36 Views of Mount Fuji

Cathy Davidson

Read January-February 2006

This is a remarkably open, charming, personal book by a talented author. Cathy Davidson is an English professor who has spent several sabbaticals in Japan, and this is her loosely fictionalized account of her times there. It is, though not organized as such, a book in three parts. It is not merely repeating cliche to say that the parts add up to something more than the whole.

The first your traditional account of life in a foreign country, though Davidson is on the side of the angels: she doesn't stomp or throw tantrums, she works on learning the language, and she embraces the uncertainty of life in an alien culture (while being frank enough about its pains and small terrors). Through several trips she learns both how welcome she is and yet how foreign she always will be. When she writes about her awkwardness of being the tall Westerner, standing out distinctively in a culture that (at least stereotypically) encourages and favors blending in, she sums up the best and worst of being a foreigner.

Then the book abruptly switches in tone. Davidson tells us about tragic family losses, using these in part to explore Japan but even more to fathom herself. Her account of the pain of coping with loss in a foreign culture has elements that are obviously Japanese, but most of it could just as well have been set anywhere else: human tragedy is a stark quantity whose shades have a tendency to merge in the eyes of its target. The book here is raw with emotion, and to Davidson's credit, she felt no need to edit it to smoothness. The prose, however, unlike the emotion, is never raw: she controls her pen and thereby paints an even starker portait of her emotions.

In the third part, Davidson and her husband have been offered a positions at Duke, and the book discusses their move. They consider moving to Japan, then question that wisdom and decide against it. But they do reconstruct a little corner of Japan in North Carolina: a custom-built ``Japanese'' home. The Davidsons are too smart to not recognize that this experience raises enormous questions of authenticity, belonging, and comfort; they know that a tatami floor does not a house Japanese make. And yet Davidson rightly sees this not as a cause for embarassment but rather as an avenue for exploration, and she lays it all out for us to ponder.

It is a book, in short, composed of three meditations: on self, on identity, and on reality. But Davidson never waxes philosophic, and there is scarcely a misplaced word here. Each chapter is headed by one of Hokusai's famous eponymous series of paintings, adding to the book's character. The last part of it has, well, how do I put this—a chick-lit feel? But Davidson is no hack, and her emotional baggage is not only genuine, it's something all of us recognize in ourselves. Interestingly, I found that a few years after writing this book, Davidson co-edited the Oxford Book of Women's Writing. Sadly, she was probably too humble to include her own work.