Work begins early in my neighborhood, here in Aizumi, a town in Tokushima Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. The farmers next door crank up their tractor engines almost as soon as a rosy glow appears on the horizon. As I drag myself out of bed at 6:30AM, I am probably the last adult to rise on this street. People are already jogging or race-walking or exercising their dogs on the trail across the road, along the Yoshino River. Soon, the elderly men who supervise garbage disposal will be at the trash receptacle near the local shrine, making sure that no one is dumping plastics on “burnable” day.
That shrine, and the freshly painted swing set next to it, appear in the first pages of my novel Losing Kei. Later in the book, I mention the river, and Mt. Bizan, which rises on the opposite bank like a gentle giant in the middle of Tokushima City, and the summer festival which draws visitors from all over the world. I write about the rice paddies and the fields of sweet potatoes and the orchards of pears that form a patchwork over the land. I write about the wild boar snuffling through the brush, and the monkeys that thrive in the hills. I even write about the jungle crows weighing upon the telephone wires outside my window.
My neighbors are unaware of the work that I do at my desk. They know me as a woman who leaves her laundry hanging until dusk, who doesn’t bother to sweep the street in front of her house or wash her door, who is often busy taking children here and there, often in garishly colored clothing. They don’t know about the drafts of essays and book reviews, or the travel memoir-in-progress in my upstairs office, or even the published books on my shelves: the novels, or The Beautiful One Has Come, a collection of stories about people who resemble themselves. They probably haven’t seen the article I wrote for All Nippon Airway’s inflight magazine this month, or the one I wrote the month before for The Japan Times. Even if they had come across these writings, their eyes probably would have skated over my name. It would have been in English, after all, and my neighbors are Japanese.
Before I came to Japan to teach English” for one year,” before I met and married a native son and settled here with my family, I lived in South Carolina, land of Palmettos and peaches, alligators and Gullah women selling handmade baskets at the side of the road, hurricanes and pampas grass and hush puppies. I’ve written about South Carolina, too, especially in my most recent novel, Screaming Divas, which is about an all-girl punk rock band in 1980s underground Columbia. These girls attend art shows in abandoned warehouses and dance in clubs with graffitied walls. Wanna-be punks with Southern accents, they eat plates of grits at 2AM in a café, across the street from the, capitol building pocked with Union bullets.
The stories that I tell are odes to the places I love; writing is revisiting. Out of homesickness, I’ve found ways to link Japan and South Carolina in my writing. For instance, when I was working on my first novel, I learned that a young, aspiring artist from Columbia, named Blondelle Malone, had stopped off in Japan to paint on her way to France, where she would meet Claude Monet and impress him with her Japanese landscapes. After poring over her letters and articles on Japan at the South Caroliana Library, I wrote an article about Malone’s sojourn in Japan, and later wove her story into my first novel.
I have lived in various places, but I am, for all intents and purposes, a writer without a home town. There is no shelf for the works of local Anglophone-only writers at the nearest book store. My awards go unacknowledged by the Tokushima press, and its unlikely that a press release would get me onto Shikoku TV. While most writers can depend upon the support and enthusiasm of friends and neighbors, and have a list of people to invite to a book launch party, the good people of Aizumi take no notice of what I do because I am writing in a foreign language.
It’s not that I have sought anonymity. As a frequent patron of the prefectural library, I’d appreciated the fact that every book I’d ever requested, no matter how obscure, had been acquired for my reading pleasure. I thought of myself as a curator, as I filled out forms asking for books by expatriates in Japan or novels about other parts of Asia that I wanted to read, and thought belonged in the library’s collection. When my first novel was published, I put in a request for that as well, thinking it an efficient way to get my book onto the shelves. The library would appreciate the gesture, I thought. Considering that I was a longtime resident writing about Tokushima, didn’t my books belong in the library? After I filled out the form with the title of my book, Losing Kei, and the author’s name (mine), I went home. A few hours later, there was a phone call from the acquisitions librarian.
“Are you the author of Losing Kei?” she asked in Japanese.
“Yes,” I said, proudly. I assumed that she was calling to ask me to make a presentation to library patrons, or perhaps to congratulate me.
“If you are the author,” she said, “then you have already read the book. So I’m going to cancel your request” — my first lesson in hubris.
I have given up on trying to establish my identity as a local writer. My editors, readers, and critics are, for the most part, thousands of miles away, across oceans. Having multiple time zones between my audience and me is both liberating and lonely. While expat writers converge to share work and arrange readings in the larger cities of Japan, such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, here in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku, there is not even a brick-and-mortar bookstore selling English-language books (although there were several when I first arrived twenty-six years ago).
When I leave my desk in the afternoon and go out into the world, children passing by on the way home from school with satchels strapped to their backs, look at me and shout “Hello!” They see me as an English-speaking person, nothing more, nothing less – an opportunity to try out foreign phrases they learned at school. Usually, I smile and return their greetings. The farmers harvesting rice nearby have no knowledge of awards I’ve won, or failed to win, of acceptances, or rejections, of sales, or lack thereof. The fact that I am a writer has never come up in conversation with my neighbors, and maybe it’s better that way. The woman who lives next door would never think to ask how my new novel is selling when she brings a bag of freshly harvested carrots (or spinach or watermelons) to my door. People never volunteer ideas for my next novel, or even ask what my latest book is about. Left in peace, I am free to observe and write as I wish, at my own pace. Obscurity has its own rewards.