The Palace at the Bottom of the Sea

watazumi_1485381277
Watazumi Shrine, Toyotama-town, Tsushima

I have a new essay at Catapult called “Teshima: On Hearing Loss, My Son, and the Sea“. It’s about my sudden onset single-sided deafness, my son’s heartbeat, languages, art, and the legend of the Japanese shark goddess Princess Toyotama. I’m very, very proud of this piece and I think it’s the best thing I’ve yet written, so I do hope you’ll read it and enjoy it (it’s also my first time to get a professional pay rate as a writer, so I am excited about that, too).

For a long time I’d been trying to write stories about my hearing loss, the overwhelming joy my son gives me, the Princess Toyotama myth, and my life as an English teacher in the Japanese island town of Toyotama (particularly how I communicated with my elementary students through playing), but I never quite found the right way to start them. Then we went to the Heart Archives on Teshima and all those strands wove themselves together.

In the essay, I tried to mimic the uncanny echoes I felt on Teshima, the way the Heart Archives felt so similar to the audiologist office where I had my hearing tested, the clinic where we first heard our son’s heartbeat, and to Shinto shrines with their inner-sanctums and sacred mirrors. And the way Teshima felt so much like Toyotama-town to me, and the feeling of connection I felt when I discovered–at the brilliant artist Sputniko!’s hyper-pop mythology “Teshima 8 Million Lab” installation–that Teshima is also named after Princess Toyotama (Toyotama is 豊玉 in Japanese, literally ‘bountiful jewel.’ Teshima is written 豊島, which literally means ‘bountiful island’ but could also be read to mean ‘Toyotama’s Island’). Not to mention the pure joy of simply holding my son in my arms, and seeing and hearing his heartbeat turned into light, music, and art.

I’ve often said that my short story “How I Defeated the Tolkien Estate” at The Toast is my brain in written form: it’s a perfect distillation of my humor; my personality;  geeky obsessions with Tolkien, fantasy, linguistics, storytelling, and meta-narratives; as well as being a satirical take on my time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Teshima” then is my heart: a love letter to my son, my wife (whose beautiful photo from Teshima heads the essay), art installations, the sea, my students in Japan, Teshima, and Toyotama–both the town where I lived and the goddess whose legend resonates with me (Princess Toyotama is said to be goddess of the sea and of international exchange; and in the legend she is a foreigner on land and her native shape–a shark, dragon, or crocodile, depending on the translation–frightens her earth-deity husband. As a foreign teacher living in Toyotama-town, whose appearance sometimes scared young children to tears, I could relate).

The two pieces are very different, but I think of them as linked, like two sides of the same coin. One fiction, the other non-fiction. One my brain, the other my heart. One grad school, the other my time in Japan. And they’re both culminations of the two kinds of stories I’ve always wanted to write well: the satirical and the lyrical. They’re too short to form a book, but I’d love to someday publish them together in some form.

There’s still so many stories and books I want to write, but I feel a great satisfaction in knowing I’ve written and published those two pieces, my brain and my heart.

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  1. the triumphant return of austinhgilkenson.wordpress.com!! i understand you blog here… 🙂

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