Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January Secret Agent #16

TITLE: Miyako
GENRE: Memoir

What must I do, I ask the monk, to stay?

This city was not always in my blood. There was a time when its wooden houses were not reefs in me, when its paper-covered windows did not slow down the sun I saw. In that time, I did not know the clouds that its cherry trees bloomed in spring, nor the wisteria hanging from its summer trellises. I did not know that if I reached for a scent, I would drown in lilac.

I had never tasted the green of the year’s first tea. I had not heard the city's monks teach that nothing lasted, nor its poets mourn because nothing had. I did not know that sleeves belonged to the grammar of the heart, nor that passing through a rock could bind your fate to another’s.

I had not seen a dyer’s indigo hands. I had not felt swordsmen brush past me as they ran, chasing revolution. And I had not gone to search for words written in fire in the mountains.

There was a time when I did not hold Kyoto inside.

But it stole in through my eyes, through my ears, it unfolded on my tongue. More than a year after I saw the city on holiday, its voices still would not leave. So I cut myself away from my life in Singapore – a life of safe work and safer ties – and moved to the heart of old Japan.


  1. I think you have some beautiful images in this opening. The wooden houses and the wisteria and the indigo hands--those are lovely, whimsical but concrete images.

    However, I do think it also gets a little purple, and there are some metaphors that either I don't understand or might be reaching too far in terms of meaning. Like "sleeves belonged to the grammar of the heart." I feel like I'm missing something here, b/c this doesn't make sense to me. Same with "passing through a rock could bind your fate to another's." I don't think you mean literally passing through a rock, but it's hard to tell the way it's phrased, and what does this have to do with anything?

    I think you carry on far too long about all these mysterious facets of Kyoto. Even though the imagery is nice, it's all telling, and I would rather learn about the city of Kyoto through experience rather than being told all these things. I would suggest sticking to a few concrete images to keep the set up you've got here, and then saving the rest for a more natural integration later on.

    Having said all that, this is definitely something I would continue reading in order to find out why the narrator has to leave Kyoto, and to learn more about this city that pulled him/her away from a life elsewhere.

  2. I would start out: "The city was not always in my blood. There was a time when I did not hold Kyoto inside." Love those two lines! Then use some of your lovely images such as the swordsmen and the indigo hands, but not all of them. Then jump to the wisdom of the monks. I wonder if English might be a second language to you? A few of your sentences suggest it, and I think in a good way. It has an exotic feel. I would like to read more!

  3. Hi Betsy, thanks for your comment.

    English is my first language though. : )

  4. I am intrigued by the sentences at the end and would perhaps like to "see" that moment when the narrator falls in love with Kyoto and made the life-changing decision. There are some lovely poetic images earlier in the passage along with some that confused me. Maybe a little less of the description (though it is pretty) and a little more "action" or conversation with the monk?
    Just my 2 cents of course, and although this doesn't sound like the type of book I would normally read, I did find it intriguing.

  5. This is really beautiful, and reads like a literary work. The sleeves description reminds me of how they use geisha kimono to signify their status in the community, and I dimly recall something about a rock or an arch where if you stand with your loved one, you could be with them forever. I'm Asian though, so you might need more knowledge of Asian culture to understand some of the descriptions (although even I can only make a guess at some of these!)

    So lovely!

  6. I very much enjoyed this elegant opening. Such a clear sense of place. I want to take the journey with you (yes, I am hooked.)

  7. Wow, you can paint a beautiful picture! I loved your last paragraph, very moving! Nicely done and good luck :)

  8. Nice, vivid writing and lovely description, but I thought they went on for too long. Perhaps pick out the ones you like best and confine it to one paragraph.

    I also agree with the poster who suggested you start with - There was a time when I did not hold Kyoto inside. The city was not always in my blood, then give a few examples and move on to the story. That's what I'm interested in.

  9. There's something very special about the "haiku" quality of the opening--the language itself tied together with the mention of the monk, etc.--but it extends past its haiku-ness with too much description (as others have noted), and I think pulling back would make a big difference. Not that you'd necessarily need to be more specific in clarifying what exactly is going on, since we're okay experiencing vagueness in this haiku-ish context, but it would feel less like you're avoiding something concrete about the story if the descriptions were shorter...really interesting approach, though!