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January 18, 2007


Ellis Avery '93 to Read from The Teahouse Fire

teahouse book cover

Ellis Avery '93, whose debut novel The Teahouse Fire has earned glowing praise from reviewers, will return to Bryn Mawr on Wednesday, Jan. 24. At 7:30 p.m. in Ely Room of Wyndham House, Avery will read from her novel and demonstrate the Japanese tea ceremony that is central to its narrative. Copies of the book will be available for purchase through the Bryn Mawr College Bookshop.

The Teahouse Fire probes issues of race, gender, cultural exchange and the relationship of art to social justice through the voice of Aurelia Bernard, a nine-year-old orphan who is taken to 19th-century Kyoto by her abusive missionary uncle. When a fire separates her from her uncle, she is renamed Urako and adopted as a servant and companion to Yukako, the daughter of a prominent Japanese family descended from a long line of tea masters. Yukako's father has somewhat grudgingly begun to teach tea ceremony, an art long practiced exclusively by an aristocratic elite, to an emerging merchant class, but it is still forbidden to women. The Shin family's fortunes are dramatically reversed when the emperor embraces a radical program of Westernization and cuts off funding to the aristocracy in 1868. Yukako, with Urako's help, struggles to find a footing for her family and its ancient art in a rapidly changing world.

Urako, Yukako's loyal servant and "little sister," grows up negotiating a place in a culture traditionally hostile to outsiders by encouraging speculation that her "foreign" features and initial inability to speak Japanese are the result of a birth defect. She benefits from Yukako's protection and patronage, but their complex relationship, tinged with jealousy and unspoken longing, is also a source of vexation and pain.

Avery, who pursued an independent major in performance studies at Bryn Mawr, has studied chado, or the way of tea, in New York and Kyoto. She based the character of Yukako on a historical figure who, she says, "changed the fate of tea ceremony in the late 1800s by getting tea into the curriculum of the newly established girls' schools. Doing so, she transformed a men's art into a women's art."

Emily Barton, writing for the Los Angeles Times, praises The Teahouse Fire: "Although this is a historical novel as well as a coming-of-age book, the depth of Avery's exploration of her period and her characters lets her soar above the limitations of both genres ... When [Urako] remarks, 'How beautiful, to see something done simply and well,' she could easily be speaking about The Teahouse Fire, a novel that, like the tea ceremony itself, provides true pleasure to the intellect and all the senses." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, "Avery, making her debut, has crafted a magisterial novel that is equal parts love story, imaginative history and bildungsroman, a story as alluring as it is powerful."

Avery began work on The Teahouse Fire in 2003, while studying with Maxine Hong Kingston, the celebrated author of The Woman Warrior. Her nonfiction book The Smoke Week, an award-winning personal account of life in Manhattan after Sept.11, 2001, was published by Gival Press in 2003. Her work has also appeared on stage at New York's Expanded Arts Theater and in print in Publishers Weekly, Kyoto Journal and the Village Voice. In 2001, Three Lines, One Road, a year's worth of daily haiku exchanged between Avery and her Bryn Mawr classmate Melissa Demian '93, was a finalist in the National Poetry Series.


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