Literary Hub

What Two Imaginary Cats Tell Us About Who We Are (and How We’re Different)

This is the story of two messy cats. One wore a hat and had no known permanent address, while the other lived alone in a cat-sized house in Japan. You might know the first cat from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. A staple for the American child, this tuxedo cat breaks and enters the home of an unnamed narrator and his sister Sally on a cold and wet rainy day when there is nothing to do. The cat dangles the prospect of “fun” in front of the siblings in a manner suggesting that “fun”—teehee—might be naughty. And despite the earnest intentions of the fish-in-the-bowl cautioning against extended play with such a cat, Sally and the narrator are helpless. They watch as the Cat balances a series of otherwise unrelated objects on top of each other. An added benefit of absorbing this circus act in book form, is that a child’s English vocabulary is boosted. (“And where is the hook? Good. And where is the book? Good,” I have intoned dozens of times to my own child to a point verging on inanity.)

Matters escalate when the Freudian stand ins for the two children themselves—Thing One and Thing Two—show up and the house is trashed, a clear foundation on which so many Jerry Bruckheimer disaster movies—not to mention James Bond, Risky Business and Home Alone—are all based until, at the end the Cat cleans it up just in the nick of time with the aid of a machine. Technology to the rescue. How many movies can you name that resolve in just this fashion?

Contrast The Cat in the Hat to Nontan, who appears in a series of children’s books written and illustrated by the Japanese author Sachiko Kiyono. Nontan, too, makes a mess which he is at first inclined to disavow. He trashes each of his friends’ houses, leaving every time it is suggested he ought not to create such clutter. Like The Cat in the Hat, the story of Nontan escalates, but not as you might expect.

Japanese is full of onomatopoeia—even adults use these terms meant to convey the exact crunchiness of snow, the slithering of fish through water, the sharp pain of a thistle puncturing skin. These onomatopoetic terms can give Japanese sentences a unique vibrancy, so one is not just conveying the characteristics of something, but the distinct physical sensation of a moment—how something else makes you feel. When Nontan the cat goes to his friends’ homes—pig, rabbit and bear—the trash follows him “pappara.”

This seems like childish good fun until the dramatic moment when the reader, and Nontan, realize that the trash in fact is alive and the pappara sound isn’t just gibberish, but meant to convey the free will of accumulated paper and dirt and what it can do to a person. Or a cat. The trash clings to Nontan, frightening him and smothering him until in a fit of pique, he decides to take matters into his own paws. He picks up a broom and banishes the garbage from his home. When he’s done, he feels—onomontopoeia again—sukkiri inside, a feeling of bright cleanliness. Nontan the cat has just Marie Kondoed the hell out of his little house. At the end of the book he avows to help his friends clean up their homes too so they can be sukkiri with him.

Why am I reading children’s books? A few years ago, I wrote an essay for Lit Hub comparing western and eastern fairy tales which focused on one basic point; we all imprint on stories from an early age which program us with a sense of “how things are supposed to be.” In simplistic terms, western fairy tales often end with a wedding, the defeat of a dragon, and/or plundered treasure. And this in turn means that many of us grow up thinking we should aim for the real world version of such material triumph and that we have failed if we don’t achieve it.

By contrast, eastern fairy tales—and I focused on Japan in my original essay—often end with what the Japanese scholar Hayao Kawai called an “aesthetic ending,” or a beautiful image often comprised of natural wonders. In such stories, the conclusion might include clouds partially obscure the moon, flowers blossoming to herald spring, or fog nestling in a valley. People—especially young people—still write to me saying that they love the essay because it names for them one of the things they enjoy about Japanese movies and entertainment; life is valid even if it does not resolve in the way one is taught that it should.

This year, as a visiting professor, I have had the pleasure of fulfilling a many year fantasy of turning this essay into a semester long course. My students in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College are reading fairy tales and children’s books alongside western and eastern novels as a way to examine story structure and culture. Our readings include Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat and Nontan; it is in fact my students who noticed the criminal mind of the Cat, and the Freudian implications of Thing One and Thing Two.

In times of crisis, we are much more tempted to make observations about national characters.

We have also been reading a smattering of sociology and psychology, like The Geography of Thought by RA Nesbitt, which examines the different ways in which Asians (mostly Japanese) perceive the world in contrast to westerners (mostly Americans). The book recounts the results of experiments in which, for example, participants were shown images of an aquarium, and then asked later to identify in a series of follow up questions which objects had been in that scene. Nesbitt found that Japanese disproportionately were able to recall more background objects than Americans who, in turn, could recall foreground objects. Over and over Nesbitt examines this tendency and concludes that in general, Asians are better at understanding the background—“the field” he calls it—and how objects and characters are related to each other, while westerners focus on the main actor in a story.

Nesbitt writes, “Not only are worldviews different in a conceptual way, but also the world is literally viewed in different ways. Asians see the big picture and they see objects in relation to their environments—so much so that it can be difficult for them to visually separate objects from their environments. Westerners focus on objects while slighting the field and they literally see fewer objects and relationships in the environment than do Asians.”

I’ve cited Nesbitt before in my previous work, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye. In that book, I recount undergoing Zen teaching at the 800-plus-year-old monastery Eiheiji, the seat of Soto Zen Buddhism, and where a basic training device for monks and lucky visitors involves 1. not speaking and 2. completing a meal at the same time. This exercise, practiced over and over again, is part of what can give a novice an awareness of others. If you are able to finish eating at the same time as everyone else, then you are more attuned to “the field.” In Where the Dead Pause, I recount the many ways in which, culturally, people in Japan seem to have a heightened awareness of physical space. Occasionally, at a reading, I would give my audience a cup of M&Ms, and challenge them to finish the candy at the same time so they too could get a glimpse of what it is like to train in the Zen way.

Most of the time, the M&M exercise went over with good humor, but occasionally someone would protest, pointing out that people other than Japanese Buddhists are capable of matching the pace of general eating, which is of course true. Sometimes I was reminded that not all Asian stories end with aesthetic images and not all beloved western stories feature strong individualists triumphing over leviathans.

I do understand the dangers involved in making generalizations about groups of people. On a popular culture level, I’m well aware of how frightening the notion of a blurry collective can sound. Picard was, after all, pursued by the Borg whose “Resistance is futile” motto dominated TV in the late 80s and early 90s around the same time that Japan seemed like an unstoppable economic dynamo. I’m also aware that emphasizing Japan’s ability to see “community” better than the west can seem essentialist, which is not a comfortable position for those of us trained in the west to respect plurality and view all humans as equal.

But here we are today. The news is filled with stories about the novel coronavirus. On the one hand, I read articles that lay bare the racist implications of calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” while other pieces ask: who can best flatten the curve? Answer: China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. (As of this writing, Japan is not on the list because the data is not yet clear.)

It has been my past experience that in times of crisis, we are much more tempted to make observations about national characters: Japanese stand patiently in lines and don’t complain, while Italians are garrulous and sing on balconies and Americans are… well… divided. And it is here that the stories we tell ourselves and which program us so early start to seem relevant.

In the restlessness of the young flocking to Florida beaches on spring break and defying the order to stay home, it’s hard for me not to see vestiges of The Cat in the Hat himself, who finds fun a little daring and naughty; oh yes he’s going to mess up the house no matter what Mom says! Meanwhile we are waiting for technology to save us in the form of a vaccine. Then there is Nontan over in Japan realizing that he must not only keep his house clean but his friends’ houses too; in fact to do so makes him literally feel good inside. Helping others sparks joy.

I have found that the cheerful summation “Well, people are pretty much the same everywhere” is, while true, not very helpful.

My own comfort with looking at cultural differences varies. I will say here that the whole reason I have struggled for so many years to investigate cultural difference is because, from childhood, I was told by many Japanese themselves (mostly men) that their culture was different and they wanted me to understand this difference. It has never felt right to me to respond: “Well actually your culture isn’t so different and the fact that you think this is essentialist.” Rather, it has made more sense to wonder why cultural difference might unnerve us and what the actual differences might be and why they exist. Still, if I have a bias, it is that all humans are humans, and that what one man can do, so can another. I wanted to explore this with my students, whose youth makes their minds open and imaginations hungry.

When I was working on my new book, American Harvest, people sometimes asked me why I was spending time with farmers in the heartland who, it was assumed, are so politically and ideologically different than I am. The first reason, really, was curiosity. If we were so different, I wanted to know why. Actually, this is probably the only reason.

I have found that the cheerful summation “Well, people are pretty much the same everywhere” is, while true, not very helpful. It is true that a messy cat is a messy cat. And, so? I have also noticed a tendency to suggest that the new book I have written is “nuanced.” I confess an allergy to this word; it is also the same word used to describe Japanese; one hears often that their culture is one of nuance. This is a term that has come to sound to me a bit like weakness. It implies that we can excuse bad behavior—a messy cat—by saying that our acceptance of him must be nuanced. And yet I have found, as I said, that a messy cat is a messy cat in any culture. To notice the background, instead of the foreground is not, to me, nuance; it is simply a matter of where one pays attention. To notice other people to such a degree that you can finish your M&Ms when they do, or to notice them and not want them to get sick so you team up together to prevent sickness from spreading is also, to my mind, not nuanced. It is a matter of attention.

It is the stories about the messy cat and why he should clean up that are different; as a writer, this is what I am always trying to understand. And the question I often ask is: what is really happening here? I find that sometimes, the only way to know what is actually happening, is to try to get rid of whatever story I think is happening. Only then can I see the story for what it is.

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The virtual launch for Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s American Harvest is at 8 pm EST with the Center for Fiction this Wednesday, April 15: You can sign up to attend here.

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american harvest

American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett is available now via Graywolf Press.

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