The Power of Culture: an interview with Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of Where the Dead Pause, and…


Marie Mockett was born and raised in California to a Japanese mother and an American father. Her first novel, Picking Bones From Ash (2011), incorporated many of the themes — Japanese fairy tales, ghosts, Japan’s Mount Doom — she would later revisit in her memoir of grief and mourning, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye (2015). Mockett’s family owns and runs a Zen Buddhist temple 25 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the site of the nuclear meltdown that occurred in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which left more than 15,000 people dead. With so much grief and mourning experienced at once, some of the survivors began to see ghosts, and others exhibited signs of spirit possession. In her new book, Mockett writes about the Buddhist exorcisms that priests performed to release these survivors from their grief, and she recounts her visit to a female shaman in the hopes of relief from her own sadness following the death of her father.

Grief after a loved one’s death is universal, but the traditions of mourning vary by culture. Like Mockett, I grew up observing the Taiwanese version of Obon — the month long Ghost Festival, where we make offerings to our ancestor’s spirits — without quite understanding its cultural context. When I was twelve my paternal Irish American grandfather was dying of cancer, and while I stood in the kitchen washing dishes my Taiwanese mother saw the white ribbon in my hair and commanded me to take it off. I protested — my paternal grandmother had given it to me, and I thought it looked pretty. My mother became agitated and explained that white was the color of mourning in “our” (Chinese) culture and wearing the ribbon in my hair was bad luck. Having been raised in New York City, where Judeo-Christian culture dominates, this was the first time I understood that death is a culture that we learn. Mockett’s book helped me understand what is universal about death, and gave context to what isn’t.

After seeing Mockett read at the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop, I wrote to her with some questions. We ended up discussing cultures of mourning, how jazz guided her narrative structure, female shamans, and her hopes for what this book might achieve, for herself and for others.

Kavanagh: Your book is about grief and mourning centered around Japanese culture, particularly Buddhism. From you research and your experiences, what are some differences between how Americans and Japanese process grieving?

Mockett: The Medieval Europeans called Death “the great equalizer” — he’ll come and get you whether you are a prince or a pauper. He will also show up if you are Japanese or American. And death — and the grief those left behind experience — is universally terrible.

But our responses to grief do vary depending on our culture. This, to me, is one of the beautiful things about human beings — that generations have spent time trying to figure out how to ameliorate the awful pain of suffering. It’s like in the Fairy Tale of Sleeping Beauty; there is the terrible curse, but then the Lilac Fairy comes along and tries to make things a little bit better. The compassion humans can have for each other functions like this too.

In Japan, there are so many customs — some local and some country wide — that encourage us to remember the dead just after they have left us and then for generations after. We think of them as watching over us. As a child, I didn’t understand the importance of this belief — it seemed maudlin and overly sentimental. But I do now realize that the most painful thing about losing someone, is that horrible feeling of being forever severed from someone who was part of your essential emotional architecture. The many mourning traditions in Japan are designed to assure us that we don’t completely lose those bonds and that every year, via Obon, we are able to welcome our ancestors home to spend time with us.

Kavanagh: Do you think going through the different rituals of Obon in Japan helped you finally come to terms with your grief after your father’s death, or was it time that ultimately helped you come through?

Mockett: I think it was both.

I think that some wounds are so deep, they do require enormous time to heal. And in my case, I needed a lot of time to understand exactly what hurt so much and why. I’m still in the phase of figuring out how I will live now that I’m out of the worst of the shock. Most of us will only have time to help us with grief — most people will not get to travel to Japan on a stipend funded by the US and Japanese governments. So, I want to stress that time is your best friend when you are suffering — it certainly was mine.

But the repetition of the rituals of Obon — and the many non-Obon related Buddhist rituals I participated in — also helped me to understand that my grief was one story in a sea of stories. I realized I would have to open up my heart further and feel a greater connection to other people, in order for the overwhelming pain to diminish. If I only focused on myself, then the pain would simply overwhelm everything. And that was the great gift of all the Obon rituals — they did really start to help me put my life in context.

Kavanagh: I saw you read at the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop in NYC recently. You said that you have many friends who are jazz musicians, so while thinking of the ordering of your book you saw each chapter as a song in a set list. You also said that you loosely structured your book around the cycle of a soul. Could you explain how that process worked?

Mockett: In the first few drafts of the book, I tried to follow a conventional narrative structure, with myself as the main character. I call this kind of book the “overcoming” book. I tried to write about my “overcoming.” But this did not work particularly well. I really resisted being the main character of the book — that is not a role I have ever wanted to play. And I don’t have that chatty, “I’m your best friend” voice that makes a book like that work for a contemporary audience. It felt forced and the writing showed my great discomfort.

I had been kicking around an idea for a long time — using the life cycle of a soul as the structure for a long work. At one point, when I was struggling with structure, I asked my editor what she thought of this idea and she was intrigued. And so, I started shaping the book loosely around that premise. We begin with:

The disaster
Some people die
Some people survive but are possessed by the dead
Some of the dead move on
Some of the living go to visit the dead
Some of the living cannot let go of the dead, and the dead cannot let go of them
The dead come back to visit once a year
Eventually, we let these yearly visitors go
The living who are in deep mourning go to Mt. Doom for a final farewell

That was the narrative structure I had in mind.

At the same time, I knew that not every chapter — or essay as some have called the chapters — was going to be the same in mood or in tone. Some are slight and poetic. Others are more active and more muscular. And so, I started to think about a jazz set — like how a masterful musician will put together a set so it unfolds with a natural shape, with “openers” and then with tunes that are intimate, and then other tunes that deepen the mood. I would look at my chapters and think — now, if this was the second set of Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood at Birdland on a Friday night, what kind of a tune would I play next? Would I speed things up? Would I need to linger in a poetic moment? How would I close out the set? Questions like this helped me shape my book as well. I’m a great believer that art learns from art. All artists are essentially trying to express something — and to address creative questions. Sometimes, looking at another art form can lead you to an answer. Sometimes, looking at another art form brings you to the truth in a way that is “slant,” to rob a quote from Emily Dickinson.

Kavanagh: In the book you talk about your American grandmother’s insistence that your Japanese mother teach you what is beautiful about Japan, and you visited Japan and learned Japanese at a young age. Still, there are many times in your book when you’re reminded that you are a “foreigner” because you are American, and are sometimes told that you won’t be able to understand what it means to be Japanese (an attitude I’ve experienced in Taiwan). In America, especially if we are non-white and/or have immigrant parents, we defiantly tell one another that anyone can become American. Why do you think the attitude is different in Japan? How did you reconcile the push-back you received with your desire to learn more about Buddhism and Japanese culture?

Mockett: Japan is a homogenous country. Many people are born there and die there and they don’t come from anywhere else — their roots go way, way back. The United States, more than anywhere else I have been, believes in reinvention, and in redemption at any moment. And while there are pockets of people who can trace their roots very far back in the United States (people who, not surprisingly, can be very conservative in their thinking), MOST of Japan is like this, though things are slowly changing.

I am married to a man from Scotland, and we recently had this conversation — how even in his old world, western European country, there is not the same belief as there is in America, that people can change, or that you can have a second shot at life.

It is very hard for an American who has not spent a lot of time out of the United States to understand how unique her attitude is — and to, at the same time — have a respect for what is good and what is limiting about old world attitudes. And Japan has an old world attitude. Remember — Japan was a country that completely kept out all foreigners, and barred its citizens from ever leaving until about 1868. If a Japanese person accidentally found himself drifting out to sea, and then getting picked up by a foreign vessel and then traveling the world before he tried to return home…well, the chances were high he would never be allowed back. Some of that attitude still remains. It’s very common for people to say that once Japanese leave Japan and live abroad, they can never return. Even my mother says this — too many years in America make it impossible for her to “be” Japanese again.

Even “inscrutable” cultures have their values and their rules and it behooves us to take the time to understand them.

But I also believe — because I’m a humanist — that people are people. Even “inscrutable” cultures have their values and their rules and it behooves us to take the time to understand them. We have all had that experience where sometimes just encountering something slightly different from what we are used to helps us to understand ourselves better — to grow. Maybe someone out there in the throes of grief will read about grief in Japan, and heal a little bit.

Conversely, maybe some stubborn Japanese will feel a little less anxious to have seen me, working hard to try to translate their culture to the outside world. And maybe — this is my true hope — the Japanese themselves will understand and value their culture better against the backdrop of a global world.

When I am in Japan, I am always struck by the number of books that highlight: “How to be Japanese” or “What does it mean to be Japanese?” There is tremendous anxiety in Japan about how to “fit in” in the world, because many are acutely aware that they do not. The American in me says — well, so what?

Kavanagh: Over at The Toast there was a recent conversation about Asian American writing where a writer named Ari Laurel had this to say:

“A professor and mentor of mine brought up the notion of performing for white readers. I try very hard to avoid shamanism in my work, and an attitude of bestowing a sort of ancient wisdom for non-Asian readers. It feels like self-exotification and self-betrayal. I notice that I will do things like mention Chinese philosophy and, say, Instagram, in the same paragraph. I will have narrators go on a tangent about spam instead of offering a standard “ethnic” food porn scene.”

I’m curious what you have to say in response to this, considering you are a Japanese-European American author writing about female shamanism in Japan. How did you first become interested in the female shaman of Japan? Can you explain their role in Japanese society and how it has evolved?

Mockett: The only way that writing or talking about ancient Asian wisdom is “performing for white people” is if deep down you believe in part that to talk about such things is performance, or that Chinese culture (and all the cultures that have borrowed heavily from China, like Japan) has a special lock on wisdom. It doesn’t.

If, on the other hand, you approach subjects like shamanism, healing and Daoism as facets of humanity and human culture, and speak about them in such a fashion, then how can you be performing? In that case, you are trying to reveal an aspect of the human experience which has, for centuries, been helpful and healing, even as it may also have been beguiling.

I became interested in shamanism originally because I read somewhere that it is one of mankind’s (and I hope you will forgive me here for using such a non PC term) oldest and most basic forms of religious expression. All cultures have a shamanic tradition. Yes, even white people!

One of the things that makes Japan so fascinating, is that its older, “pagan” roots were not stamped out by the weight of monotheism, as was the case in Europe; there, older religions were gradually choked off by the introduction of Christianity, so today, we only experience that kind of religious expression via the yearly decorating of Christmas trees, or Easter eggs, or even in the more watered down animistic expression of a Disney cartoon in which anything from a mouse to a car can talk and be our friend.

But before I go any further — what is a shaman? The loose definition of a shaman is that he — or she — is one who communicates directly with the gods by going into a trance, receives instruction and then returns to humanity to deliver whatever the news might be. Often a shaman is a healer. Scholars see traces of the shamanic tradition in everything from rock concerts in which a star musician helps bring an audience into a collective high, to charismatic college professors, to faith healers. There is some debate about male versus female shamans — the men tend to “fly” up to meet the gods, while women tend to become possessed. But I won’t go into that distinction here. Nonetheless, the fact remains, that shamanism seems to be a natural expression of man’s religious nature. So. To talk about China or, in my case, Japan, as having a “lock” on this tradition, would be arrogant.

I’m drawn in general to the study of religion because I think it is a natural impulse for people to try to express themselves in a religious or spiritual way. I am also a believer in the importance and power of science. These days, the term “spiritual” is quite loaded. But I do think that people seek meaning, and an understanding of their own inner worlds and their history and imagination. Science, a relatively newer discipline, can offer us only so much assistance. So, how to adapt the old religious practices for the modern world?

Not everyone agrees with me of course — and that can be a subject for another debate. But in general, I really like the work of people like Karen Armstrong, who asks us to consider how we might have a modern and healthy relationship to “God,” while still remaining true to the accomplishments of science that are our birthright.

I also think the question of how to have a healthy relationship with the whole notion of “spirituality” is a vital question for modern people. Look at the violence wrought around the world in the name of religion. Some would say that the answer is to reject all notions of God completely, and that if the world embraced atheism, then this kind of violence would stop.

I’m of the opinion, as I said above, that people are inherently meaning seeking creatures, and that the language of religion, which has given us performance, music, poetry and art, are vital to keeping us healthy and whole. So, I’m very interested in this question not of eradicating religion, but of how it can fit into modern life. And to do that, we have to look at how religion has functioned in the past and how it might fit into the present. And so, no, I don’t find it weird at all that an otherwise “modern” person in Japan might experience the shock of the tsunami and the mass casualties that resulted as a kind of spiritual trauma and believe herself to be possessed. And if she is given an exorcism in conjunction with the benefits of modern medicine and feels better, who is to say that this wasn’t exactly what she needed?

In your book you make it clear that in Japan there is a matter of fact acceptance about exorcism and shamanism that I found very comforting because I have a family history of Daoist exorcism and shamanism. How literally do people take these rituals?

I tried hard to bring out this point toward the end of my book — whether or not people in Japan believe in exorcism. I think that there is now an overemphasis on trying to disprove the literalness of most religious experience — and this, again, is where I’m indebted to Karen Armstrong and others.

I don’t think the “point” of most religious experience is whether or not it can be proven scientifically. Obviously, it can’t be. I mean, we can measure brain waves when people meditate and see that they do in fact undergo a physical change. But there is no proof that would placate a hard core scientist that God, the being, exists. But I don’t think that’s the “point” of God.

Can you prove love? Can you recreate it in a laboratory? Can you locate grief? Can you prove or force faith? Can you prove to someone who hates Mozart that Mozart was a genius? I don’t think that you can. To an extent, all these things are subjective. They are a reflection of personal experience in the world. This is for me the realm of all that is spiritual or religious.

That’s the power of culture. It is the collective wisdom of people who have, for centuries, tried to address the deepest and most difficult questions about being alive.

I think a healthy relationship with religion understands that it is metaphoric, that it expresses something you feel inside you. To go down the path of trying to factually prove all religious experience, or to insist that religion has a predictable and causal relationship with the elements of the universe is, I think, a misuse of the power of religion. But if you understand that, as in my case, a Japanese female shaman might know how to speak to me in such a way as to assuage my grief, when all logical paths have been exhausted, then what’s wrong with that? That’s the power of culture. It is the collective wisdom of people who have, for centuries, tried to address the deepest and most difficult questions about being alive.

Finally — a note about female shamans. Anthropologists think that once upon a time, we all lived in a matriarchy. There are vestiges of this matriarchy around the world, though this was stamped out. The vilification of witches, for example, is seen by some as an example of how the old European matriarchy was ultimately repressed. We know that female shamans once ruled most of Asia. Japan, because it is an island located at the end of the Eurasian continent, has preserved some of these traditions in the form of the female shaman, though she is disappearing. I find this fascinating. Given our current concern with equal rights for women, I wonder what lessons from history we might learn that are applicable to the modern world that can make our lives better.

Kavanagh: As a writer, what books and authors are you and your writing in conversation with? I think this is a more accurate way of asking about influence — seeing writing as a conversation with culture.

Mockett: This is a challenging question — one in which my reflex is to obfuscate or hide. But I’ll try to answer.

For every book that has cast Japan as a funny, weird, quirky, “oh the inscrutable East” kind of place, I am trying to say: No, here is what is human. Not only am I showing you what is human about Japan, but hopefully expanding your understanding of what is to be human, period. It is easy for us to access the humanity in stories that are set in cultures that have Judeo/Christian roots. This is true, even if one is a diehard atheist, which, frankly, is an attitude that comes from the Judeo/Christian tradition anyway, and its efforts to convert all and explain all and control all of the external world.

To Karen Armstrong, I am saying, yes, I understand that difference between mythos and logos, and here is a modern country (Japan) that did not stamp out its pagan and animistic religion, but kept it alive in tandem with a more modern religion (Buddhism). Might this not point to a healthy way that modern man can live with religiosity in his life?

To Richard E Nisbett, the distinguished professor of Social Psychology at Ann Arbor, I am saying: well, yes, as a matter of fact, our culture does literally determine what we see in our environment and landscape. In fact, it impacts what kinds of advertising work on us. It impacts how we want to design our houses, our temples and our parks. But in as much as all this helps us to understand foreign cultures, doesn’t it also speak to what the human mind can do, and how, in a very practical, non-hippy-dippy-I’m-on-a-vision-quest-pass-me-the-bong kind of way, the mind can actually expand? Don’t we want it to?

To Hayao Kawai, the Japanese Jungian psychologist whom I never met, and who sadly passed away a few years ago, I would say: I read your books and they changed my understanding of the psyche and thus of story. And while I know your work was partly intended to help the Japanese understand themselves, I can’t help but feel that it has also given us the basis from which to understand more about people and culture in general. Shouldn’t we train ourselves to understand that a story can resolve “with a beautiful image,” and that in wabi sabi, beauty is only complete when we accept death?

I paraphrase here, but Katherine Hepburn once said that she didn’t like Meryl Streep’s acting because all one heard was “click click click.” Hepburn found Streep too calculated.

Often, now, when I read a novel, I hear the click click click of it. And I don’t want to.

To all the young writers out there, then, I say stretch yourselves. There is no one right way to write a novel or to structure it. We are at an exciting time when how we read changes, and that means our stories can change too. Please be brave and bold and be thinkers, in addition to observers and craftsmen and women. And eliminate the “click click click” from your book. Because it exists in a lot of books.

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