Credit: Courtesy of Anatole Papafilippou
MU: That’s something your daughter will see (when she is older and reads your work), your fairness in presenting this culture, your family, and any potential divides. Maybe that changes the way you write, too, having a child? There is continuance. There is, also, the question of how much do we disclose about our children.
You’ll be a lot more public when it comes out in Japanese! You’ll interview on NHK and be famous at your daughter’s preschool! How exciting to be at this launching place, knowing that the Japanese translation is right around the corner, and The Good Shufu has already been so well-received.
TS: My publisher did a superb job of getting it in the right hands. My editor also helped me tremendously. See, my training was academic, but I did not want to write academically; I wanted to write a book that was enjoyable, a book in which a reader would get caught up. That is my very favorite quality of reading, but my academic background and ability was not going to help me. I’m not trained as a creative writer. My editor pointed out where it was too much of an explanation, and not enough of a narrative. This is what changed in the various drafts of the book—creating a book that would appeal to people who weren’t looking for an academic read. I hope that some readers feel there are some parts that are thoughtful, while also enjoying a story to get caught up in.
MU: It sounds like you are doing that. Kirkus Review says, “The book truly finds its legs when the couple reunites in America, as Slater chronicles how she began to acclimate to Toru’s country… The author certainly makes the telling of it work.” It sure sounds like you grew as a writer in moving the story forward. What is another way in which writing TGS helped you grow as a writer?
TS: I love reading writing where there is nothing extra. There’s no extra language, no extra description, and it’s still so evocative. That’s such a balance to me and a way to honor the power of language and to play with the imagination. When I began writing about this experience, I didn't even know that was something I liked about writing. I could have pointed to books that did this, but I would not have known how to articulate this. It’s something I try to move towards in this book and I still have a way to go. This book gave me an opportunity in which to practice. That’s not something you're trained as an academic to do.
MU: I feel like it’s in every culture, and certain writers are really known for this, but I feel like Japan is really good at cutting off what is not needed, like in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, knowing the essence of something, but getting it down to bare bones, it’s most beautiful, simplest essence.
TS: That is something beautiful about Japanese esthetics. That very sense and style put into words.
MU: In moving away from home, one misses out on family, misses out on them being with your daughter, all of the things we have pain over, holidays, the sense of community as a writer, as a thinker, etc. What, in terms of your Jewish community and writerly culture, have you gained in terms of community in being here?
TS: I have a number of friends here who are writers and they are so important to me. These friends are foreigners but they are also writers. It is so nice to have something that I can have in common with people in any part of the world. There’s a way in which the writing community is much smaller, obviously, than in Boston, but because it’s smaller, it’s a little bit more intimate and that’s nice. Meeting you, say, is so exciting. It’s so nice to know someone is a writer, but there are so many writers in Boston, it doesn’t make that person special. That is one nice thing.
Also important for me to remember, there’s so much that is hard about being away from a literary community. It’s so easy to say, “Gosh, think of all the things I could be doing in Boston right now— the literary festivals, this and that, but I also think I might not have the publishing career that I have now. I don’t think I would have gotten published, frankly, if i did not have the Japan experience. It’s important for me to remember that… I owe Japan! It’s so easy to say, “Oh if I were doing something different, things would be… Oh, if I were in the US, this would be better…
My editor requested, “Can you add something about Japan being [your] home?” No, because it’s not my home. Toru’s my home, but Japan’s not my home. I’ll never feel like Japan’s my home. “How do I honor that and also honor what she was getting at, which was a sense of closure,” I wondered.
MU: It’s exciting that your daughter will have both. Hopefully she will have both places that feel like home.
TS: Right. I feel like being in Japan has deepened my Judaism. Being here has strengthened my connection to my Jewish identity, has given me a desire to practice my religion in a way I never planned. Now, I’m not going to go out and join an Orthodox shul, but I definitely want to celebrate the Jewish holidays in our home; that is almost entirely, if not entirely, due to being in Japan.
MU: Do you have any funny stories of making a Shabbat or Chanukah or using a makeshift Japanese ingredient because you didn't have what you needed?
TS: I did, before my daughter, Toru’s father always wanted me to make Jewish food. Toru asked for the Jewish meatballs! Also, we ended up going out to Chinese food on Christmas. We go out to Chinese food every year on Christmas because that’s what we do in America.
MU: You know what works well? Grinding fresh wasabi as horseradish on Passover.
TS: Ooh, I love horseradish!
MU: It’s not the pink Manischewitz, but it’s good.
Melissa Uchiyama lives in Tokyo with her husband and two children. She has contributed to a number of blogs, books and publications. To read more of her work, visit her blog at http://melibelleintokyo.com/.
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