I catch sight of her sometimes, the yamamba or mountain witch. Now and then I’ll find her staring back at me from the corner of the mirror or racing ahead of me on the darkened street. She’s fearless and almost always laughing. Not that big bellied “ha-ha” kind of laugh but the kind that winks from the corner of her eyes. She was the one who instigated this book. She has that kind of power.
Books don’t write themselves, of course. But sometimes they emerge so organically that it is almost as if they do. Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch was partly kismet and largely the happy confluence of friendships, feminist networks, and a little yamamba magic.
After all, we’re all witches at heart. More or less.
It’s impossible to pinpoint a particular starting point. For every beginning I select there is its beginning. But, I have to start somewhere. So, I will start in Laura Miller’s art studio. [Readers may remember meeting Laura through her guest post.]
Laura’s my friend from way back. We live in St. Louis and both work on Japan—she from an anthropological angle and me from a literary one. Our friendship led to my first work on the Mountain Witch, a creative essay for Bad Girls of Japan, a book Laura co-edited with Jan Bardsley (another guest blogger). How easily the yamamba fired my imagination.
Laura is also an accomplished artist. She enjoys working on “shrine boxes,” her version of retablo. Over the years on dreary winter afternoons, exhausted by grading papers and squeezing our brains for just one more academic article, we gather in her art studio to design shrine boxes. Laura has an amazing collection of art supplies that she generously lets me use.
One afternoon I had finished the box I had planned to create—one celebrating my sister, Beth, and her poetry. We still had time to spare and Laura suggested I make another box.
“But I haven’t prepared for one,” I hesitated. “I don’t know what to make.”
For the previous boxes I had imagined them in advance of my visit to her studio and had brought with me the trinkets and objects I planned to use. For Beth’s box I had scoured eBay and purchased a miniature sewing machine and tea set and had gathered up a string of pearls and old family photographs. Now that I had used those, I had nothing left.
“It doesn’t matter,” Laura replied. “Use your imagination. Here, I have all this!”
Pulling open a drawer brimming with bobbles and buttons, she rummaged through the colorful assortment, showing me the seemingly endless store of possibilities. I saw another drawer packed with scraps of paper—pages from photo calendars, old postcards, wrapping papers.
A picture of a misty mountain caught my eye. I spread it out on the table.
The image of a yamamba rushing along the ridgeline bloomed in my heart.
In no time at all I was piecing scraps together, fashioning a kimono, cutting out a Hannya mask. Before I knew it, the box was done.
What is it they say about the yamamba in the Noh play? She lightens the woodcutter’s load and speeds on the work of the weaver?
I took a photo of the box and posted in on my Facebook page.
Within hours, Linda Ehrlich, another Japan scholar and a friend on my page, commented.
“Send me a good quality image, and I’ll include your artwork in my chapbook.”
Linda was preparing to publish a poem on the yamamba, complete with artistic line drawings by a friend of hers. I tried to get a decent photograph of the box, but my skills were not up to the task.
That’s when I suggested we aim for a more ambitious project. A book.
I am fascinated by the way the yamamba found her way into the imaginations of so many artists, whether in Japan or elsewhere. Just as Linda was polishing her poem, Japanese dancer Yokoshi Yasuko was choreographing a yamamba-inspired piece with American sound artist Gelsey Bell in a residency at the University of Michigan.
That Yamamba sure gets around.
Linda and I joined forces. Linda invited others she knew to contribute to the anthology we envisioned, and so did I. Laura Miller was willing to design a shrine box, now featured in the anthology with an accompanying essay. In the end we have nine chapters engaging the yamamba’s hold on our poetry, dance, fiction, and art. Stone Bridge Press agreed to sign us. And so, here we are. Kismet, friendship, and yamamba magic.