September 2007

Robert Pranzatelli


The Cutmouth Lady: Checking In with Romy Ashby

“But didn’t you think it was kind of perverted?” she asked me in a confidential tone, after she had signed the book and handed it back to me. Then she added, more matter-of-factly, “I mean, I tried to make it perverted; I wanted that.”

“Well, sure,” I replied. “That’s good. It has to be a little perverse. That’s what makes it art.”

We were standing by the long counter near the back of Rapture Café, a recently launched East Village hangout designed to reincarnate the downtown punk-gay-bohemian spirit of the 1980s -- a perfect setting for our rather Warholian exchange. The book in question was The Cutmouth Lady, and she, its author, Romy Ashby -- wearing an open lightweight black kimono printed with numerous large skulls, a black t-shirt featuring a Toilet Boys logo, and black pants, all compatible with her jet-black hair and vaguely punk make-up -- had just given a reading. Or at least it had been billed as a reading; it might more accurately be termed an “anti-reading” as it had begun with the author’s announcement that she would not read from the book but instead talk about it and answer questions. Why? Because she found literary readings almost invariably insufferable, both as an author and as a frequently bored audience member, and she wanted to spare herself, and the friends and enthusiasts who had gathered on this lovely late-May evening to listen, the pain. Besides, “I wrote this book when I was in my twenties, so now it makes me cringe.”

The self-deprecation surprised me, because the book, which I had recently read, is brilliant. It belongs on the same shelf, and its author in the same pantheon, as, for example, Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons and E. M. Forster’s Maurice -- to name but two suitable cohorts that sat, appropriately enough, among the small but knowing selection of literary titles on the shelves a few feet from where we stood, separated from us by a table of underground magazines and punk-friendly books.

The Cutmouth Lady, published rather obscurely in 1995 and now available through the website, consists of a half-dozen autobiographical fictions that fit together into an almost-novel but also remain self-contained. They trace the experiences of the gaijin young Romy, an American in a Catholic girls school in Japan, who, in the absence of parents or any real guardian, makes her way into a 1970s adolescence amid the weird oppressiveness and intermittent odd beauties of Japanese culture, Catholicism, and dawning self-knowledge. In a prose style that manages to appear unaffected even while attaining the stateliness of poetry, the narrative accommodates the macabre and the lovely, the gritty and the ethereal, the everyday and the startling -- and, yes, that endearing little dash of being “kind of perverted,” though in a most humane way.

Hiromi, as she is called in the book, survived to write the collective tale in her twenties, and says she is glad she did, because she couldn’t have written it later: “The book got a few nice reviews that said I ‘captured’ the angst of being a young person. But I didn’t capture it, I still had it.”

She asserts that “the parts that seem the most real are made-up and the parts that are the most unbelievable are the things that are real,” a formulation that might sound too neat if it didn’t ring so true when one has read the book. The title, for example, refers to a bizarre urban legend that really did obsess the Japanese media for a short while in the 1970s. Unlike so many fact-into-fiction hybrids, however, The Cutmouth Lady never feels like a compromise, as if it would gain by being more strictly factual or more loosely inventive; it threads its elements into a single strand of reality that masters -- and fuses -- art and life.

As we stood there, Romy looked at me and said, “Are you a writer yourself? I could tell from the kinds of questions you were asking.” I smiled, pleased that she had really seen me. We spoke about writing and rejection and the drive to continue writing anyway, and she said that she had come to believe that one of the best reasons to write was that the act of writing, as it took place, helped one to feel “less ‘yuck’ about life.”

Among the family of friends in attendance were two of her collaborators: Foxy Kidd, with whom she created the underground magazine Goodie, the recently published 32nd issue of which was among the publications displayed on the nearby table; and multimedia artist Rob Roth, whose combination live-performance-and-video project “Screen Test” had enlisted Romy as a co-writer. I had long known of Romy’s bohemian credentials, and had admired a number of her other noteworthy accomplishments: the songs she had co-written with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie; her occasional column “Walkers in the City,” on the Goodie website, in which she wanders the streets of New York and sifts through quiet moments that others might overlook or undervalue; and that remarkable issue of Goodie some years back in which she had conducted a final, unforgettable interview with Beat poet Gregory Corso and his daughter. But despite all of this -- and my pleasant dealings with Foxy in a handful of email exchanges -- nothing had prepared me for my intense reaction to The Cutmouth Lady and its author’s power as a storyteller.

Two weeks earlier I’d finished reading The London Scene, a superb collection of essays by Virginia Woolf. I had liked it so much that I wasn’t sure what to read next; it almost seemed unfair to read any other author, especially a contemporary author, hot on its heels -- how could anyone compare? But then I peeked at the first paragraph of The Cutmouth Lady:

I can remember three crimes from that enchanted and tormented Spring. There was the sushi man, who stabbed people with an ice pick on the packed blueline train, and there was the poisoner, who left devastated coca colas open in telephone booths. And then there was Kuchisake Onna, the cutmouth lady, the only one of those three (although I could never really consider her a criminal) who brought a tremor into my dreams.

Here, with its first hint of the artful balance of strangeness, accessibility, and lyricism that distinguishes the book, was a voice I immediately wanted to follow. I read the book slowly, to savor it, and found my admiration turning to awe. On page after page, the voice deftly intertwined an understated poetry and wit, whether describing a brief pause during a daytime visit to a friend --

I found myself alone in the sparse, calm room, where in the garden a little cherry tree, standing alone close to the stone wall, appeared to be looking in at me.

or a night tense with decadent possibility:

A curious sliver of moon had materialized in the sky and followed the bus. We passed a gaudy pink love hotel with tall, pointed turrets.

Internal drama is ever-present below the surface, but all is orchestrated with a sublimely subtle eloquence. The human (and humane) transfigurations of the cherry tree and the moon, the room’s qualities as both setting and mirror for the narrator’s mood, the gentle combinational pun on “curious” and “followed,” the tongue-in-cheek Freudianism of the pink love hotel and its turrets, all work so unobtrusively as to leave barely a ripple on the Haiku-like surface of the pristine prose.

When I was almost through I learned of the scheduled reading -- an uncanny bit of synchronicity, as there wasn’t any particular reason, as far as I could tell, for an author to schedule a reading of a book published twelve years earlier. And what were the chances that she would do so exactly now, in the very month in which I, who had first heard about the book several years ago, had finally gotten around to reading it? The day of the event, May 24, turned out to be a bright, muggy preview of summer, and after an afternoon train ride into the city I walked happily through midtown and into the Village, to Avenue A and Rapture and Romy.

I had had no thought or plan, before I met her, to write about the evening; but later, on the train ride home, I jotted down a few of her comments because I liked them, and liked her, and didn’t want to lose any part of the experience I could preserve. I wrote them on the bottom of a train schedule, the only paper I had, and didn’t know what I’d make of them, and thought: Maybe a kind of journal entry? Or, as it evolved, this: an introduction, through an account of my own introduction, to a remarkable writer. And a remarkable book -- a rare creature of which I have deliberately tried to reveal only enough to encourage its discovery (the best way to experience it) by others.