Between loyalty and treachery

Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show

Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show
Richard Wiley '67
272 pages, University of Texas Press

review by Beverly Conner '78

In this, his sixth novel and the prequel to his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Soldiers in Hiding, Wiley poses questions from mid-19th-century Japan that continue to resonate today: “What does a unified country want with a warrior class and what does a warrior class do in a country that is unified?”; and more personally, “Sex and grief … what could they possibly have in common?”

Wiley takes us on a tour of politicians and musicians, seamen and samurai, maids and mistresses, as we watch tradition clash with the inevitability of change. From the moment U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry sails into Edo Bay for “the signing of the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854, signaling Japan’s emergence from 250 years of relative isolation,” life for the Japanese and for the Americans, who bring their strange sounds of a fife and drum corps, is forever altered.

While the novel grapples with themes as large as death and revenge, Wiley’s narrative nonetheless dances with subversive wit and irony: the “gift” of a minstrel-show entertainment staged by an abolitionist (Ace Bledsoe from the free state of Pennsylvania), a young samurai with the Mariner-fan-pleasing name of Ichiro, the wryly titled chapters (Whoa, Nellie; I Guess There’s Hooligans Every Damned Where; and Outraged Periods and Exclamation Points).

Though readers of Soldiers in Hiding may recognize sly references to that book, this novel stands on its own. Fiction writer and poet Russell Banks says that “Richard Wiley is one of the few American novelists with the will and the ability to penetrate a culture not his own. … If there is such a thing as global fiction, Richard Wiley is writing it.” And along the way, sprinkling in Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Ralph Waldo Emerson for good measure.

From the power of gossip to the intrigues of leadership, from “unsuitable” loves to preparations for ritual suicide, Wiley explores human vulnerability. Through literal masks he examines the cultural masks that nations wear, unmasking our humanity in the process. And still the wry humor, as when an older samurai speaks to young Ichiro as they search for a barber shop: “I don’t know why we have such difficult styles. When you first saw the Americans did you not notice the efficient shortness of their hair? That’s what I will do if I survive this current trouble. Wear an American hair style!”

Through voices both Japanese and American, male and female, the novel repeatedly asks in the context of evolving cultures, what do we do about “intransigence”—that refusal to compromise or budge from extreme positions. According to an old samurai, “A man’s nature is as difficult to change, sometimes, as the flow of any river.”

Wiley conveys this mutual sense of otherness on the part of both cultures. When an American peers for the first time over the ship’s side: “ Japan offered up images of its own. Now he could see parts of a village and more lights moving in the forest hills, as if men on horseback were carrying lanterns. Now again, in the dimmest possible way… he believed he could also see the paper doors of a farmhouse, mournful and low, a whole family of farmers sleeping behind them. Or perhaps awake and staring back at him, curiosity about the coming world pouring from their… eyes.”

By novel’s end Richard Wiley’s greatest gift to readers may be the poignancy and pleasure of imagining lives that have passed through these now vanished places.

Wiley has been a teacher of creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas since 1989. From 1967 to 1969 he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea. In the mid-1980s he was the bilingual coordinator for the Tacoma Public Schools and later the executive director of the Association of International Schools of Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

Puget Sound Instructor of English Beverly Conner is at work on her second novel, Falling from Grace.


Gin Before Breakfast

Gin Before Breakfast: The Dilemma of the Poet in the Newsroom
W. Dale Nelson ‘49
244 pages, Syracuse University Press

Some of history’s most celebrated poets—Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them—also worked, at one time or another, as journalists. Nelson—himself a career reporter for the Associated Press and a published poet—has long been fascinated by what he calls the “dilemma” of these poet-journalists, whom he profiles in Gin Before Breakfast.

“Journalism is hard, demanding work,” he says, “and it takes up too much of a writer’s time.” The aims of the two endeavors are also often very different. “The journalist has to get it right. … Not so, or not necessarily so, the poet.” Poems and short stories, he continues, “are about mystery, about things we do not know.”

Edgar Allen Poe knew a thing or two about mystery. Author of macabre masterworks like “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe first sought a job in journalism as a broke, starving 22-year-old. He went to Richmond, Virginia, where he wrote scathing critiques for the Southern Literary Messenger, and later became editor and publisher of New York’s Broadway Journal, having purchased the paper for $50. But Poe, by now a binge drinker, proved incapable of tending to the details. In one issue, out of time and copy, he simply left a column and a half blank. The paper folded in 1846, three years before his death. In contrast, he was a perfectionist with his burgeoning poetry, constantly tinkering with the words.

Likewise, Whitman—who, by age 28, had edited eight newspapers—put more energy into his poetry than his journalistic pursuits. As an editor at New York’s Sun, he even began writing anonymous, positive reviews of his own literary work. Upon publication of his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, and his subsequent fame, his view of journalism soured. “According to the papers I am crazy, dead, paralyzed, scrofulous, gone to pot in piece and whole: I am a wreck from stem to stern.”

Rudyard Kipling—who got his start at India’s Civil and Military Gazette, working 10 to 15 hours a day in 116-degree heat—had a similar negative view of reporters once he became famous. He particularly disliked being interviewed. “When I have anything to say,” he quipped, “I write it down and sell it.” Yet, in 1900, during the Boer War, when he was summoned to edit a newspaper for British troops, he relished the opportunity. “Oh, how good to be a worker in a newspaper office again.” One night, impatient to publish a new poem he’d written, “General Joubert,” he broke into the paper’s composing room through a window and inserted the poem into the impending issue.

Ah, the power of the press. —Andy Boynton


Dancing with Destiny

Dancing with Destiny: Awaken Your Heart to Dream, to Love, to War
Jill Austin ’72
192 pages, Chosen Books

In Dancing with Destiny, Austin, an evangelical Christian, challenges readers to live the full lives they’re destined for—through God. She likens such a life to the first dance of a bride and groom. “God is calling for His Bride—for you. He is longing for you to know Him more intimately through the prophetic journey of your life.” Taking such steps, she says, requires a willingness to grow, to be vulnerable, and to take risks. She also champions the idea of the reader as a Christian warrior. “You are part of a radical army carrying out orders of the King of glory.” An award-winning potter and the founder of an organization called Master Potter Ministries, Austin has appeared on The 700 Club and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. —AB


bOObs: A Guide to Your Girls

bOObs: A Guide to Your Girls
Elisabeth McAnulty Squires ’80
256 pages, Seal Press

“How well do you know your breasts?” asks Squires, who calls herself the Boob Lady. According to her research, 85 percent of women wear the wrong size bra, and many live their lives “with little guidance.” Squires’s book—a sort of owner’s manual for mammaries—provides advice from physicians, lingerie fitters, and exercise experts, and it offers tips for those pregnant or nursing. The author also coaches women on “how to put their best breast forward” at each stage of life, with one chapter titled “Saggy but Sexy and Sassy.” Squires runs a blog and an online forum and has appeared on Good Morning America. —AB