Today I’m pleased to welcome Lesley Downer to the blog. Lesley is the author of The Samurai’s Daughter, Across a Bridge of Dreams and the short story A Geisha for the American Consul. Her latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen was published by Corgi on 27 July 2017.
Today Lesley talks about her first experiences of Japan.
Hello, Janet. First I would like to thank you for inviting me to post on your blog today. I greatly appreciate it.
I’d like to tell you a little about Japan, how I fell in love with the country and its culture and what inspired me to write The Shogun’s Queen, which is based on a true historical story.
Even before I went to Japan I was gripped by its culture. It began when I read A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach, all about Japan’s wonderful pottery and aesthetic approach to life.
Inspired, I bought a copy of the Penguin Anthology of Japanese Literature and was swept away by its passionate poetry and wildly romantic epics. I read of the doomed love affairs of Genji the Shining Prince and the exploits of Yoshitsune, the hero who led his samurai troops straight down a vertical cliff face to attack the enemy on the beach below. I read about spurned women who die and come back to haunt their unfaithful husbands. And I pored over Zen haiku that embody the essence of an experience in seventeen syllables.
Eager to see this magical place for myself, I applied for a job teaching English there. So it was that I found myself in the sprawling city of Gifu, in autumn, when the rice has been harvested and the paddy fields are brown and threadbare. It was a bit of a shock. But little by little I began to unearth traces of the Japan of my imaginings.
In my spare time I went for walks in the grounds of the beautiful temple near my flat. There was a lake with tiny green turtles in it and a little stall that sold tofu grilled over charcoal, with miso sauce brushed on top. On Fridays I went to tea ceremony and flower arranging classes and at the weekends my colleagues took me to festivals and to see sword-making, paper-making and cormorant fishing. I carried on reading Japanese literature in translation and taught myself Japanese.
And I started to make women friends. We cooked together, hung around each others’ kitchens, and trundled off on rickety old trams to temples deep in the mountains to try out the delicate vegetarian dishes they served there – temple food. And so my love affair with Japan began.
By the time I came back to Britain five years later, I was so steeped in Japan – its culture, the romance of its history, its haunting poetry and the way it feels to be a woman there – that it made perfect sense to start writing about it. Writing also offered a way to get back there. At first I wrote non-fiction but I yearned to write fiction too, to weave stories around Japan’s extraordinary past. And so I began The Shogun Quartet, the series of novels of which The Shogun’s Queen is both the first and the last – chronologically the first but the last to be written.
Somewhere along the way I’d come across the true and heart-rending story of Princess Atsu. Once I read it I couldn’t forget it. It haunted me.
Atsu was an extraordinary young woman, not only brilliant and beautiful but fearless and feisty. She was born in 1836, the daughter of a lesser lord in the tropical seaside town of Ibusuki in Japan’s deep south. But when she was seventeen foreign ships appeared on Japan’s shores, threatening to invade and conquer.
Her uncle, the prince of the province, saw that she could play a key role in saving Japan. He plucked her from her tropical paradise and sent her off across the country to marry the shogun, the lord of the realm, and be the queen.
Like Diana marrying Prince Charles, it was a great accolade, the highest position a woman could aspire to. But, as with Diana, there was a heavy price to pay.
In Japan in those days everyone was bound by duty. So Atsu had to give up everything she had ever wanted. She left behind the young man whom she loved and had hoped to marry and entered the Women’s Palace, the shogun’s harem of three thousand women. Once you were in you were in for life.
In the end she disappeared into the annals of history. I wanted to bring her back to life, tell her tragic and poignant story. And so The Shogun’s Queen was born.
About the book
The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl’s world is about to be turned upside down.
When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan’s way of life is threatened. But it’s not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord – to save the realm.
Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women’s palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind the palace’s immaculate façade, amid rumours of murder and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate, it seems, is irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people . . .
Read more on the Penguin website.
About the author
Lesley Downer’s mother was Chinese and her father a professor of Chinese, so she grew up in a house full of books on Asia. But it was Japan, not China, that proved the more alluring, and she lived there for some fifteen years.
She has written many books about the country and its culture, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, and Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West, and has presented television programmes on Japan for Channel 4, the BBC and NHK.
She lives in London with her husband, the author Arthur I. Miller, and still makes sure she goes to Japan every year.