One day I’ll write a book called Mistress of Yamatai.
It will be a Burroughs-esque actioneer.
The story – a freak accident involving some ancient Japanese relics causes out hero (an anonymous orientalist) to slip back in time (and possibly sideways, too) to the ancient land of Wo, where he’ll have to face unspeakable lovecraftian horrors and shamanic magic, fight blood-thirsty barbarians and woo fiery-spirited, ample-breasted Himiko, the Mistress of Yamatai.
A classy thing, in other words.
I’ve got the story outlined, the characters sketched – the zip file including the lot resurfaced a few days back, after a slump caused a pile of old CDs to spill fan-like on my desk.
One day or another, I’ll write the book.
I made a promise.
In the meantime, here’s the story about Himiko, the Mistress of Yamatai, and about her Curse.
In the summer of 2004, if I remember correctly, I spent a night in a pub in Turin with an old friend of mine, Japanese translator, teacher and author Massimo Soumaré.
Over drinks, we compared notes.
At the time, we were both working as editors for the Alia Project of international sf/fantasy anthologies.
In the meantime, I was teaching statistics for paleontology, and Max was teaching Japanese.
I was working on what would much later become my two non-fiction ebooks, and Max had a massive, highly learned essay on Japanese history and archaeology.
We both lacked a publisher (a pretty standard situation in Italy, back then as today).
Max’s book was a well researched, highly entertaining essay on the Kingdom of Yamatai and queen Himiko*, a piece of bronze-age Japanese history which can be traced in ancient Chinese documents and recent archeological finds, and is possibly connected with the development of the Amaterasu character in traditional Japanese religion.
The book wove together history, archaeology, folklore and the cultural development of early Japan.
It was (and is!) great, but the Italian publishers were being stupid about it – one of them asked the author to turn it into a children’s book, another suggested Max should set up an exhibition of ancient Japanese art and sell the book as the exhibit’s catalog…
So I thought, why not try the international arena, translating Max’s book in English?
It could not be any worse, right?
The drinks, the warm summer night and the publishing desert surrounding us led us to a “Why not?”
A few weeks later, I mailed an American friend in Japan asking for pointers – after all, he was working in publishing, so… did he know of some likely candidate, could he point me towards a possible publisher.
Edward Lipsett, my American friend in Japan, told me not to look any further – he had just launched Kurodahan Press, a small but spirited publisher specializing in intercultural works.
So we started talking.
Working with Kurodahan meant revising the original manuscript well beyond translation – we had to bring the book up to international academical standards, we had to tighten it up and clean it up.
We were assigned two editors and revisors, and we started translating, editing, rewriting, expanding, cutting, revising, translating again, editing the new translation…
It also meant, for me, learn to be a better professional – and learn it fast.
All the individuals involved went through personal crises, mishaps, family losses – so much so that a not-so-funny joke started doing the rounds, between Italy and Japan, about the Curse of Himiko.
When finally the book saw the light five years later, it felt like reaching the South Pole, like putting a man on the Moon, like getting out alive of a long, hard war.
We also started joking about the fact that the book would have a wider audience and sell a lot more, if we simply called it “Mistress of Yamatay”, placing a topless Jungle Queen-like character on the cover, going for the full pulp package.
We did not.
The book is still available, and is still the best and most accessible gateway to the ancient history of Japan as seen through the eyes of Chinese diplomats and of modern researchers.
It is not called Mistress of Yamatai.
It’s called Japan in Five Ancient Chinese Chronicles: Wo, the Land of Yamatai, and Queen Himiko.**
It’s just great, and you can find it through the usual channels (including my Amazon bookstore).
But the idea of writing Mistress of Yamatai remained, and when I finally held the finished book in my hands, I promised I’ll write the pulp version, one day or another.
And I’ll do it.
I certainly don’t need to make any research for it.
And I owe it to the guys I worked with, that braved the Curse of Himiko with me.
* As a footnote, I must add that the Himiko character is pretty popular as she’s been the subject of a number of novels, movies, anime and manga.
** This is a commercial link to Amazon.com – it means that should you order the book, I make a buck out of it (but you don’t pay any extra, it’s all between Amazon and me)