Q&A: A Peek at The Kimono Tattoo

Prof. Rebecca Copeland, in her home with her collection of kimonos (Credit Joe Angeles/Washington University)



I so enjoyed Dr. Rebecca Copeland’s mystery, The Kimono Tattoo, that I wanted to solve the next mystery. Not the sequel (though she is writing one) but the motive. What gave a midwestern university professor the nerve to take this chance? She plunged herself into a world of ancient artistry, then translated its secrets into a genre that was new to her and far too pop for her profession. The mystery is fun and accessible (qualities that can be instant killers in academe), yet her descriptions are as delicate as the painted silk itself.

The book’s plot is layered, but in summary, an American woman, Ruth Bennett, is working as a translator in Japan. Under conditions of secrecy, she is given a chapter of a manuscript to translate—and then life imitates its art, and Bennett has to follow the dark threads. The emotional drama winds up as intriguing as the rituals used to conceal it. And Japanese culture unfolds as you read.

The first bridge that stretched from the ivory tower to the popular press was Copeland’s own work in Japan, years ago. Professor of Japanese language and literature at Washington University, she was translating the work of women writers in the late nineteenth century, and it was tedious. The language was difficult, and because the writers were female, their work had never been collected. As a break, Copeland started reading Japanese mystery fiction in the evenings. “Because it’s sort of formulaic,” she tells me, “it was a lot more relaxing.”


When people speak of genre fiction, “formulaic” is not usually a compliment.


I find it pleasant. The formula isn’t distracting—you are still eager to get to the mystery’s solution—but the formula provides some comfort as you go along. It’s like a road map.


Agreed. But lots of us read mysteries—what prompted you to write one?


My sister gave me a book by Sujata Massey, an American who set her mysteries in Japan. She created a Japanese-American amateur sleuth who was an antiques dealer, and I was so impressed by the way she introduced Japanese culture through the process of mystery. I thought, “Wait a minute! I want to do that!” I also came across Qiu Xiaolong, a Wash.U. grad whose Inspector Chen is a fan of T.S. Eliot and always spouting T.S. Eliot poems as he’s chasing a criminal.


Your professional background obviously helped with the setting. Any other academic inspiration?


Yes, a dissertation written at Wash.U. in art history. The author takes a remnant of exquisite fabric, a Japanese kimono, and traces its history. I learned from her that kimono were constantly being repurposed. The material was not something you just threw away. If it was just an ordinary kimono, it would be turned into diapers or cleaning cloths; if exquisite, perhaps an altar cloth. The fabric she traced went from an aristocratic woman’s gown to an altar cloth. I was also inspired by the Japanese writer Enchi Fumiko. She has stories in which articles of clothing are invested with the spirit of their earlier owners.


One of those tiresome, annoying questions everybody asks: How much of the story is autobiographical?


I was born in Japan—my parents were missionaries there—but when I was not even a month old, they moved to North Carolina. My sisters had their childhoods in Japan, though, and there were always

Japanese things around the house, and Japanese people coming to visit. When I was nineteen, my parents returned to the mission field and took me with them for one year. I was reluctant to go, but I spent my junior year of college in Japan, and that’s what flipped the switch for me. I loved the artistic beauty of everyday life. Women would bring in fresh flowers for the season to decorate the alcove. The sidewalks were swept, so everything always seemed very fresh and clean. I loved the dolls and the fans, and I studied Japanese dance and began to love kimono. After that year, I decided I would continue studying Japanese and go to grad school.


Are there any details in the book that we might not guess are autobiographical?


Like Ruth, I’m divorced. I did get tenure, but I identify with Ruth’s sense of failure—she failed at tenure; she failed at marriage. I understand that sense of needing to curl up and just be left alone. She kind of likes having a mundane life until someone comes along and explodes it all.


As Ruth pieces together a startling backstory, she is filling in jagged holes from her own past. Please tell me her brother’s kidnapping is fiction.


It is, although my little brother does have blue eyes. His name is Luke, not Matthew. When I first mentioned writing a novel, he said, “Will it have a little brother with blue eyes?” So. . . .


At least she’s not a hard-drinking Scandinavian loner. Why do we want our heroes to suffer?


I guess it makes readers feel more sympathy. Sherlock, you just want to slap him. I think the detective who backs into solving the crime is more interesting. Otherwise, they are just smarty-pants.


I wonder if that is why there are not as many sidekicks anymore, the way Sherlock had Watson and Nero Wolfe had Archie. Maybe we do not need them, because our detectives are already likeably human?


Even in this book, my friends liked the minor characters a lot, like Ruth’s friend Maho. That was my favorite part of writing: finding my characters, meeting them, talking to them. I just knew these people. And then they came and lived with me.


What was the hardest part of writing?


Plot. The cliché is that you are either a pantser [writing by the seat of your pants, with no idea where the book is heading] or an outliner. I really tried to outline, but I just couldn’t do it. I would sit there for days trying, and then I thought, I’ve just got to write.


Did you find the shift from academic writing to fiction freeing?


I found it terrifying. I tried forever to find an agent. When I got a request to see the manuscript, I was so excited, I told a friend. She was about the blurt the news in front of other people and I said, “No, no! You can’t tell anyone! A request is not a contract.” What if I failed? I felt like a fraud: I’m an academic writer. I have no business trying to write creatively. That’s what people get MFAs for. I did take Writers Institute courses twice. I had already finished the first draft, and then I learned about exposition and rewrote everything.


The most striking visual in your book is the kimono tattoo itself, covering a dead woman’s naked body. Do you have any tats?


I don’t. But while I was writing I had a graduate student who was completely tattooed. He’d come into my office, and I’d notice that they were getting more and more visible. He always wore long sleeves, but then they were on his neck, then on his wrist…. So much of the story deals with layers and how identity is hidden. The beautiful kimono lady had this elaborate tattoo that no one could see.


What is the attitude toward tattoos in Japan?


We think of tattooing as this very Japanese art form, but it’s almost taboo in Japan to display a tattoo. There was a lot of talk about the Olympics—“International athletes are going to come to Japan, and they are going to want to go to public hot springs, and they will have tattoos.” In Japan, those with visible tattoos are usually members of the Mafia, and people are afraid of them. And then there’s this Confucian sense that our parents gave us this body, and we do not desecrate the body our parents gave us. Even ear piercing was long thought of as desecration. As recently as the 1990s, a woman saw my pierced ears and scolded me.


The tattoo inks a kimono pattern derived from an ancient screen.


And the screen actually exists. It is at the Chicago Art Institute. I saw a picture and thought, “Oh, that’s what I want!”


What I love most about the image is the poems, written on narrow slips of paper, that flutter from trees.


People would write poems on slips of paper and float them downstream. Someone would pick up the poem, read it, and maybe drink some sake. The nature imagery nearly always means something about human life: The falling of the cherry blossoms is the fading of youth. Autumn is sadness, the end of a love affair. Passion has burnt out over the summer, and we feel bereft and lonely.


There is a great line in your book: “Kimonos take on a life of their own. You don’t own a kimono. A kimono owns you.” Have you ever felt that? Is there any analogue in our culture?


I have a number of kimonos, but, no, I don’t have a kimono that owns me. The kimono that owns you is one that you are emotional about. Here, I think people fall in love with their houses and cars to the extent that they become vessels of their identity. But those are much bigger objects.


We do supersize everything. . . . Do you worry about cultural appropriation when you wear kimono?


In Japan, I would wear kimono when I went to my dance practice or when I went to events where it was appropriate. Japanese women were always kind; they complimented me and seemed delighted. It was in context, and it wasn’t a costume. I wanted to wear kimono to a booksigning, but I was afraid people might see that as appropriation. “She is not Japanese! Who does she think she is?”

The last time I went to the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden, vendors were selling what was basically a bathrobe and calling them kimono. It made me uncomfortable. They weren’t kimono. That made me uncomfortable. But people were having fun and they thought they were doing the right thing. It’s a thin line, because you want people to love another culture and appreciate it.


And we are used to things being our entryway to another culture. We visit the museum gift shop before we see the exhibit.


It’s about acquisition—this notion that we can acquire culture; that culture is a thing. That it is something you purchase, not something you learn about.


The Kimono Tattoo just came out, and you have another book out this week, a nonfiction anthology that’s also sneakily educational.


Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch. I coedited it with another Japanese scholar, Linda Ehrlich. The yamamba is an ancient mythical figure, a demon who lives in the mountains and usually is dangerous and foreboding and sometimes cannibalistic but occasionally does kind things, too. She is the force of nature itself. Nature can zap you—but you need it. We decided to collect poems and short stories inspired by this creature. My short story is about a yamamba who shows up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The narrator tells her she cannot be a yamamba; they are from Japan. And she says, “Do you think a little thing like an ocean would stop the yamamba?”