“Foreigners aren’t Fish”: The Last Tea Bowl Thief by Jonelle Patrick
Jonelle Patrick, author of The Last Tea Bowl Thief (Street Books, October 2020), a time slip novel that moves between modern and 18th-century Japan, believes that “illuminating stories about what it’s like to be an insider are often written by those who will always be outsiders.” A graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute, Patrick knows this from experience. An American by birth who divides her time between San Francisco and Tokyo, she sets her mysteries exclusively in Japan. She also produces Japangram, a newsletter, and Only in Japan, a blog that bears testimony to her intimate knowledge of her adopted country, as well as to her willingness to explain its traditions and idiosyncrasies to foreigners.
Erudite and entertaining in equal parts, Patrick’s online publications are a joy to peruse for potential tourists and for armchair travellers, providing each group of readers with a profound insight into a society that is still assumed to be slow to open up to newcomers. Luckily, Patrick’s novels succeed in depicting the country from an almost double perspective, as for example in her Only in Tokyo mystery series, which feature not only Kenji Nakamura, a detective, but his childhood friend Yumi Hata, a part-time English translator, whose familiarity with the language allows her to grasp the extent to which the West has influenced Japanese culture since the country’s opening under the Meji Dynasty and especially after the Second World War.
The most moving episode in The Last Tea Bowl Thief, which mixes the historical with the mystery and time-slip fiction genres, takes place during the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, when the grandmother of one of the two protagonists, Nori Okuda, chances upon a tea bowl that might be the purloined item mentioned in the book’s title. Although Patrick admits that she hates writing about war, she excels herself in the depiction of the devastated city, exposing the terrible suffering caused by the conflict and explaining how a decent person might be led to commit a criminal act when being brought to the brink of despair. As Patrick points out, she is interested in “why people are driven to do what they do, especially when it’s something that’s forbidden, like stealing. There are three thieves in this book—one steals to save great art from being destroyed, one steals to survive in desperate times, and one steals to uncover a truth that has been buried for centuries… They have to weigh some of the great questions each of us face at some point in our lives. Is it okay to sacrifice others’ desires to make our own dreams come true? It is okay to steal from the rich? These are the questions I love, because they keep dishing up food for thought, long after the last page is turned.”
Apart from these moral issues, The Last Tea Bowl Thief also debates a fascinating aesthetic phenomenon; the way religion, symbolic meaning, ritual, and art are interconnected, perhaps even synonymous, in Japanese culture. As Patrick puts it eloquently, “The tea ceremony is embraced as a form of meditation in Zen Buddhism. The Mingei movement elevated the repetitive making of identical dishes into a means of allowing the Shinto gods to work through the potter’s hands and create something greater than his own intentions. And I love how art, religion, and ceremony aren’t always set aside in museums and worship halls—they’re very much a part of everyday life in Japan, to the point where beautiful and useful objects made by artists are valued more highly than those that are only good for looking at.”
As may be guessed from the title of Patrick’s novel, it is precisely such an item—a precious, intricately worked tea bowl—around which her plot revolves. The story begins in 1788, when the master of Yodo Palace in Edo, Old Tokyo, offers up a bowl called Hikitoru to the gods so that his ailing son might be spared a painful death. But as we later find out, the warlord was never meant to own the bowl, since its creator, the blind, gifted potter Yoshi Takamatsu, did not intend his masterpiece to survive the artist. Instead, Yoshi divined a far more complicated fate for Hikitoru, hoping it would take him onto a path towards spiritual reconciliation and renewal. But Yoshi’s protégé and friend, the poet Saburo, who in turn aspires to render his own art immortal, has a different destiny in mind for Hikitoru…
The mystery of what happens to Hikitoru remains unsolved until almost three hundred years later, when American-born Robin Swann, a student of Japanese poetry who works for an auction house, teams up with Nori Okuda, the descendent of a dynasty of pottery purveyors in contemporary Tokyo. When Nori discovers and tries to sell the bowl, which stands out from the usual ragtag collection of trinkets her shop usually peddles, she is warned that her family business might be in danger of folding if she can’t trace the item’s true provenance. However, her grandmother, the one person who might clear up its origin, lies in hospital with a stroke, unable to speak to her. Thus, Nori is left to to solve Hikitoru’s secret on her own, that is, until she encounters Robin, and the two women become friends.
Asked why she eschewed the traditional love story in favor of a narrative about female friendship, Patrick explains, “romance has such a strong pull it really draws readers in, but it tends to overshadow all the other relationships in a book. I wanted this story to be about something less expected…, which is how two women who are so different in every way can find common ground. Romantic relationships in Japan aren’t that different from romantic relationships elsewhere, but friendship between women can take many unexpected forms. It seemed natural to make one of them American like me… and the other Japanese, but the one thing I didn’t expect was discovering how fun it was to see each character through the other’s eyes.”
In conclusion, Jonelle Patrick reveals that her heroine Robin is modelled on herself: “I think there are two things about Robin that make her a gifted observer of Japan. One is that she went there starry-eyed… so it doesn’t take long before she notices the yawning gap between how she’d envisioned her life there and the reality of grim little apartments and hitting a wall every time she tries to have a meaningful relationship. And the second thing is something I truly share with her, which is the fact that foreigners aren’t fish. If you ask a fish to describe the ocean, it’s going to leave a lot of stuff out, because it’s always lived in the ocean… But if you need all kinds of scuba gear to survive for more than five minutes, you pay a lot of attention to what the ocean is like, especially to the ways it can kill you.”
As the quote shows, Patrick is a wonderfully versatile writer, able to interlink an intricate, fast-paced crime story with a beautiful, romantic paean to love and art in eighteenth-century Japan by means of her elegant, erudite, yet quirky and amusing narrative voice. An author who has made Japan, its history and culture, throuroughly her own, Patrick wears her knowledge lightly on her sleeve, and while The Last Tea Bowl Thief provides an intimate, in-depth exposé of the country’s artistic and emotional life, it never forgets to divert the reader. To continue Patrick’s metaphor, The Last Tea Bowl Thief is that perfect book, a text that teaches you to swim, while inviting to do more than merely staying afloat, appreciating and coming to love, the new, unfamiliar, and frankly, quizzical world around you. As one of the characters in the novel states, “The unknown is the soil in which learning takes place.” The Last Tea Bowl Thief is a veritable Asian garden of literary delights, a floating world that offers the chance of joyful discovery and understanding of Japan to its readers.