It’s no secret to (the admittedly few) regular readers of this blog that I have interests in gay fiction, Asia in general and Japan in particular, as well as Buddhism and mysticism. Earlier this year I was surprised to discover there is, like yayoi, a whole subgenre of gay fiction that could be described as Queer Supernatural Asian Mystery Erotic Historical Romance Novels. I came across these books through Librarything.com — a kind of social network for book lovers that matches similar book collections by members and then makes recommendations based on these shared affinities — and started reading some of them.
Shortly after I’d finished reading a couple of Sedonia Guillone’s “Beautiful Samurai” novels in this subgenre I received an email from Joy Shayne Laughter, the author of a book that fits most of the categories in this subgenre — but let me be clear immediately that her book, Yü: A Ross Lamos Mystery,” does not tick off the “erotic” check box in this subgenre. Yü is more of an intellectual and spiritual effort (this is not to suggest it’s not fun — the many pleasures of this book will keep your hands above the table and turning pages relentlessly).
The appearance of Yü in my mailbox got me to thinking about the history of this subgenre. After all, in 2006 I had a short story, called Musuko Dojoji, published in an anthology of gay fantasy fiction called Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling. Musuko Dojoji was a retelling of a thousand year old Japanese folktale (Musume Dojoji) framed by a contemporary gay love story. The folktale is connected to the contemporary story by a reincarnation motif. I wrote this story out of love for my late boyfriend, Hiroshi Aoki, as a way of keeping his memory alive through our shared love of folktales and mysticism. It was one way of honoring our connection — a connection I always felt was something that went beyond my limited understanding of reality.
As I thought about reincarnation as a plot device in queer love stories, I realized this motif is hardly new. One of the things Hiroshi and I shared was a love of kabuki — and we were both great fans of the classic kabuki play, Sakura Hime Azuma Bunshô: The Scarlet Princess of Edo.
This play’s prologue is the story of two lovers fleeing an angry mob of monks. Indeed, the two who are running away are the monk Seigen, and his young chigo ( temple acolyte), Shiragiku.
The chorus sings of same-sex love as they climb the cliff at Enoshima, a site famous for love suicides named Chigo ga Fuchi (Chigo Falls) in memory of this particularly notorious plunge:
Not only woman can be in this mortal world
closet companion to man, his dearest lover.
Seigen and the boy pledge to die together rather than be kept apart by the world —supposedly not because this is a same-sex or intergenerational relationship but because Seigen is a monk and thus has broken his vows of celibacy. Of course, the audience knew that these relationships were nothing out of the ordinary.
Before jumping, Shiragiku prayed for a rebirth as a woman so he could marry Seigen. And then he threw himself to the rocks below. You can see the two in the moment before Shiragiku jumped in the photo below — the boy is the young Tamasaburo Bando in his very first role on the kabuki stage before becoming world famous as an onnagata, a man who traditionally plays female roles. One of Tamasaburo’s most acclaimed roles is that of Sakurahime.
I would die for you without a thought, but…
Seigen has second thoughts, and runs away. The prologue ends and then the real action of the play begins, 17 years later, when the boy acolyte, now reincarnated as the Scarlet Princess, and meets the cowardly and duplicitous Seigen once more.
Written by Tsuruya Namboku and first performed in 1817, this is the earliest example of a romance/revenge/reincarnation/ghost story centered around a male/male relationship that I am aware of. If you know of anything earlier, I’d love to hear about it. Oh, and if the whole story sounds over the top operatic, you’ll be pleased to know David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly, wrote the libretto for an English language opera based on the story, composed by Alexina Louie, called The Scarlet Princess.
But enough about me and my interest in this genre — let’s talk about Yü. Promoted as the first in a series of books about Ross Lamos “karmic detective,” Yü is the story of a gay antique art appraiser who has psychic touch — simply by holding an object, he will not only know its provenance, he’ll go into a trance, reliving the experiences of everyone else who touched it.
When a woman walks into the gallery where Lamos is employed (and where he keeps this supernatural gift secret from his employer) and presents him with three exquisite Han Dynasty jades he is plunged into a 2,000-year-old murder mystery. His touch reveals that all the players in that long forgotten drama have reincarnated around this woman today.
Lamos also discovers that his employer is planning to replace the jades with fakes because he’s running an art forgery operation. And while Lamos is busy trying to solve an ancient mystery and save the jades from being stolen, he’s doing his best to reconcile himself to the fact that his philandering ex-boyfriend has become a celibate Buddhist monk at the temple where he began his own spiritual practice.
There’s a lot of movement between past and present in this story — though really the crux of the action takes place in the Han Dynasty, a little more than 2,000 years ago. It’s a tale of passion and philosophy — desire and Taoist thought in the imperial court. And the confusions of physical and spiritual love in this story of palace intrigue are reflected in the story of Lamos, his clients and friends today.
Each section of the book begins with a translated text from a famous Chinese Taoist philosopher or historian that gives further depth to the action. The parts of the story that take place in ancient China captured all the beauty and tension that is heightened by the restrained expression of Chinese imperial court life.
If there were anything I would have wished for in Yü it would be more of Ross Lamos today rather than in his previous incarnation. The Chinese story is really a story of heterosexual love. And Ross is so caught up in his work, and this old mystery, that his personal life, and love life, today suffers. I don’t need to read about someone with a problem like that — I can just look at my own life (cue the violins).
Ross is a character I want to get to know better — not only in his previous incarnations, and I assume that if there are going to be more in this series, in each volume we’ll not only follow his current life, but his previous lives as well. I just want more of a balance between the two. Or more of an intersection between the two next time.
A Ross Lamos series holds the promise of both past and present, sexuality and spirituality, coming together in a way that heals and reveals reality at its deepest, while giving the reader the pleasure of a page-turning mystery. So I look forward to more books in this promised series.
Another series of books that fits the romance/reincarnation/revenge motif (and given that it appears enough times in stories at this point I think it has to be recognized as a motif) are the “Beautiful Samurai” books by Sedonia Guillone.
In contrast to the more spiritually entertaining goals of Yü, the Guillone’s Beautiful Samurai books are described as m/m erotic fiction (with all the other subgenre categories appended). However I found the long passages describing sexual acts in overblown (ahem) prose so graphic as to cross the line from erotic to pornographic.
This is all a question of taste. I didn’t want to like the Guillone books. However, I did like the stories if not the writing or the lengthy erotic digressions. The characters she has created are interesting, if not fully drawn in depth. There is so much more possible here that the graphic sex scenes actually seem to get in the way — even though passionate sex is what draws a demonic force to manifest and recreate an Edo period murder in the first book.
Here we are introduced to John Holmes — an American Gulf War veteran, who also has psychic touch and other psychic abilities. He is brought to Tokyo to help solve some weird crimes, and there he meets a young Japanese detective, Toshi. They fall in love and have lots of sex. And in the process they solve the murder mystery that is several centuries old, while solving the current crimes of passion taking place in Tokyo.
As I say, I didn’t want to like the Guillone books. There were spelling errors. Mistakes about Japanese culture that bothered me. And more sex than was really necessary unless you wanted to read the books with one hand below the waist. But as I say, I thought the stories were interesting — better than the prose they were written in. And the characters were interesting too, if one-dimensionally drawn. These books had potential the author gave up by putting more energy into the sexual escapades and to me they suffer for it.
As for the physical book itself, I can forgive the fact that the typesetting is amateurish — this is clearly a publishing house that exists because computers make printing easier and cheaper than ever. But spell checking and professional editing, often invisible to readers in the final product, as they should be, are glaringly absent here. This publisher, Torquere Books, is one of the centers of the new m/m pulp fiction (oddly written by straight women) and some of their writers have been recognized with awards for writing queer science fiction.
So how many more books can we expect that mash up all these genres to create a subgenre that even Marion Zimmer Bradley (whose queer pulp science fiction Darkover series was groundbreaking back in 1975 with The Heritage of Hastur) would never have imagined? Well, given the mainstream appetite for vampires, werewolves and wizards in film and print I doubt we’ll see the end of this almost Jacobean fascination any time soon. And when a good book like Yü: A Ross Lamos Mystery comes along, I’m not complaining.