mayumicoverbrian lee morris Interviews Jennifer Tseng, Author of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

Accomplished poet Jennifer Tseng has written a book. It’s a novel. It’s her first. It has lots of people swooning, especially in these parts. Where it also takes place. And for all of its reference to and reverence of lofty works of literary genius, I’m surprised Milton’s Paradise…isn’t one of ’em. I won’t say whether it’s Lost or Regained that it most heavily leans on: that would betray the inchoate wonder of Jennifer Tseng’s auspiciously revealing Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. But talk about “temptation!” And what perdition awaits whom? One man’s paradise is another woman’s vineyard, as I always say.

Stripped to its core, this is a new twist on the not-so-old girl meets boy & then meets his mother trope. Sometimes it sears, sometimes it smolders, sometimes stasis rules the day; or there at least exists a long succession of idle moments, chock full of desirous ruminations and looks of longing at the clock. It was not I alone who felt the thrill in reading MAYUMI. Of this I am certain. But I am glad I was alone when I read it; “solitude being the house of the soul,” and all, as W.G. Adler so succinctly put it, 2 or 3 generations ago. And the beat goes on…

To the here and now. Wherein, the ineffable natural beauty to be found in this sea of happiness was unflinchingly all mine as I sat down and asked Jennifer some questions about her very own sea of happiness…..and Mayumi’s place in it, of course.

As fate would have it, as we sit here on the grounds of the beautiful West Tisbury Free Public Library, you’re leaving it—and us—for good tomorrow. Feelings? Regrets? Thoughts? Second thoughts?

I am nothing but feelings & thoughts. To put it mildly, it kills me to leave. I don’t want to leave. How could I? This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I feel lucky to have lived here as long as I did.

“Most people who come to this island are hiding on some level.” That’s a direct quote from the book. Can we readers posit, then, that in leaving, you are done with your hiding?

Oh no. The hiding is never done. In all seriousness, perhaps naively, I wasn’t including myself in this “most people.” Although I came here willingly, it was with very little foreknowledge. I’m embarrassed to say, I didn’t even know it was an island.

Or are you just done with toiling in the “Mansion of Minutiae: (in which you) had no idea how well the librarian’s vocation lends itself to existential crisis?”

Leaving the West Tisbury Library is one of the things that makes leaving the island so difficult. They are inseparable sorrows.


Jennifer Tseng and brian lee morris // The “duck pond” featured in MAYUMI

On page 26, I came across this unique verbal couplet: “What aananda,” And asked myself “what’s that?” After settling on a plausible answer, I preceded to p. 27, only mildly satisfied. Now I get to ask you, who wrote it…What is “aananda?” And what does “What aananda?” have to do with the book’s early sledding?

I like the word “sledding” here, whether you meant it to or not, it invokes Wharton. Aananda is the Sanskrit word for bliss. What bliss! Mayumi is, like so many mothers, deeply enthralled by her own solitude, even when the duration of these moments is a shabby seven minutes. She dives into them, knows how to seize them, knows that otherwise they will pass without incident. It is a glimpse at her (thwarted) capacity for pleasure and her devotion to it.

We’ve both read The Door by Magda Szabo. And have gone back & forth about her take on “Greek literature, which portrayed nothing but the passions: death and love and friendship, their hands joined together round a glittering axe.” I’m with the Greeks, and how they portray those three forces forever engaged in an ongoing fight for the upper hand. And you? “I would be lying if I said I’ve never been drunk on tragedy….” is taken directly from the book. Am I wrong in applying these tragic but not comic strokes to the proceedings in Mayumi?

My original impulse was largely comic, obsessive, full of longing. I wanted to make beauty and I laughed often while I was doing it. The sense of tragedy developed slowly over the course of writing the book. I was not prepared for how sad the story would be.

Which brings us to an unnamed boy, a.k.a. “the young man,” who is an astonishingly well-read and otherwise preternaturally precocious high school junior. The high and mighty literary references come early & often: Lolita; the poems of Keats; Proustian attention spans, Moby Dick, and, my favorite, “the bedsheets of Rimbaud’s newlyweds, hung out for all the town to see.” All of which this teenager handles with the aplomb of a seasoned Whitbread winner. Really?

I’m so glad you appreciate the reference to “Royalty.” It’s one of my favorites, too. As for the literary references in general, I don’t think we know for sure how much he’s read. He shows off, albeit quietly, & performs the trick, so many students perform perhaps without even intending to, of seeming to know more than he does. Like a writer, he relies on the little bits here & there to give the impression of a greater whole. Mayumi, at once smart enough to sniff out a trick & hungry for signs that he is somehow extraordinary, allows herself to to believe in the best possible version of him.


“The bench” featured in MAYUMI // Jennifer and brian

And he cuts class EVERY Friday? I mean, this kid misses a LOT of school…..

Well, it is the charter school (though I don’t ever say that in the book, that’s what I was imagining). There could be a very plausible explanation for his routine absences – he could be having guitar lessons with with the great Al Schackman or learning how to make canapés with accomplished chef & farmer Susie Middleton. Many charter school absences can be attributed to scheduled educational experiences.

(And with an adroit pedagogue like May cracking the whip, those are some kind of “extra credit” educational experiencesI might add.) And speaking of J.D. Salinger—which we weren’t, but are now—there are all sorts of teas being imbibed in this “sea of happiness.” As there are in Salinger’s “For Esme, With Love & Squalor.” (Which for me evokes Bon Iver’s impassioned & majestic musical plea of an LP, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” But that’s another story I’ll save for—not much—later.) Anyway, this eerie yet brilliant short story also features an oddly mismatched-in-age couple unspeakably flirting over tea in April,1944. Here we sit in as voyeurs while a very young Esme and a much older “unnamed” narrator named “X” meet for the first time. It’s also their last, but not in the way you’re thinking. Esme & Mayumi. Salinger & You. Connection or coincidence?


“Did he love the double meaning of ‘see more glass’ or had he found it too heavy-handed?” I don’t love it, but I don’t get it, either. Help me out, here. Maybe I’ll end up loving it…

This reference suddenly reminds me of Nabokov’s “Our Glass Lake/Hourglass Lake” which I obviously love. How in the world could I just be noticing this now??? While I tend to love all language-related misunderstandings in literature (in real life they are infinitely too painful), and love the moment when Sybil is misunderstood by her mother as having been murmuring nonsense (I’m reminded too of Nabokov’s Pnin, that beautifully unintelligible-to-most-Americans name), I also vaguely remember some heavy-handed high school discussions of the name Seymour Glass/see more glass that left me feeling disinterested in the whole matter. It rather ruined it for me.


Jennifer and brian // The “tunnel of trees” featured in MAYUMI

As mentioned earlier, Mayumi at times reminds me of very good music. With very good lyrics. “The house smelled of Murphy’s oil soap and absence.” To me, absence hasn’t been handled this presciently since Red House Painters dealt it this blow: “In our room all I feel is the cold that you left.” HHHHmmm….cuts to the bone, no? Similarly, “He set his fist like a key inside me and turned it,” is straight from the very best of Nick Cave. And “the blunt point of a sepia Derwent,” is just rock n’ roll poetry in motion. You’re a poet, too. Is music a muse, as well? What do you listen to? Who sings loudest to you?

I like my music without words. Bach, Beethoven, Saints-Saens. Cello, viola, piano. I started out (at age 8) as a musician. First piano, then violin, then clarinet, then harmonium. I also love to sing. It feels impossible to come up with a favorite singer. I’ll have to think about that.

You say: “Transgression is less of an affront when it is draped in love & beauty.” I say: Which is there more of in here? Love or beauty? Can’t love be transgressive and still be beautiful at the same time?

Yes, of course.

“I came, at last, to appreciate passivity, to view it as its own kind of audacity. Passivity is also the cousin of patience, which is, I think, a distant relative of faith. Doesn’t the act of waiting imply faith in the arrival?” I for one believe that it does but am content to wallow in the mire even if it doesn’t. (Just ask those guys “Waiting For Godot.” Where—it is said—nothing happens; twice. Love it.) And you?

I am compulsively drawn to passive people. Perhaps because I am a person prone to taking action, I learn a lot from people who remain still & wait for their lives to unfold. Passivity fascinates & frightens & infuriates me. I find it maddening & yet somehow appealing if only because it’s so alien to me. I’m trying (actively, of course) to experiment more with it.


The “waterfall bridge” featured in MAYUMI // Jennifer and brian

Buddha says “eliminate desire.” I say “crush it.” What do YOU say?

To quote Mayumi quoting Siobhan quoting Pema Chödrön: “Welcome everything.”

We live in a world gone manically interactive with so many options for the reader / viewer / user to select an alternative virtual-reality-skewed ending. Without blowing yours, could you envision others wanting a different ending here?

I suppose my answer is a kind of spoiler in reverse; I will be revealing what doesn’t happen. There are so many possibilities. Here are a few of my favorites….
1. Mayumi & Violet fall in love & live happily ever after.
2. Mayumi & the young man marry & have baby Mays & junior Pips.
3. Mayumi kills the young man. (This was actually suggested to me by one of my most trusted readers.)

The bulk of the narrative in Mayumi takes place in places in which you have lived and worked for the foreseeable past, if that makes sense. And even if it doesn’t, did any modicum of objectivity—by necessity or otherwise—fly out the window in writing this book?

Most, if not all, of my objectivity vanishes when I write. I’m not a research-driven writer. I don’t care how the pond really looks. I care about my memory of it. Or someone else’s memory of it. It’s the particular person’s experience of a place & not the replica of a place that interests me.


Jennifer and brian // “The wind chime” featured in MAYUMI

How much of you is in Mayumi, the character? How much of she, is in you?

If you’d asked me this question during the writing of the novel I might have given you a completely different answer. When I was writing the novel, I felt like I was Mayumi. The more time passes, the more the book feels like a distant memory to me, a dream I once had that I can hardly remember. Mayumi seems even a bit alien to me now. Who was she? What was that dream? These are the questions that leap to mind when I try to think back to writing it. Like all authors & their main characters, Mayumi and I have much in common & many differences between us. But before I elaborate on that I feel compelled to mention that the young man & I have much in common as well! (A horror of injustice, curiosity, a love of travel, a love of music & cooking & books, a love of our mothers, a reverence for the natural world.) The young man is as much me as Mayumi is. As for Mayumi & me, basic similarities: both librarians/book-lovers, both mothers, both married, both middle-aged & middle-class, both educated, both prone to obsession & rumination, both a twisted sense of humor. Basic differences: Mayumi was born & raised in England, I was born in Indiana & raised in California. She attended a private all-girls boarding school, I went to a co-ed public school. Her parentage is English & Japanese, mine is German & Chinese. She was an only child, I have a sister. She’s an omnivore, I’m a vegetarian. She’s sedentary, I’m athletic (though the more I write, the more sedentary I become). Her parents are dead, my mother is still living. Her husband is on Etsy, mine would never do that. She dates a 17-year-old, I’ve always had an aversion to dating someone much younger than me. She has an aversion to pets, I’m a cat lover. She’s traveled to Japan more than once, I’ve only dreamed of going. Her hair is cropped, I only dream of cutting mine. She takes sugar in her tea, I prefer honey. She has favorite patrons, I love all patrons equally;) (Kidding about that last one.)

And speaking of love, I love this book. Do you?

Yes, I confess I do. Or I did anyway. I don’t know if I could bear to read it now.

Often times, I feel as if I live in the idle luxury of a far too pedantic world. Bad books are aplenty and not so far in between. Jennifer Tseng and I had just talked about a book that wasn’t one of these. Hers. In so doing, I was afforded the far more distinct luxury of talking to the author about something she’d just written in a place where much of it happens. For a few hours. And then it was over.

Pictures were taken. Smiles shared; the laughter, loud. Goodbye pleasantries were exchanged. Quickly, as I hate farewells. We left the building through the basement, me for the last time as someone who might be helped by an employee named Jennifer, in a place known as the West Tisbury Free Public Library, on a vineyard called “Martha’s.” It’s not everyday that a librarian checks out a book for you, having already written a great one herself.

Tseng puts forth in Mayumi that “there is nothing more futile than trying to stop youth, nothing more morally repellent than squelching potential.” Not a teenager in love, not a novelist new to the genre. Amen, brothers and sisters.

There are words out there, still waiting to be plucked from the sky, or from the mouth of a voiceless muse and arranged in such a way that hasn’t yet happened. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is a very brave beginning to a long list of great novels, it is hoped, by a uniquely qualified storyteller we used to call one of our own. In the end, “without the sea there is no island.” And, also in the end, without Jennifer Tseng on it, our little island has changed. And probably not for the better, like it or not. Which is why you should read this book. Which just might stay with you, for a very, very long time.


By David Wilson for the Boston Globe


One Comment on “Guest Post: THE BASEMENT TAPES

  1. Of islands and their sea, like neural positioning in but a pancake of synaptic connections, so too gravity’s ground whence light escapes all around. Both particle AND wave. People and relationships. Each unto the other our staying power’s greatest move.

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