Wrestling with History 

Novelist explores the rituals and religions of sumo culture.

Like the characters in Gail Tsukiyama's previous historical novels, the two orphaned brothers in her latest, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, occupy traditional professions and perform age-old rituals. Amid postwar devastation and renovation, Hiroshi is a sumo wrestler; Kenji crafts wooden Noh masks. Japanese words pepper the pages: "As the winter cold seeped into the drafty heya, the rikishi shivered. ... Tanaka-oyakata asked a tokoyama ... to come in and style his hair into a chonmage." Personal sorrows inflect the larger sorrows of war: lost babies, crossed signals, lost loves. Born in San Francisco, "I have always considered myself a child of other histories," Tsukiyama muses now. Her father was Japanese, her mother Chinese. Both cultures have made their way into her novels, which are immensely popular with reading groups. She explored Chinese silk workers in Women of the Silk and Hansen's Disease sufferers in The Samurai's Garden, forever propelled by "my curiosity about social groups who have managed to create their own fascinating worlds, their own sense of family, outside mainstream society." Researching this latest book, she visited Tokyo's sumo district, Ryogoku, and watched "the sumotori walking down the street, the sweet lingering scent of bintsuke, the wax used to hold their topknots in place, wafting through the air. ... I realized the sport of sumo was symbolic of the Japanese culture itself — in its rituals and religion — and in its belief of honor and defeat." An Academy of American Poets and PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award winner who has taught at UC Berkeley and her alma mater San Francisco State, Tsukiyama will read at Cody's (1730 Fourth St., Berkeley) at 7:30 p.m. on October 25 from The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, which she calls a "story of family and love, the futility of war, and the resilience of a country and a people."

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