A Western Geisha's Hybrid Novel

Thursday, Mar. 22, 2007

By PICO IYER

Time Magazine


Decades before a white-faced Ziyi Zhang performed her electric dances in Hollywood's Memoirs of a Geisha—and years before the Arthur Golden novel of the same name ushered millions worldwide into the private corners of Kyoto's geisha quarter—an anthropologist from Stanford traveled to Japan's ancient capital to become the first foreigner to live and work along its narrow streets as a full-time geisha. Liza Dalby's experiences inspired several books, including her memorable and elegant Geisha, published in 1983, a book on kimono and a novel about Japan's first novelist, Lady Murasaki, and her adventures of a thousand years ago. Now 56, Dalby lives in northern California where she lectures and writes. But even in her New World home, she buys crickets that she feeds with chunks of melon and visits ancestors' graves, much as any Japanese lady might.

East Wind Melts the Ice, her fourth and latest book, is a spirited and graceful example of how to live Japanese, you could say, without losing an American accent. Dalby began composing this 10th century-style pillow book about her 21st century Californian life four years ago, creating a diary of the seasons divided into the 72 five-day segments of an ancient Chinese almanac. She even wrote parts of the book first in Japanese. On its surface, her gardener's journal is a casual, wandering set of two- or three-page mini-essays on mushrooms, ruby-throated hummingbirds and incense-sniffing ceremonies in Berkeley. Deep down, it is proof that attention and precision—savoring the small print of each moment—are no more peculiar to East than to West.

Dalby is clearly an expert forager, with a love for digging at the roots of things, be they customs or words. She tells us that it was a German moon goddess, Eostre, who gave her name to both Easter and to the female hormone estrogen, and she explains that in old China, a hawk and a dove were considered to be the same bird, seen in a different light. She retells the poignant story of the compiler of the 16,000-page Great Chinese-Japanese Classical Dictionary, who saw the proofs of 12 of his 13 volumes reduced to ash during the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, yet started the epic all over again, even as he lost all sight in his right eye and most in his left. One Japanese word for the rainy season, baiu, can be written out to suggest the scent of "plum rain," Dalby informs us—or to refer to the smell of "mold rain." Poetry and practicality, in other words, converge.

Yet deeper than such passing curiosities, what Dalby is really doing is reminding us that Japan and California are on much the same latitude, and are almost the same size. You can buy Californian oranges in Japan nowadays as easily as Japanese persimmons in California. Sometimes—as in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, on which Dalby worked as a consultant, and where classic Japanese forms had to be adapted to suit modern tastes—the cross-pollination produces what Dalby calls a "sushi sandwich." But often, as in the "Brie-cheese maki" she puts inside her daughter's Berkeley lunch-box, the cultures can be combined to form something tasty and new.

As might be expected of a onetime geisha, Dalby has a keen and subtle feel for textures and shadings. ("Nothing in the world," she knows, "is as soft as mole fur. Venetian silk velvet perhaps comes closest.") Yet as with any geisha who sticks in the memory, she's clearly no shrinking violet. She went on book tour once, she confesses, with blackened teeth, to see how the old Japanese custom would play in contemporary America. Attending a conference on Lady Murasaki, she dyed her hair purple because murasaki in Japanese can mean "purple."

There are no heavy-handed "explanations" of Japan among Dalby's whimsical observations of geese and dance forms. But by picking up details that open out, like a paper fan, she makes us feel that we're seeing Japan from within, yet in a language we can follow. It's common these days to hear of foreigners who find themselves in neon-crazy Tokyo, "lost in translation." By going to old, lantern-lit Kyoto, and drawing on four decades of being a student and lover of Japan, Dalby shows us how she, her young American culture—and even we—can be found in an old and alien tongue.