako, who broke down the barriers that excluded women from tea ceremony, I was so excited. I thought of her as a kind of feminist icon. The more I read, however, the more I realized that Yukako lived through the biggest cultural upheaval Japan has ever encountered: a top-down program of radical Westernization that began in 1868. Overnight, the entire ruling class, which had been dependent on handouts from the overlord for 250 years, lost its funding, which meant that all the traditional arts suddenly hit the skids. This information complicated, in a fascinating way, how I thought about my character: the Yukako who made tea accessible to women as an altruistic gesture became a Yukako who did it to save her family. But how did she feel about what she had accomplished? Only fiction can tackle a question like that.

Q: As much as The Teahouse Fire is Yukako’s story, it’s also the story of its narrator, Aurelia, the American girl Yukako takes under her wing.

A: Aurelia has no basis in tea history at all! When I decided to tell Yukako’s story, I needed a voice with which to tell it: using an omniscient voice would make it only too clear that I’m separated from this story by time, language, and culture, and writing it from Yukako’s point of view would only compound the problem: who am I to presume to know how a 19th century Kyoto woman would think and speak in English, no less? So when I began, Aurelia was both an expression of my own limits as a storyteller and an accessible window into an unfamiliar world. But once I started writing in her voice, her story became a necessary counterpart to Yukako’s.

Q: This novel takes place over 100 years ago. What makes it relevant to our time?

A: At the deepest level, my book addresses an issue preoccupying everyone in the world today: what happens when cultures collide? Instead of reducing cultural encounter to aggression and conquest, I offer a more subtle and realistic story in which members of both cultures are changed. My two heroines, Yukako and Aurelia, give me a lens through 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 mid 1800s–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.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions people have about tea ceremony and what do you hope they gain from reading The Teahouse Fire?

A: First, people assume that tea ceremony has always been a women’s art, but my novel reveals how tea was largely the province of men until very recently in its history. People also tend to ask me if tea ceremony is religious or magical. It’s actually an art form: part stylized movement, part ritual meal, part opportunity to handle and use priceless antiques. That said, tea ceremony often goes hand-in-hand with Japan’s native pantheist religion of Shintoism, with its attention to nature and the passing seasons, and with Japanese Buddhism, in which it’s used as a form of meditation, a way of being rigorously in the present: if you’re so busy keeping track of all the elements of tea ceremony, you have no space in your brain left for mental chatter.

Most of all, I think many people hear the phrase “tea ceremony” and feel intrigued or charmed, but have no idea what it is. When I first started studying tea, I didn’t know that it was performed kneeling on the floor in your socks, or that I’d be drinking a bowl of ground tea powder that had been whisked with hot water, rather than a cup of tea that had been steeped and poured from a pot. I didn’t know I wouldn’t have a choice of teas! I didn’t know how ravishingly beautiful teahouse architecture would be. I hope my novel introduces readers to the world of tea ceremony and inspires them to learn more.

Q:   You studied with Maxine Hong Kingston. What influence did she have on you and your writing?

A: Maxine is now a friend and mentor, but long before we met, I grew up loving The Woman Warrior, the way it weaves together the mythic past with the nitty-gritty present. Having the opportunity to study with Maxine was life-changing: I began writing The Teahouse Fire at Arts Workshop International, in a two-week intensive class she taught called “Everything I Know About Writing.” We worked on the scene as a basic unit of fiction, on imagining each character’s development all the way through to his or her own ending, on trying to picture, at least abstractly, the entire book on one flat visual plane. Most challengingly, she made us each come up with a “last scene” for our novels, as a beacon toward which to write: believe me, when I reached the end of the first draft, two and a half years after starting, it was thrilling to paste in that “last scene” from Maxine’s class. It’s not too different from the one you can read today.

Q: Who are your other influences?

A: Most of all, Sharon Marcus, my partner, who is also a writer. She’s an English professor at Columbia and the author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. One of the best seasons of my life was spent working side by side with her on our books in Kyoto, where we were each others’ first readers. It’s no accident that both books are about 19th-century women, and the more I look at the two volumes together, the more they testify to our happily overlapping intellectual lives.

In terms of other influences, Penelope Fitzgerald can’t be beat for wearing her learning lightly: I re-read her novel The Beginning of Spring several times to gear up for attempting The Teahouse Fire. Sarah Waters is a master at working meticulous historical research into fast-moving fiction. Liza Dalby and Edward Seidensticker have given so much of themselves as researchers to those of us who want to imagine everyday life in 19th-century Japan. Toni Morrison’s Beloved deeply informed my book: like Sethe, Aurelia needs to learn that she’s her own best thing. And I like to hope that I’ve offered readers what Honoré de Balzac brings so well to Cousin Bette: one satisfying heroine after another.

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