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On Being Exotic

Guest blogger, Marie Mutsuki Mockett

A few years ago, I came home from my grandmother’s memorial service in Japan, and recounted my experiences to my agent over a cup of tea in her book-and-paper stuffed office in Chelsea. It had been an intense family experience; the burial and luncheon had revealed a great many family secrets. My agent listened, rapt with attention. And then she said: “That would make a very good essay.” So I wrote “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium.” It quickly sold.

I had finished a novel that was ready for publication, but editors who had seen the essay called and asked for a memoir. Other literary agents contacted me too, on the basis of “Crematorium”, hoping that I needed representation. The first time I heard that the essay was being used in the classroom—from a writer who asked me to blurb her first book—I was amused. Then I learned of other writers and teachers referencing “Crematorium” in the classroom and I realized that in fact people were taking the essay very seriously. I had better start to do so, too.

It had never even occurred to me to try my hand at nonfiction before I wrote “Crematorium” and I wasn’t even sure what it was that people were responding to. I asked my agent: “What is it about this piece?” She gave me a knowing shrug. “It’s the exotic.” I didn’t like this answer. I tried asking a few more people what they thought, hoping to get a different response. “You end up feeling empathy for everyone,” someone else said. “Lots of pieces evoke empathy,” I said. “Is it the exotic?” “Well,” said a third friend, a musician. “It’s way inside.”

Why do exotic things have such power over us? There are many answers to this, and the most academic and political ones have to do with our need to objectify each other. Writers outside of Asian culture have long written about China, Japan, Korea, etc. with fascination, or made our fascinating qualities the subject of their books. We were fascinating in Shogun, in Memoirs of a Geisha, in Madame Butterfly. To many of us, this is irritating. Some of us—I know this is true for me—would like to pull a Velveteen Rabbit and be real. Because I worry about this, I have to sometimes fight the urge to explain myself in my writing.

Because unless handled with exceptional skill, explaining can come off as “protesting too much,” to borrow a line from the Bard. It can sound too self absorbed. Too adolescent. The self-explainer can sound like the Scientologist who, in an interview, expects accolades for declaring: “And now I am clear!” Which is to say, the explainer can sound like she’s not actually comfortable in her own skin at all.

In fact, in early drafts of “Crematorium,” I had done a lot of explaining. I wanted readers to understand the importance of the crematorium and of death rituals in Japan. “But this is inert,” my agent complained to me when I showed her an initial draft. “It isn’t what you told me about at all when you were sitting in my office.” It was true. I had left out all the juicy bits about my hearse-driving cousin, my vengeful grandmother and my cousin born out of wedlock. I was afraid that these details had the flavor of gossip. They were also very personal. But the job of a storyteller is to find those details that are interesting and that grab and keep the reader’s attention, and so back into the final essay all the details went.

The hope, of course, is that a writer will always take a look at a subject, no matter how hackneyed, and try to render what is real and complex about it, even as she is trying to be entertaining. And this is where those things that are entertaining run the risk of becoming offensive in some way. When what is human and three-dimensional is removed from the story, the very human quality of the writing—the very thing we read for—is lost.

As a bonus, the lessons I learned writing “Crematorium” paid off in my novel, Picking Bones from Ash. Shortly after the essay was written, I did a revision of the novel—and it quickly sold. Somehow the act of writing something truthful and difficult unlocked something further in me as a writer that I was able to apply to my fiction. I know that the territory I cover in my writing will often strike western readers as “exotic”; I’m a westerner myself and all too aware of how my “other world” is perceived by an audience in “this world.” But I also know that readers can see the people in my work as real and flawed and in pain and in love and everything else in between.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in Carmel, California to a Japanese mother and American father. Her Japanese family owns a Zen Buddhist temple where she often played as a child, and which, among other things, performs exorcisms. In 2009, Marie attended the Bread Loaf Conference as a Bernard O’Keefe Scholar in Nonfiction. Marie’s essay “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium” was published in Agni 65, cited as distinguished in the 2008 Best American Essays, and anthologized in Creative Nonfiction 3, edited by Lee Gutkind. Additional poems, stories and essays appear in The North Dakota Quarterly, Phoebe, Fugue, LIT and other journals.

Marie’s debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, was published by Graywolf Press on October 1st, 2009. The LA Times said of Picking Bones from Ash: “Some fiction makes the world a little smaller; illuminates the dark corners, puts the taste of, say, breakfast in a small mountain village of Japan in the mouth of the reader.” Publishers Weekly praised the novel, stating Marie “succeeds where many others fail: making the reader care.” Amy Tan called Mockett’s novel “a book of intelligence and heart.” Picking Bones from Ash was a Finalist for the Paterson Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Visit Marie’s website.

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Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.
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One Comment
  • Eugenia Kim

    Since becoming a writer, I’ve also heard the adjective “exotic” applied to my work, like Marie describes in this essay (disclaimer: Marie and I are gently acquainted, and I adore her book). I’ve had numerous arguments with other writers about that word. My squabble is about its application to “otherness,” specifically Asian otherness. The undeniable and–for Asian women–unavoidable derogatory nature of the word and its ability to objectify comes from the skin trade. I will venture to guess that most Asian women have been called “exotic” at some point in their lives.

    Marie is wise in looking beyond the divisive nature of this word to what the real question was, and to learn and teach us something about her art in that process. I, however, am still fuming about how casually the word remains used as a catch-all, when it represents so much negative history for women of color. It should go out of style, like other words that have historically been used to cause harm.

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