Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Turning Japanese

Earlier this year I had an interesting rejection from a well respected literary journal. The editor said a number of nice things about my work, and then made this point:

". . . whereas a Japanese reader might recognize the landscapes, most western readers probably need a little more development of the scenes to feel comfortable with them."

It was an astute observation and gets at the heart of one of the main things I am always wrestling with in my stories. I very consciously don't write stories in which I say, "Now, a tabi is a kind of foot covering worn by the Japanese, and resembling a mitten, and is worn with a geta, which is a kind of clog . . . " because I think this kind of thing really slows down a story. I also think it can make a story read like some sort of monograph, as though any culture other than our own (in my case American) is the norm, and all others are worthy of National Geographic type treatment (not that there is anything wrong with National Geographic).

So far I have also avoided ever putting a glossary in any of my work. I know that other books -- books that I have read and enjoyed -- have done this. But so far I haven't had to.

I guess I really want to try to immerse people in setting of my stories, without having to go overboard on explanation. This can be tough. It is much easier when I write a story set in America, and the Japanese characters have to explain themselves, or be explained, because it is natural to the story. Setting a story in Japan where the people are familiar with their culture is more of a challenge.

I remember when I first started writing stories, certain family members warned me against writing about Japan; "People still really like to read about white people. Not Asians."

Harsh, hunh?

And yet, I think if we look at the market, this is often true.

I also think that this family member was trying to make the point that, in setting a story in Japan, I was always going to have to work against silly stereotypes (the sad idea that geisha prostitutes, for example), the public's generaly unfamiliarity and a tendency for "foreign" characters to always be wise or virtuous.

I therefore try very hard to create stories which are engaging, in which the Japanese people are fully developed, and not just bastions of koans and insight and calm, and other such stereotypical traits. When I think of people I know in Japan, they are, of course, fully fleshed out individuals, and I want my stories to be that way too.

But I also don't want readers -- less patient readers -- to feel that they are necessarily reading an instructive story. I want them to be entertained, to just feel like something is, to quote my friend Vanessa, "a good read."

I also think that there are a whole host of things about Japan -- and other countries, but Japan is what I currently focus on -- which you don't read about in fiction. Other writers have written stunningly about the immigrant experience, or about life in a foreign country.

I'm trying to do something I guess that is closer to the latter, where a reader is exposed to aspects of culture that are surprising, like matsuri, and where they can feel to some degree, some of what I feel when I am in Japan. It's staggering to think how recently plane travel has developed, and how this has facilitated our ability to go virtually anywhere we want to in a short amount of time; we get very little decompression. It is also always amazing to me how little we truly know about each other.

When we travel, there are literally hundreds of little cultural cues which we may or may not pick up on. So, in writing, I'm always wrestling with how much I want to explain, and how much I want the reader to feel viscerally.

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