On Station Eleven, the Obon Festival, and the Art of Longing

To mark the end of August, I’ve been wanting to do a post on the obon season here in Hawaii. Obon is a traditionally Japanese Buddhist custom to honor one’s ancestors as they return to “visit.” Most Japanese people return to their hometowns to celebrate this occasion, which is marked by a bon odori, or basically a very large traditional Japanese dance.

As a third generation Japanese-Okinawan American, I know next to nothing about the actual Japanese festivities. Here in Hawaii, it’s a little different. For one thing, the season spans almost all summer, from the end of June to the end of August, as opposed to the few days in each Japanese region. Generally all of the Buddhist temples here host their own obon celebration, complete with food vendors, craft fairs, and, of course, bon dances. All summer, every weekend is another bon dance somewhere on the island.

Hometown bon dance. Photo by Cheri.
Hometown bon dance. Photo by Cheri.

Evidently, there is an actual story behind this occasion, which I only discovered this moment on Wikipedia: One of Buddha’s disciples somehow found out his deceased mother was suffering in the afterlife and was informed by Buddha that he could help her by making offerings to the Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat. This allowed his mother’s release from her suffering and, in gratitude and relief, the disciple danced.

I still don’t know if obon season necessarily makes me feel closer to my ancestors. But, despite the fact that I’m really really bad at dancing, participating in the obon festivities always makes me feel grounded in my culture. Whether or not they struggle to participate in the dance movements, everyone is part of so many generations holding tight to all these traditions, even after all these years.

Which brings me to the fact that I’ve finally finished Emily St. John Mandel’s highly acclaimed Station Eleven, which is all about extreme nostalgia. I mentioned this title a few times in the last months, mostly because I’d picked it up in a moment of optimism about my reading abilities while coping with Issues. Unfortunately, the whole world-ending thing put me off for a bit because, well, Issues.

The story follows a handful of different narrative perspectives, both past and present, through the mutated epidemic that wipes out 99% of the world, the shaky years following, and all the way through Year 20, when the Traveling Symphony of musicians and Shakespearean actors continue to bring art and beauty to the surviving communities.

The crux of the main conflict comes in the form of a territorial prophet who believes the epidemic was God’s razing of the Earth, leaving only the worthy behind, along with those who will test the worthy one last time. (There always has to be one of those guys, right?) The Traveling Symphony runs afoul of him and things get creepy from there.

What was most interesting to me, however, was that, despite this prophet storyline, the much bigger and continuing conflict happens on a much more personal level for most of the characters: namely a longing for the past, a forgetting and remembrance alike, for everything from air-conditioning to electricity to iced lattes.

From Knopf Publishing's YouTube commercial for Station Eleven.
From Knopf Publishing’s YouTube commercial for Station Eleven.

Mandel’s writing is lyrical and beautiful, casting an atmosphere of slow, burning days in Year 20 and the frenzy for safe places as the outbreak occurs in real time alike. She intertwines everyone’s narratives to show the interconnectivity throughout the world ending and re-building, which I can admire because it’s damn hard to pull that off without manhandling a bunch of coincidences into place. And, let it be said, I still want the comic book, Station Eleven, whose construction and sometimes narrative intersperses some of the action, to actually exist — so extra kudos to Mandel. (Edit: Check out Nathan Burton’s cover and double-page design for a real life Station Eleven comic.)

I do have to be honest, though. Towards the homestretch of the end, as I sat alone in my quiet room in the dead of night, reading ever onward, I started to feel…a little crazy. Mandel had me so immersed in her story that it almost felt as though the outbreak was happening somewhere unknown, but growing. When I left my room, there was the radio playing somewhere outside, my brother reading his email on his phone, the neighbor’s TV rattling dialogue, the refrigerator light on my face and all that food kept safe and delicious– all these things Mandel made sure her readers knew they took so much for granted.

My favorite scene in the book (no spoilers) occurs when a group of survivors ventures out for the first time in a hundred days after the initial quarantines and sweeping sickness. They leave footprints in the snow that another survivor uses to follow them back to the airport in which they’ve set up camp. After initial interrogation, the survivor starts crying and can’t stop. When the group asks him why, he answers, “Because I thought I was the only one.”

SO SAD.I don't know if this is actually from Romeo + Juliet, but I'd like to take the time to say that I did want about 200% more Shakespeare from Station Eleven. Oh well.
I don’t know if this is actually from Romeo + Juliet, but I’d like to take the time to say that I did want about 200% more Shakespeare from Station Eleven. Oh well.

Which, I guess, brings us back to culture and obon. As Chebk has mentioned before, Hawaii is unique in what cultural traditions it continues to honor on a daily basis, as well as the bigger celebrations, like obon, that bring communities together and create that sense of belonging.

Station Eleven takes that to a much higher level, as groups of people band together for humanity’s sake, not just a single culture’s (although, this is arguable, as we are shown only a very small section of a single state in America, with flashbacks to parts of Canada and Hollywood). The story takes another look at the “end of the world,” not so much the action core we’ve seen before in The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later, but the character-driven perspectives that circle in on itself, on the past, on what it means to belong to a world without structure or boundaries that make being “human” or “Japanese” or what have you definable traits. Station Eleven left me unmoored in the best kind of way, and the comedown to reality left me clinging to every little thing and I am grateful.

Rating: 5/5 Potatoes


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