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A Place in the World

[whitespace] Linda Watanabe McFerrin's quirky, charming coming-of-age novel

By Sarah Coleman

Teagarden Springs, in downtown Mill Valley, is the kind of place that caters to a full-scale regeneration of mind, body and spirit. Screened from traffic by lush curtains of greenery, its arched windows are set into pale yellow walls on which gold Chinese script dances lightly. Delicate porcelain statues of the Buddha sit atop an antique Chinese cabinet, and a rock-bordered path leads from a cafe area to a suite of massage and therapy rooms. Two dozen of the world's tiniest teapots repose on a glass shelf in one window, in such perfect alignment that you feel for the poor soul who has to dust them. Being clumsy by nature, I don't even want to breathe in their vicinity.

I'm there to meet author Linda Watanabe McFerrin, and when she comes in she almost immediately puts me at ease by spilling tea on the perfect lacquer table. "What a mess--see, this is why I don't fit in in Japan," she mutters. Watanabe McFerrin's first novel, Namako: Sea Cucumber (Coffee House Press; 256 pages; $14.95), is the story of Ellen, an Asian American girl who is also ill at ease with traditional Japanese values--at least at the start of the novel.

Having grown up in the United States, Ellen is thrust into an unfamiliar culture when her parents move to a rural Japanese town, ostensibly to care for Ellen's sick grandmother. In reality, the move is an effort to save Ellen's parents' marriage, since her father has been having an affair with a family friend. During the four years that she spends in Japan, Ellen finds herself struggling to define her own values in a world in which the adults around her are at best preoccupied, at worst downright peculiar--like her pornography-obsessed biology teacher, Mr. Graham.

Caught between childhood and adolescence, Japanese and American cultures, Ellen is in a state of in-between-ness that resembles the fate of the namako, or sea cucumber, that Mr. Graham gives her--a creature that seems not quite animal and not quite vegetable, with a Japanese name whose characters can also be read as "raw child."

This kind of coming-of-age story is standard fare for a first-time novelist, but Watanabe McFerrin injects Namako with a quirky sensibility that makes it seem freshly minted. Part of its charm stems from the fact that its young narrator doesn't dwell on anything for very long, instead moving quickly from event to event. The story is built of small vignettes, which Watanabe McFerrin likens to traditional Japanese woodcuts, or ukiyoye.

"One of the things I was trying to do was to create a Japanese sensibility, this slightly different way of looking at the world," she explains. "It's to do with not making judgments, being grounded in the moment and simply responding. ... If you look at Japanese woodcuts, they're very clean and incised, just little transient moments."

With her petite frame and delicate features, and a thick braid of black hair hanging down her back, Watanabe McFerrin could almost be a schoolgirl herself. Like Ellen, she is Japanese on her mother's side and Caucasian on her father's side, and she spent part of her childhood in Japan. These days, she lives in Oakland, where she writes travel essays and poetry in addition to fiction. But she still remembers her years in Japan with astounding clarity.

"One afternoon, I followed a procession on its sinuous journey through the labyrinth of Tokyo streets," Ellen writes during a stay at her severe grandmother Tokue's house. "Suddenly, I was alone. I trotted along a sidewalk bordered by a ditch in which raw sewage flowed. Cheap nawa-noren, rope blinds, covered the entrances of the dirty soba-ya stalls, taishu-shoku-do and sushi stalls. I passed derelict ten-yen stores and closed restaurants with chipped maneki-neko, good-luck cats, beckoning in their grimy windows. The air smelled like sour milk and garbage."

Not the most pleasant memory, perhaps, but as the novel progresses, Ellen learns to appreciate various aspects of Japanese culture, including kamis, the Shinto folk deities. As Japan's ancient folk religion, Shinto predates Buddhism but co-exists quite peacefully with it; a Japanese person can observe both Shinto and Buddhist rites.

"In Shinto, a human, a bird and the wind all have the same importance--all can become kamis," says Watanabe McFerrin. "It's a community-oriented belief system where the good of the whole is very important, but everything has its own place and purpose." By the end of the novel, Ellen believes in kamis; through them, she realizes that everything--including an awkward adolescent--has a place in the world.

Watanabe McFerrin laughs when I comment on how well she conveyed the workings of an adolescent's mind. "I'm not sure that any of us grow up that much beyond 12 or 13; most people stay pretty adolescent their whole lives." At this, she pours the last tea from the teapot and takes a sip. "I guess Ellen's not doing too badly, all things considered."

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From the September 21-October 4, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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