Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The Bamboo Forest

In the opening chapter of my novel, young Satomi recounts the story of the Moon Princess, who was discovered inside a bamboo shoot. The Moon Princess, or Kaguyahime, is a classic Japanese fairy tale that most school children learn. It's so popular, even Hello Kitty has done her time posing inside a bamboo stalk.

I've always loved this story--it's beautiful, haunting and like all Japanese fairy tales, a little bit sad at the very end. It's difficult for me to go to Japan and look at a bamboo forest and not see it as a potential hiding space for an adventure or a story. Look, for example, at this photo of a bamboo forest that I snapped one fall. To me, this looked like the entry-way to a secret world.

Now imagine that you grew up in a little town like this, nestled in a small valley. The dark patches of green are pine, the lighter patches bamboo. If you were an adventurous, imaginative kid, well . . . aren't all kids? It'd be hard not to explore your surroundings.

When I was trying to think of a way to start my novel that would draw in readers, I first heard the bossy voice of Satomi speaking to me--and that's where you get the opening lines about women needing to develop a talent. And then I thought about Kaguyahime and the bamboo forest. This is one of the wonderful things about Japanese fairy tales--there are lots of starring roles for girls and princesses. The women all have special powers and while men love them, the tales rarely end in marriage, as stories do in the west. The girls are just too special to be captured or conquered. And I mean, really, isn't beauty like that?

It might not make sense that a baby could be born inside a bamboo stalk to western audiences, but that's because we rarely see the kind of bamboo here that exists in Asia. Most western bamboo--the kind found in parks or gardens--is quite thin. There are actually many varieties of bamboo. On one trip to Japan, I set out to look for as fat a stalk as possible. My mother had heard a rumor about fat bamboo on an island south of Hiroshima. So, we hired a car and drove around.

In the foreground, you can see some kind of carved stone--I think this is to mark what would once have been a sacred space. If you make it the end of my novel, then you can see how this rock would have embedded itself in my imagination and stayed there!

In the opening chapter, young Satomi watches as a ghostly woman harvests some shoots to eat. They are not easy to dig up--the root system is very deep and complex. But here's a shot of a shoot emerging from the ground.

I'm always nostalgic when I see shoots like this for sale by the side of the road. While traveling in Japan, it's pretty hard to stop to cook something yourself, unless you are staying with friends (and it's not exactly polite to show up with groceries and say to your host--hey can you cook this for me?). Knowing this my mother once found some shoots in Chinatown in San Jose, and promptly bought them so we could cook together. This prompted a little piece on cooking with bamboo shoots which the always generous Maud Newton put on her website.

I guess I as a panda in a former life-I really love the savory flavor of fresh shoots. Finally, if you have my book, you now have some insight into why there's a sprig of bamboo on the back cover . . .

:-) I should receive your book this week since Amazon.UK already dispatched it. It's nice to have this kind of insights into a book.
Oh, Mary. Thanks for such a nice comment. You've always been so supportive! It means a lot to me to be able to share my book with my "virtual" friends. Thank you. I hope you like it enough. ;-)
In the Philippines we have an origin story where the first man and woman were first created in the split stalks of a giant bamboo. A lot of bamboo birth stories then in our part of the world.
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