The Clay That Breathes: a Novella and Stories by Catherine Browder. Milkweed Editions: 159 pages; $9.95.
All Eve, now known as Eve-san, needs is ten years. In ten years, if she is obedient to both her pottery master and her talent, she may consider herself a potter. A potter understands the potential of life in clay from its beginnings in the earth where it is pried by shovel or hand to its formation to its emergence like a butterfly from the kiln. In Catherine Browder's title novella, Eve-san journeys to Japan to study pottery, an ancient art which combines spirituality and indoctrination. Strangely forced into two roles, apprentice and part time maid for her master's wife, Eve-san can observe both sides of a segregated culture. Through this immersion, she can objectively observe the traditional woman's place in the home but can also partake in the men's cultural vantage point. Each role helps to mold her as an artist.
Like the love and discipline with which potters shape their ceremonial, meaningful and practical art, Browder throws the common clay of daily human interaction. She sets to it with the grace of a disciplined mind, and the trained, sinewy muscles of long and patient practice. Mixed with Browder's talent is a broad understanding that comes from living and working in Japan, Taiwan and England. Her American experience of teaching English as a second language completes her vision of cultures which complement rather repel each other.
What glazes Browder's radiant writing is her ability to portray the deterritorialized, those people lost in a strange culture. One story of complicated assimilation is told from the point of view of a young Cambodian girl who is just beginning to understand her own culture, ironically, through her mother's marriage to an American. In the next, a young American living in Japan adds his own touch to an old household shrine by using it as a bookshelf. When the owner demands he change it, he repaints it but keeps what he feels should be enshrined in his place of residence.
The book is illustrated with black and white sketches of the ocean: sun shining, glowing, peeking over the ocean, of gentle glowing rain, of the sun on the edge of the horizon. The drawings mark and emphasize the astonishing, often brief or provisional glint of shared spirit between human beings of distant beginnings
When reading this collection, I was reminded of Japanese writer, Nagai Tatsuo, chronicler of a Japan recast in the Westernized, postwar era. In "Brief Encounter," he portrays two people brought together by a rainstorm and "washed" in their emotional lives by the cleansing power of their meeting. The narrator remarks: "The trouble with me is that I was still a prisoner of inflexible concepts." Browder's stories seem to have this 1948 fiction as their model. Her characters, innocents in many ways, "prisoners" of their own "inflexible concepts," are set free through brief encounters with humans from across the vast ocean of human understanding.