Nicola here! Today we are welcoming award-winning author Christina Courtenay back to the Word Wench blog to talk about her new book, The Jade Lioness, and the fascinating history behind it. Christina writes romantic historical fiction with exotic and unusual settings and the Jade Lioness is no exception. Set in 17th century Japan, it has been described as "lyrical and fascinating." Here Christina talks haikus and the Japanese festival of Tsukimi or "moon viewing."
"I'm sure we've all paused to stare at the moon of an evening, especially when it's full and perhaps with a benign smiling face visible on its surface (or so we imagine). It is awe-inspiring and beautiful, and it has been important to human beings as a way of measuring time for millennia. It makes you feel small and insignificant, filling you with wonder at the unfathomable mysteries of the universe. This was especially true recently when we had the so called ‘blood moon’, a rare total lunar eclipse, which made everyone excited. It was an extraordinary sight and one well worth missing some sleep for!
This was an unusual occurrence though and mostly we only give the moon a passing thought. Our lives are too busy and we no longer worship the moon as a deity, the way the ancients did. Having landed a spacecraft on its surface and walked on it, I suppose some of the mystique has disappeared too. But it is still awesome when you take the time to really look – have any of you contemplated it recently and admired it properly, dedicating time and effort to this pursuit?
The Japanese make a point of doing just that and the tsukimi (or otsukimi) festival has been a part of their calendars for centuries. The word literally means ‘moon viewing’ or ‘moon gazing’ and it is a festival to honour the autumn moon and to celebrate the harvest. Some people celebrate on the day of the full moon, usually the 13th-15th day of the 8th month of their old calendar, which would be late September or early October for us, depending on when the year started (this varied). Others prefer the waxing moon in the 9th month. Either way, the moon should be at its most dazzling, allowing the viewer to contemplate the beauty of nature and the universe in full glory.
In the past there would have been organised outings and there was a tradition of holding parties to view the moon. Noblemen in the Heian era (794-1185AD) gathered to write and recite poetry to the moon, or compose and play music, preferably somewhere where the moon could be seen properly, like in a large field, or perhaps near water where its light would be reflected and shown to best advantage.
Nowadays Japanese people don’t celebrate in quite the same way, but they might display beautiful flowers, fruit and autumn grasses in their homes and eat special rice dumplings called tsukimi dango. Just like for Thanksgiving, there are seasonal foods associated with tsukimi and harvest time.
Temperance, the heroine of my new novel The Jade Lioness, has never given the moon any more thought than what we normally would and is therefore surprised to be taken moon gazing by the hero Kazuo. When he tells her she's supposed to write a haiku poem about the experience – which as you probably know is not easy – she’s not exactly thrilled. She manages, thanks to the fact that she’s in love (you’ll have to read the book to find out why that makes a difference), but writing that scene presented a much bigger problem for me than for her because I’m rubbish at poetry!
A haiku poem is supposed to consist of three lines – the first with five syllables, the second one with seven, then a final one of five again. There are other rules too, but as I said, I’m not very good at poetry so I stuck to the basics when trying to come up with a poem for my characters. Traditionally haiku were often about nature and were supposed to just capture the essence of a thought, drawing an image with a few brushstrokes in the form of words. I find this hard and probably didn’t do a very good job, but I hope readers will forgive me for that as it’s only a very small part of the story.
I sometimes wonder why I make life so difficult for myself (it was, after all, my own fault for adding that scene to the book), but then I suppose life would be boring without a challenge now and then!
Would anyone like to have a go? I’ll send a signed copy of the book to the person who writes the best haiku about the moon or autumn. (Although I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to, so if you prefer just tell me about your thoughts on moon gazing, or poetry!
Huge thanks to the Wenches for having me as a guest today!
Here is the blurb for The Jade Lioness:
Can an impossible love become possible?
Temperance Marston longs to escape war-torn England and explore the exotic empire of Japan. When offered the chance to accompany her cousin and Captain Noordholt on a trading expedition to Nagasaki, she jumps at the opportunity. However, she soon finds the country’s strict laws for foreigners curtail her freedom.
On a dangerous and foolhardy venture she meets Kazuo, a ronin. Kazuo is fascinated by her blonde hair and blue eyes, but he has a mission to complete and he cannot be distracted. Long ago, his father was accused of a crime he didn’t commit – stealing a valuable jade lioness ornament from the Shogun – and Kazuo must restore his family's honour.
But when Temperance is kidnapped and sold as a concubine, he has to make a decision – can he save her and keep the promise he made to his father?
Thank you very much for joining us today, Christina. I'm off to try my hand at a haiku…