Junichiro Tanizaki, in In Praise of Shadows, speaks of the difference between Western and Japanese women in a way that reminds me of Barthes. When describing the peculiar cloudy tint of the powdered white of a Japanese woman’s skin, so different to her Western counterpart’s pale luminous glow; a presence and absence. The Japanese, he says, are surrounded by shadows, any light or brightness always offset by the dark, whether the dark frames of houses with the paper panels, or flame enclosed by an iron lamp. The shadows complement, but they also represent a kind of security.
‘Isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent?’ Only in the desired one—desire itself is as shifting as the shadows, inscrutable. Desire is the reflection in a hall of eternal mirrors; everywhere, but the body that holds it is out of reach even when it is ours, attempting to solve its own puzzle.
My skin is white, in the way we generically attribute it, yet it is not the full bloom of the flushed white that is one of the ideals of pale Western skin. It has the cloudy powdered tint—an almost undetectable yellow—of those paper panels, but again, not completely. When I started to wear makeup, I found that the palest shade was too pink for me and the next one too yellow, although I insisted on wearing the first. I could disguise the half-ness in my face tint, but in the mirror my neck plainly said this is not who you are. I learned to mix the two lightest shades of foundation, the only way I could recreate the colour of my skin, or at least a simulacrum. A skin which moved through the world, absorbing and reflecting its projections.
I am between worlds in shape as well—the smallness of my mother, though I still tower over her—but with decidedly un-Japanese curves. I have breasts and hips that scream of indiscreet sex—indiscreet in the sense that sex is a secret to be unwrapped when you look completely Japanese. The stereotyped exoticism of that appearance often comes with an equally misguided idea that all Japanese women are sexually demure. My physical appetites are on display in the way my skin has an obvious scent—a carnal shadow—that my mother’s lacks. My looks are present and absent in two cultures, and so I have looked at faces and bodies my entire life, knowing I am always the novelty—with all the words that come attached to such difference: unique, exotic, but always other.
Our tastes are shaped by what surrounds us as we grow up. As I grew, I realised there was almost no taste for me: that the unfamiliar is something to be considered strange, distasteful even. At the very least, secret in its enjoyment and often twinned with guilt. To be in-between is to be forever rejected, occupying the limbo of almost; not quite; could have been. To be half-Japanese in the Western world is to always wonder where your shadows are, your security in being—being accepted, desired, acknowledged.
I like to hold red and gold-lacquered chopsticks because their dulled, metallic sheen complements my skin, just as I prefer light that is cast through dark, ornate metal lanterns, or solitary candles flickering in an otherwise darkened room, because I feel a kinship with warmth enveloped by darkness, protected. These things are almost alien on their own, and I undertand them because they give me context: a sense of place, of being. But part of me is still trapped in those eternal mirrors: forever searching my reflections, looking for a permanence within them. Pascal Quignard writes of Tanizaki’s shadows in The Roving Shadows: ‘He loved hiding places, associated with darkness and with the enormous floating expanse that darkness contributes.’ My darkness is the whiteness of the digital screen; the floating world that is the abyss of letters. When I write, I feel most at home in that half that is Japanese. Hidden in the shadows of words, the tangibility of sense that is pulled in strings and loops from chaos, whether through pen or fingers. In Black, Alain Badiou recalls the ink of his childhood:
‘Ink was black, in inkwells and bottles, in the past. It would get all over your fingers because it would run and flow relentlessly. This inevitable messiness was the flip side of writing. I always felt caught between two kinds of black: that of the dirty and dirtying substance and that of the signs that miraculously emerged from it …’
When I was young, my mother practiced calligraphy with a sumi-e (black ink painting) set. It was housed in a lacquered box; an ink block, stone, and brushes. The ink block had a worn hollow at one end to which she would add a little water. With the stone, a smaller more elongated rectangle with a curved top, she worked it gently back and forth in the water until the block released its ink like a reluctant cuttlefish; a slowly thickening darkness.
My fingers are also the stone working the ink of the black keys, persuading them to release their words. Badiou: ‘It is the black of meaning wrung from the black of matter.’ The labour of writing—it may be a cliché of love, but what is love if not meaning?
Stones that release words also reveal other things, both tangible and ephemeral. I discovered myself with a stone; storm-grey, ovoid, smoothed by waves. Gathered with many others on a beach, it sat on the top of a wardrobe—passive, waiting. I began to discover sex in others by way of paintings and photographs before I found it in words; but when I did, they were wrapped in something I did not understand completely. There is a haze of something you only know as adultness when you are young, but still divine a meaning which unlocks the beginnings of another kind of desire.
Beauteous box. I read those words one day in a book left lying around the house and though I did not know what they meant, it made me quiver instinctively. Something in the body is older than itself, an eternal desire that lies dormant in those of us still new to the world, waiting to be wakened. That quiver demanded attention; it asked a question that required response. I have thought many times of why it seemed more natural to reach for the stone, with its curves, its egg shape, than discover myself with fingers—why instinct knew the form of desire before I did.
Instinct reached for a thing almost as old as itself; a stone, still holding the scent of the water, caressed into stillness over endless years. The thing that would fit—nestle—into other curves, be gentle in its exploration. Waves of desire lapping at me until I was left wet, the echo of orgasm ebbing on what seemed like a distant shore. The box that held the stone was not Pandora’s, but beauteous; one that released new pleasure into the world.
Image: Tomoé Hill