Ellis Avery and Sharon Marcus with Cassandra Neyenesch
by Cassandra Neyenesch
Early in Ellis Avery’s new novel, The Teahouse Fire, (Riverhead, 2006) the narrator describes her experience of tea ceremony, or chado :
I felt this one moment in all the world, three women in a room,
doors thrown back to the bright day, the drunk bees in the purple flowers.
I felt the alchemy of food made flesh. We were candles that burned on rice and salt.
These ground green leaves came from earth, water, light and air; and so did my
guest’s drinking body. And I myself was a leaf adrift… I felt my mind both river and
leaf at once. (p.98)
Lost in nineteenth century Kyoto, Aurelia, a child of Western missionaries, is adopted by Yukako, daughter of the Shin family, hereditary teachers of chado, entering a landscape of meditative detail that is at once a social and symbolic universe; the neighborhood bathhouse is as much an obstacle course of class jealousies as it is an experience of scalding water and discarded geta. Yet ultimately the story of The Teahouse Fire is beauty in all its allurements and sacrifices. Avery, a good friend of this writer, lives in New York with her partner Sharon Marcus, a Columbia literature professor whose non-fiction book Between Women comes out this month from Princeton University Press. Marcus uses a technique she calls “just reading”—looking directly at the evidence offered by lifewriting, magazine illustrations and novels rather than attempting to excavate a hidden or repressed reality—to explore women’s relationships in Victorian England. She discusses the power that girls wielded over their dolls, the sado-masochism of fashion plates, and the intense romanticism of women’s writing about each other to show that the intimacy of women was not at odds with the social system but a vital part of it. She provides examples of widely accepted “female marriages,” demonstrating that the Victorians were less prudish than we believe them to be—possibly less so than we are. In the books of Marcus and Avery I saw an emphasis on craft, taking pleasure in the detailed; the personal; the de facto. Both women are, at their cores, sensualists. Curious about how much they influence each other, I interviewed them in December.
Cassandra Neyenesch (Rail): Sharon, your book makes extensive use of Victorian women’s lifewriting, while Ellis, your novel is a Victorian woman’s autobiography. Was this a complete coincidence?
Sharon Marcus (Marcus): You read lots of diaries for your novel.
Ellis Avery (Avery): I did. I knew I wanted a leg to stand on. How do I tell Yukako’s story in a way that’s accurate about my own shortcomings as a narrator about this time and culture and language?
Marcus: And that is a question that is similar for someone writing a history and someone writing a historical novel.
Avery: I had this amazing collection of letters by Ume Tsuda, the founder of Tsuda college, who was one of the six or seven girls sent to America by Emperor Meiji to learn how to be Western women, and all of them except for one came home and married and lived very quiet lives. But Ume Tsuda—who was there long enough to completely forget Japanese and have to relearn it—wrote a letter to her American mother every day until her mother passed away, and it was enough to give me a real sense of how someone who would be very invested in Japan would rediscover it. Especially when she first gets there, she just notices so many things that you wouldn’t notice if you were from there, and that you might dismiss as barbarism if you were visiting as a Victorian.
Marcus: One thing I learned from Ellis in approaching this material is to be comfortable with my delight in individual voices and to get really interested in people. My first book wasn’t about people at all. In Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England I kept that critical distance from the material but I also let myself fall in love a little bit, not with the women but with their idiosyncrasies and the particularities of their ways of seeing the world and really pay attention to their relationships and let myself revel in the novelistic qualities of history in this book.
Avery: And I think that I learned classification from you, in that part of what I was doing was telling Aurelia’s story and Yukako’s story, but another part of what I was doing was trying to imagine a whole world, which required that I think about characters not just as characters but as social types. Rail: You talk a lot about dolls, Sharon. Is Aurelia Yukako’s doll?
Rail: Yukako and Aurelia have this bond of sisterhood in the beginning; is that really just Yukako’s play rather than to her a serious bond, because she can choose whether she’s the boss, the mistress, the friend?
Avery: I think that it is a serious bond for Yukako inasmuch as any girl’s bond with her doll is a serious one. But you’re right, it’s her whim that gives Aurelia a place in this world. Partly it’s a social power and partly it’s a power that Aurelia yields up to her through love. And then what Aurelia learns is, what do they have if she isn’t the one doing all the work?
Rail: Were you thinking of Sharon’s discussion of dolls?
Avery: I don’t know. But I felt that dolls were really important to their relationship: Yukako finds Aurelia on Dolls’ Day and there’s a lot of doll imagery. I thought of Aurelia as someone into whom Yukako breathes a kind of social life.
Rail: Inko and Aurelia’s relationship is compatible with Sharon’s view of women’s relationships as not threatening the Victorian social order but perfectly at home within it. Inko doesn’t angst about her feelings for women; Aurelia doesn’t wonder, “How can Inko marry a man?”; there’s no contradiction here because there’s no conception of lesbian identity. Was this influenced by Sharon’s work?
Avery: I think so, maybe. Part of it was just logic, but I was also aware of you (Sharon) thinking about a time before lesbian social identity…it sounds like there were women in Japan who were sleeping together but there wouldn’t have been a social category for it.
Marcus: I’ve read a little bit about homosexuality in modern Japan…by the 1920s, probably a little bit earlier, they started importing sexology and ideas of sexual types and the normal versus the perverse and of course once you import those things you also start teaching people all kinds of new ways to be perverse. In the work of one historian, I read about butch/femme couples in Japan who committed love suicide together as a way of getting their love affair taken seriously. As a way of saying, “Our love is tragic and cannot be realized,” but that had always been a huge feature of the depiction of love between men and women in Japan.
Avery: Because if you chose someone your parents didn’t choose for you, that was suicide.
Rail: You both use clothing a lot in your work, which is interesting because you’re both snappy dressers and like clothes and, Ellis, you even make your own clothes.
Marcus: I think we both like clothes—we don’t devalue them as irrelevant or trivial. A lot of scholarly stuff either doesn’t discuss clothing at all or works really hard to make it a symbol of something more important, like power. But clothes are, especially for women, an important method of self-expression, so my gut from the start was, if I’m going to write about women’s lives from women’s point of view, and parts of women’s lives that weren’t so much directed at men, clothing is going to be crucial.
Avery: I haven’t been to nineteenth century Japan; I don’t have a way to access this world directly, so I don’t have the authority of experience. But I can imagine something, and the closer to hand it is, the better I am at imagining it. I have worn kimono and I know how a body feels in kimono, and I can touch them and look at them. So, in writing about clothes I was imagining my way into a world. I had one point of light and I was using that one point of light to see more and more and more.