A year in Japan captured in new book of poetry by Ottawa’s Sonia Saikaley

Sonia Saikeley at a samurai's house during her year in Japan.

A Samurai’s Pink House
Sonia Saikaley (Inanna Publications)
In Town: Sonia Saikaley launches her book on July 12 at 7 p.m., Octopus Books, 116 Third Ave.

Ottawa writer Sonia Saikaley spent a year in Japan composing poetry, both sensuous and heartbreaking, when she wasn’t teaching English, belly dancing and repeatedly assuring strangers she was not the Japanese pop star Angela Aki.

The result of Saikaley’s adventurous year is a volume of evocative poems mainly set in ancient Japan. A Samurai’s Pink House is being launched July 12 at Octopus Books and, to get the audience in the mood, Ryoko Itabashi, a familiar busker in the ByWard Market, will open the evening by playing the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument. There will also be readings by poets Claudia Radmore and Guy Simser.

The Japanese poems, like other examples of Saikaley’s writing, focus on marginalized characters, in this case, female samurai from centuries ago, geishas, a cross-dressing Kabuki actor and the 17th century poet Basho, a solitary, nature-loving figure who travelled Japan composing the three-line poems known as haiku.

Saikaley is best-known for The Lebanese Dishwasher, which won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest and was positively reviewed by such publications as The Globe and Mail: “This compact novel is impressively encompassing.” The story is about the travails of a young, gay Lebanese man who immigrates to Montreal and finds himself encumbered by more baggage than he had anticipated. To add some authenticity to that story and its romantic scenes, the self-described “conservative” Saikaley visited gay bars and watched gay porn.

Saikaley, who is also of Lebanese descent, says she is drawn to people who are different from the norm. “They’re living their life the way they want to live and they are not dictated by any rules and they don’t care what other people think of them. I find that intriguing.”

But the rebels in Saikaley’s poems are not always successful in living the life they want. The very first poem, The Obedient, is about a female samurai forced to marry a man who raped her.

Every night was the same:
her muffled cries
under his hand,
the ache between her legs,
In the morning her brothers and father
would avoid her gaze at the kitchen table.

Some poems are about a male Kabuki actor who must dress as a woman and then finds himself attracted to the other men he must kiss on stage. Here’s a snapshot from The Kabuki Cross-dresser:

With practice, he became an expert
the male actors he kissed
forgot those soft lips
belonged to a man.

Saikaley has interspersed the longer poems in her book with numerous untitled haiku that hit the reader like an unexpected bite into something deliciously sweet. Those haiku were written after some tutoring in the craft by Terry Ann Carter, a Victoria-based scholar in Japanese literature who is also president of Haiku Canada.

a couple in kimono
cherry blossoms

Saikaley said she always had a fascination with Japanese culture and, finally in 2007 obtained a one-year job teaching English there, mainly to students in junior high school. To introduce herself and to break the ice, she would begin her first session with a new group by demonstrating belly dancing. Students were encouraged to join in. Usually, only boys would take up the offer.

She was soon known as “Angela” because many Japanese thought she resembled Anglea Aki, a pop singer of mixed Japanese and Italian ancestry. Total strangers on the street would suddenly call out to her “Angela-san,” adding a respectful honorific to the name.

Saikaley has been working on a novel for seven years about life in Lebanon during the 1975 civil war. The story is about a young Lebanese woman who falls in love with a Jewish man. Once again, the focus is on characters marginalized within their respective cultures. The author is writing her eighth draft. She hopes it is the last before publication.

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