Bringing Compassion to the World: Fiction and Nonfiction Writer Perle Besserman

Kabuki Boy
BY Perle Besserman
(Aqueous Books, 2013)

From the Publisher:

“Perle Besserman’s Kabuki Boy is a novel of Japan set in and around the capital city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) during the waning decades of the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868). Broadening the often narrowly focused literary and cinematic portrayals of samurai resistance to their declining social status, Besserman’s vivid narrative conveys that tumultuous period through the eyes of its peasants, priests, politicians, revolutionaries, mountebanks, geisha, and actors using the Kabuki theatre as a backdrop. Its nineteenth-century framework nested in a post-modern narrative by its fictional twentieth-century ‘editor,’ a cultural historian and abbot of a Zen monastery one hundred miles from Tokyo, the book is comprised of memoirs, theatrical and monastery records, personal letters and journals, all centering on the life of a Kabuki boy actor whose brief but illustrious career reflects not only the ‘golden age of Kabuki Theatre,’ but the most dramatic spiritual, political, and artistic events characterizing Japan’s violent emergence into the modern world.”

Writing your books sometimes requires you to do extensive research. Can you tell us about the research you did for Kabuki Boy?

I spent five years doing “hands-on” research before starting to write Kabuki Boy. I did it the “old-fashioned” way — without help from the Internet — scouring through libraries, reading print books and articles, Kabuki plays, historical records, translations from the Japanese originals. In addition to making several trips to Japan and traveling all over the country locating the background sites for my story, I visited museums, attended as many Kabuki performances as I could, spent several months practicing Zen in a Japanese monastery in Mishima Province, and, with my husband, then a scholar-in-residence at Nichibunken, explored, and fell in love with, Kyoto. To understand the motivation and experience for myself the samurai “way of the warrior,” I practiced aikido for two years. My own early life as an actor/singer/dancer, in twentieth-century New York City, gave me much of what I needed to know about theatrical life, which, I discovered, wasn’t very different from Myo’s, in nineteenth-century Edo (Tokyo). All of this required a lot of legwork, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of it. By the time I started putting down the first words of my preface, the story flowed forth, almost on its own.

Flannery O’Connor once said that anyone who has survived his or her childhood has enough to write about for a lifetime. Did you have experiences in your childhood that would later make their way into your writing?

Flannery O’ Connor is one of my earliest literary role models. I still go around quoting Hazel Motes’s lines to people in what strike me as appropriate situations — and even get a smile from those who don’t share the same quirky vision of the universe. In my case, childhood wasn’t so much an effort to “survive” as a willingness to “perform” the role of “heroine in my own novel” — as my father put it. I come from a family of book lovers, writers, readers, storytellers, poets, translators, and professors of literature. …in a sense, my entire life, from as far back as I can remember, has been one continuous narrative. Stories accompanied me everywhere. So, in a sense, my entire life, from as far back as I can remember, has been one continuous narrative. Stories accompanied me everywhere — starting at breakfast and ending at bedtime — Dickens or Jack London, or Walter Scott, Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville (my father’s favorites) or something Dad would make up himself or a chapter from Mom’s ongoing Siberian memoir. My father taught me to read, in a fashion, when I was two. I wrote my first published story when I was nine. I spent so much time “making up stories” — living them, actually — that, in order to keep me from continuously jabbering in class, an extremely perceptive elementary school teacher appointed me “class narrator” —entitling me to summarize (and embellish) the daily events in our classroom. So, oral storytelling, or, as we in Hawai‘i call it, “talking story,” was the start of my writing career. Eventually, my English teachers encouraged me on the path to becoming a writer. This is not to say my childhood wasn’t without its bumps in the road. As you can imagine, finding, and projecting, my voice in a family of such articulate, emotional, strong-minded, dramatic, highly opinionated individuals took some effort. I think that’s why, to this very day, I prize my “sovereignty” above everything else.

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