Book Report: Fifty Words for Rain

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After the emotional turmoil of reading Caste, I wanted something less intense and not about race. Well, the next book I read, Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie turned out to be intense and about race, but it also had fun elements, so it was a bit of a break. Here’s how the Amazon description starts out:

Kyoto, Japan, 1948. “Do not question. Do not fight. Do not resist.”

Such is eight-year-old Noriko “Nori” Kamiza’s first lesson. She will not question why her mother abandoned her with only these final words. She will not fight her confinement to the attic of her grandparents’ imperial estate. And she will not resist the scalding chemical baths she receives daily to lighten her skin.

https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/1524746363/

Turns out little Nori is half Black, and that was quite a problem back then, especially for a member of the Imperial Family. The poor girl certainly has a hard time, but she’s one of those resilient types, thankfully. I found it interesting how she made the best of whatever situation she was in, and was able to learn and grow into an amazing person. She is amazingly good at being alone, that’s for sure.

Pretty cover.

Other than a few annoying repetitions (how many times must Nori bite her lips so hard that she tastes blood?), I enjoyed the writing and the fascinating (if sometimes scary) characters Nori encounters. Her family puts the D in dysfunctional, to put it mildly.

The other part that was fun for me, in particular, is the Japanese language and culture from the times I’m most familiar with that is spread through the novel. I’m way better with formal Japanese than colloquial, so I understood most of it (I was trained by a fairly formal Japanese speaker, or actually, I’m glad Swann-sensei didn’t teach us what he did know; that would be fifty words for alcoholic beverages). At least some of the horrors of that culture didn’t shock me, since I knew about them. Other readers might find some of the book a little disturbing, but that’s what you need in a novel, right? Something to get you to turn the pages!

I predict Lemmie’s writing will only get better, so I look forward to future work by her. Even if the race theme keeps popping up to remind me not to become complacent, it’s worth it. Go ahead, get it! It will give you a nice break from reality. It certainly improved my Saturday afternoon and evening!

So, Why Am I Not Shinto?

Today I’ll share a story about my history, which you may find weird or endearing. You make the call. In any case, it may explain why I was having so much trouble yesterday dealing with KonMari and how it’s being represented in popular cultuer (you may want to know that I figured out that my issue was not with Marie Kondo or her ideas, but with yesterday what people have done with the ideas).

Baby Suna

I was an odd child, given to spending half my time talking people’s heads off and hiding like a hermit (a hermit!) in my room or the woods. I spent a lot of time in my own mind, creating long stories in my head. One thing I firmly believed was that there were beings in the trees and other natural objects where I lived. I talked to them, gave them gifts, and loved them.

This (and Black Beauty) was among my favorite childhood books. It was huge, smelled good, and had gorgeous images in it,

When I was very young, my mother gave me a book that had been hers as a child, called Little Pictures of Japan. Published in 1925, it had haiku and beautiful pictures, along with a few stories. I loved it very, very much. I still have it (but it’s at the other house).

Here’s a picture from the book. Someone cut them out and sold them. Argh.

When asked to dress up as a member of another culture, I insisted on being Japanese. Poor Mom had to make a “kimono” (not having a CLUE how they were actually made), put my hair up, stuck knitting needles in my bun, and got my picture in the newspaper (conveniently NOT in the archives of the Gainesville Sun).

No one could figure out why I was so fascinated with Japan.

Older Suna

As I got older, I continued to love the trees and waterways and rocks around me. I had a friend who’d walk around the older parts of Gainesville hugging trees with me (we thought we were hippies; it was the late 60s).

Teen Suna hugging a tree near the duckpond in Gainesville. 1974, probably, judging by the hat.

And I kept being fascinated with things Japanese. In college, I minored in Japanese and studied Japanese film. In grad school I kept that interest up, learning more and more about the culture. I learned a lot about the spiritual practice of Shinto, which is native to Japan (and which influences Marie Kondo).

A bunch of old Japanese dictionaries I used to use in the 1970s-1980s.

I ended up not wanting to be Japanese, or even to live there. I was attached to MY trees and rocks, not the ones there. But Shinto, that I understood. All those beings I thought were in my trees, who I brought all those presents to, were the kami (sacres spirits) of my part of the world.

But I’m not Shinto

I grew to realize that, of course, I can’t really practice Shinto. It’s all tied up with the geography and culture of Japan, and I’m not Japanese, just a hen na gaijin (strange foreigner).

Not my culture, but I love my neko.

Whatever my spirituality is, though, it’s been affected deeply by my childhood beliefs that came from…who knows where? And it’s been affected by all those years studying Japanese language and culture, even if I can’t remember many kanji or converse more than a few sentences with a lot of head bowing involved.

I think THAT is why it wrenches my gut to see people throwing away objects full of personal history. To me, they are inhabited by something like kami, the spirits of the people and places to whom they are attached. Dad’s in his old baseball glove. Mom’s in that embroidery. I realize, of course, that my attachment to things isn’t shared by others, so I’m becoming more understanding of their points of view.

Like I said, I’m a little weird. But I can function just fine in society, so I’m not worried much about me. I think it’s important to treasure your own personal spiritual path, and that’s mine. Maybe I was Japanese in a past life (if there’s such a thing; I’m agnostic on stuff like that). Maybe it’s some ancestral DNA. Who knows. I like having some mystery in my world.


PS: I am not attached to everything in my surroundings. I do recycle clothing I no longer wear, clean out the pantry, etc. Like Marie says, I just hang on to what brings me “joy.”

I am pretty sure this water bottle does not have to stay on my desk, staring at me.
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