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Is That You, Mother?

Japan's first shamans were female, says novelist Marie Mutsuki Mockett.



The women in Satomi's small town suspect that her mother is an ex-geisha from faraway Tokyo and that Satomi is the bastard child of a long-vanished customer. Despite their gossip, they can't help but envy Satomi's mother. Albeit an expert on textiles and ceramics, "with men she affected an alert, almost childlike expression, wide eyes taking in everything they said as though it was all, right down to the most inane reenactment of a day at work, the most interesting information she had ever heard," writes Marie Mutsuki Mockett in her debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, in which Satomi, Satomi's mother, and Satomi's daughter Rumi are links in a chain wrought of secrets and regrets. No wonder Rumi hears ghosts.

"Many serious 'literary' readers and editors ... shy away from anything to do with 'the occult,'" muses Mockett, who will give a talk on Japanese fairy tales and unattainable women at the Hillside Club (2286 Cedar St., Berkeley) on Monday, November 30. Given the popularity of anime, this puzzles her. And although "I'm basically a realist and a rationalist ... yes, I have had a couple of very profound experiences. I've learned that a true encounter with the unknown almost always stems from something deeply personal — something deep within the psyche," says the author, who grew up in Carmel and majored in East Asian studies at Columbia. In Noh plays, "ghosts or possessed women are suffering because of some personal injury or hurt; they need the help of a Buddhist priest to relieve themselves of attachment and suffering. Further, scholars tell us that Japanese spirit possession probably originates in part from old shamanistic practices. And did you know that the original rulers — and shamans — in Japan were women? This is not the way we think of Japan today, and yet there are many traces of this kind of feminine power not only in fairy tales, but also in popular culture."

In Picking Bone from Ash, antiques authenticator Rumi has the paranormal ability to intuit objects' backstories. This too draws upon fairy tales and surrealist anime, "where objects often do come alive and talk. In societies that have held onto a sense of animism, a talking cat or cup are not so strange," says Mockett, whose father who collected Asian art similar to the wares whose provenances Rumi is asked to verify.

Having grown up in San Francisco believing that her mother was dead, Rumi becomes absorbed in the mysteries surrounding Satomi. Her ensuing journey shimmers with the ever-shifting lights and darks of the mother-daughter bond.

"I'm not convinced the therapeutic mining of mother-daughter relationships that we as a culture have done over the last twenty years has really made us any happier. ... Perhaps we've led ourselves not into some kind of greater understanding about ourselves," Mockett ventures, "but into a kind of awful Buddhist drama where some of us are too attached to our suffering." 7:30 p.m., $5.