Bonsai by Karen Kao

Image source:
Bonsai seems like such an obvious metaphor for editing a novel manuscript. The tiny tree, tweaked and twisted to look like the real thing, just as a novel strives to mimic life.

When I think of bonsai, I’m whisked back to a Zen temple complex outside of Tokyo. It’s early in the morning and the place is deserted. No, wait, there’s an old man bearing a zinc pail in one hand and a pair of nail clippers in the other. For hours, the man shuffles from one bush to the next, carefully examining the plant from top to bottom before making a single snip.

For some writers, this is what editing means. But it’s not my process. I have to rewrite, over and over, from beginning to end until I hear my manuscript crackle to life. I kill off characters and squash narrative arcs. Like weeds, some of them return to infest my manuscript. Or perhaps these characters are saying to me: “Listen! I’m the hero you need.”

The heroes of my novel-in-progress Peace Court are two old folks. Mrs. Yip is the local busybody who once worked for Blind Bao when he owned a laundry. Neither of these senior citizens possesses superpowers. They don’t even have a particularly upright soul. All they can wield is their own conscience against struggle sessions, police interrogations and the everyday violence that marked the start of Communist China.

So I’ve got my heroes and a fine kettle of fish into which I can dangle them by the feet. I have an evocative time and place: Shanghai 1954. There are colorful characters and plenty of salty language. Done and dusted, you say?

cutting tools


Not quite, though I feel I’m close. I can hear my manuscript breathing in the night. The problem is: it keeps on growing. New story lines. New back stories for minor characters like Shao, the prostitute who plies her trade in a green Chinese Army uniform. Where do I stop? When do I cut and how deep? This is where bonsai comes in.

Bonsai tools. Image source: Bonsai Empire
Bonsai tools. Image source: Bonsai Empire
Bonsai, it turns out, is not such a gentle art. You start with a plant: one you’ve cultivated or sourced from elsewhere. As the plant matures, the trunk thickens, branches spread and leaves come (and sometimes go).

Then the real work starts. The tree must be shaped, both to keep it small and to force it to grow in the desired direction. Bonsai gardeners use a special set of tools that remind me of the dentist. These cutters are supposed to leave hollow wounds that heal quickly.

maker trees


First Nation and Native Americans once bent trees to create guideposts. The marker trees pointed the way toward fresh water, medicinal plants or the safest route out of the wilderness. These early trail markers were made from saplings bent and staked with wild vines or rawhides. Nature would eventually take over, causing the tree to grow past the bend tall into the sky.

Wires are today’s rawhide for shaping bonsai trees. The branch is wired along the full length before it’s staked to the ground or another branch. Unlike marked trees, the bend serves no purpose other than to please your own sense of aesthetics.

The writer Yasunari Kawabata regarded bonsai as an ultimate expression of Japanese aesthetics.
dry bonsai garden
Bonseki, Honen-In, Kyoto. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Nothing is more complicated, varied, attentive to detail, than the Japanese art of landscape gardening. Thus there is the form called dry landscape, composed entirely of rocks, in which the arrangement of stones gives expression to mountains and rivers that are not present, and even suggests the waves of the great ocean breaking in upon cliffs. Compressed to the ultimate, the Japanese garden becomes the bonsai dwarf garden, or the bonseki, its dry version.
But how to choose which limb to amputate and which one to save, if only to mutilate it beyond recognition? My friend Tim tells me of a harrowing moment at bonsai school. He and his teacher Yannick Kiggen examine a tree. A large knot, mostly filled with deadwood, mars one side. Should it be removed?

“No,” Tim says, “look at the beautiful circle it makes.”

“You’re right,” Yannick replies. “Get me the drill.”

Yannick proceeds to remove all the deadwood so that a perfect white circle is all that’s left.

bonsai: the book


Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean poet whose first novella was entitled Bonsai. I missed that one but I did read his second, The Private Lives of Trees. Both books use a circular narrative structure to lead the reader down a rabbit hole (or through a tree knot).

bonsai in kanji characters
 Bonsai in kanji. Image source: Wikipedia
The final stage in cultivating a bonsai tree is to choose the proper vessel to contain the plant. After all, the Japanese word bonsai means tray planting. The vessel must be worthy of its burden and vice versa. Or, in the words of Zambra reviewer Elizabeth Wadell
Miniaturization is not the defining feature of a bonsai; containment is, the strict boundary between the bonsai and the rest of nature.
The novel Peace Court is my chosen vessel. Mrs. Yip, Blind Bao and all my other characters form the tree. I’ve spent my time pruning and wiring, applying the power tools and then waiting for the stories to recover. Now it’s time to take a good hard look at the vessel.

It must be striking and nourishing. Either in contrast to the green life within or in utter harmony therewith. Unlike a bonsai gardener, I have the ability to shape both vessel and tree.

Talk to me in a few more months. Maybe I’ll have something for you to see.

Note: Bonsai was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


Nice waiting for your book!
Umberto Tosi said…
Your analogy and bonsai musings emerge as poetry. I'm taken by the analogy. If only I were a better bonsai surgeon. Perhaps I'd edit better - at least on my own work. I'm a constant gardener when providing that service to other writers, who have seemed reasonably pleased with the collaborative outcomes. I like to cultivate baby potted trees from seeds, especially fruits: lemon, orange, apple, avocado. Then I balk and dither at how and where to trim them, afraid of botching up my darlings, perhaps fatally. You're right: Bonsai (and editing) are not for the faint at heart.

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