Monday, 31 August 2009

Writing It Off

A few years back, I had a piece of extraordinary luck: I won first prize in a writing competition with a hefty prize. I know why I won now, and I can say with complete confidence that it wasn’t the cleverness or the skill of my writing. Here is how I did it: I overwhelmed them with words.

I found out about the competition when my daughter brought back a form from school, inviting submissions. Reading it, I saw that there was a separate category for adults. I was thrilled: hidden away in a dusty file, I had half a dozen short stories, a much-rejected chapter book for kids, part of a play, four poems, and a couple of essays. I studied the form carefully, but although it stated that pieces had to be under 5,000 words, there seemed to be no limit to how many things you could send in. All genres were welcome, too: poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, play scripts, and best of all, there was no submission fee. I couldn’t get over my good luck: for ages, I’d been relying on long-suffering friends to serve as my beta readers. Now total strangers would read my work -- they had no choice.

Piece by piece, I sent my manuscripts off: three short stories, part of a play, a chapter of my kids’ book, two rhyming poems, and one blank verse poem. I shiver to think about it, too: all the prose pieces were over-long at just under 5,000 words; I had circuitous story lines, plot holes like Afghanistan has mountains, clumsy tags, protagonists who acted out of character, and chunks of dialogue that went on forever, but I am pretty sure no one else beat me for sheer volume of words.

I tell you this so you'll see that I'm not being humble: I know damn well I had no business winning that competition. What I did was the gambling equivalent of wandering into a casino with a couple of nickels, feeding a few into a slot machine, and walking away a millionaire. I like to think that the readers looked at all my stuff and saw heart and promise. I'm also pretty sure that the other contestants, had they read my work, would have liked me about as much as a seasoned gambler would like a lucky jackpot winner. Whatever the case, I will always be infinitely grateful to the judges for separating my bits of grain from all the chaff and awarding me that prize.

Winning this prize gave me a tremendous boost and all sorts of encouragement, and it also gave me something to tell the tiresome people who kept asking if I’d managed to get anything published yet. No, I would say, but I did win a prize. They always asked how much, of course, and I’m afraid I always told them. It shut them right up, too: everybody respects money in the bank.

Last week, I got a really good rejection. I’ve received many dozens of rejections over the years, of course, from the perfunctory I have read your work with interest to the I really liked this, but it isn't quite right for our list, to the longer, more personal, believable ones, but this one made me feel weirdly hopeful. The best part about it was that the next day I woke up with a clear vision of what to do with the rejected manuscript. For the first time, I saw what I had to do to make things right. Everything the people in my writing group have been telling me suddenly made sense. This time, instead of feeling mired in confusion and hopelessness, I saw the path ahead of me appear straight and true, and knew where I was going to go. I felt like Moses watching the waters of the Red Sea part.

Here's the sad thing: I can’t brag about this, can I? When I told people about my writing competition prize, they were happy for me. I got congratulations and pats on the back. Family members told other family members and mutual friends; my stock rose. Lately, when people ask me if I’ve managed to get anything published, I find myself choking on the words No, but I got a really good rejection, and how very pathetic that sounds. And yet that really good rejection ranks right up there with my writing competition win.

So I’m telling all of you here, right now. Please be happy for me: I got a really good rejection –- one that served as a much-needed kick in the pants. And that’s why I haven’t been around here lately: I’ve been rewriting my manuscript, and loving every minute of it. Which is every bit as good as money in the bank.

Monday, 24 August 2009

To Have Or Not To Have

The kindly old man smiled and put down his tea cup. “So how many children do you have?” he asked Shizuko.

I felt the shock of this question like a fist in the gut. I didn’t know Shizuko very well, but I knew that she and her husband, though childless, desperately wanted children: she’d said as much. But if Shizuko was upset, no one could have told from her placid expression. “I’m afraid we haven’t been blessed with children.”

The old man’s eyebrows shot up. “Even though you’ve been married for eleven years!”

Shizuko shook her head. “No, it’s a real shame, isn’t it?”

I held my breath and watched the old man surreptitiously. Oddly enough, he didn’t look the least bit embarrassed or contrite over his gaffe. “Have you been to a doctor about it?” he wanted to know.

I cringed at this, but Shizuko looked perfectly blasé. “Oh yes. He says we’re both normal, though.” Shizuko took a sip of tea. There was nothing in her face that registered mild irritation, let alone the outrage I felt.

“You ought to try a doctor in Tokyo, a fertility specialist. Have some proper tests done.”

“Perhaps in time.”

The old man shook his head. “Or you could try one of those fertility shrines. My niece went to one and less than two years later she had a baby boy.”

Shizuko smiled. “Good for her! She must have been so pleased.”

“She was, she was. You and your husband should try it!”

Shizuko said that that was a very good idea.

When we left the old man’s house a few minutes later, I turned to Shizuko, aghast. “I can’t believe he said that to you!” I spluttered.

“Said what?” She looked genuinely surprised.

“All those things about having children – what you ought to do!”

Shizuko frowned. “But he was trying to help me. He was being kind.”

“But he was so nosy! What business of his is it whether you have kids or not?”

Shizuko still looked puzzled. “But I do want children.”

“So saying those things was potentially hurtful.”

“He was just being kind.” She patted my hand. “I’m over thirty, Mary. In Japan, if you’re married and over thirty, you’re supposed to have children. Everybody asks – it’s not rude.”

All I could do was shake my head. If I’d been Shizuko, I’d have been enraged. The way I saw it, the question he’d asked was a real powder keg. Do you have children? was bad enough, but How many children do you have? took it to an entirely different level of callousness in its blind presumption. If the person you asked did have children, of course, you were okay, but if she didn’t, it was almost certain to be a sore point. Suppose, like Shizuko, she wanted them but couldn’t have them: the question would remind her afresh and cause her pain. Suppose the woman didn’t want children: the question would irritate. Suppose the woman wanted them, but her husband didn't -- or vice versa: the question would be all the more hurtful.

But Shizuko could not agree with me. Neither did most of the other people I asked about this later. “He was definitely being kind,” the majority said. “In Japan, you get married so you can have children – it’s the same all over Asia.” Only a few career women agreed with me that this question was potentially obnoxious to childless women.

Sometimes I found it so hard to understand the Japanese way of thinking.

I had my first baby not long after I got married, so I was spared this question, but when my eldest was about two, people began to ask me when I was going to have my next one. “Better not leave it too long,” the check out lady in the supermarket cautioned. My daughter’s nursery school teacher was even more blunt. “This would be a good time for you to start the next one,” she said flatly, pointing to my belly just in case I didn’t catch her drift. “Children who don’t have any brothers or sisters are so lonely,” the lady down the road warned me. “And sometimes they’re just plain spoiled!”

My reproductive life, it seemed, was everybody’s business.

In the successive years I spent in Japan, I reserved the How many children do you have? question for people who obviously had children. I cringed to hear people using this as a conversational starter with strangers and I heard it a lot. I heard it so often that one day it finally slipped out of my mouth. I was talking to Inoue-san, a kind, motherly woman in her middle fifties. We were standing in the locker room of a health club and without even thinking, the question just popped out. Inoue-san smiled and touched my hand. “You know, Mary, I had one child, a little boy. He died in an accident; he was almost a year old.”

To this day, I cannot get over my carelessness in asking this question. Or my phenomenally bad luck, asking Inoue-san, of all people. I was so horrified by what I’d done that I burst into tears. Inoue-san was terribly concerned: she tried to cheer me up. I was so mortified that she felt the need to cheer me up that I could hardly stand myself. In fact, I'd only done what I'd heard everyone around me do for the past decade and a half, but what a time to do it.

Not only did Inoue-san forgive me, she didn’t even seem to feel I’d done anything wrong. She continued to be my good friend over the next few years. Every time we met, she looked happy to see me.

Truly, the Japanese way of thinking can take some getting used to.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Reading Under The Influence

As far as I know, Amy Tan and Bill Bryson don’t know each other, though they’re both popular American writers. But they will always be fused in my memory: they both caused me serious embarrassment on the Tokyo subways.

I read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There in Wales shortly after our first daughter was born. It is a very funny book -- so funny that I kept it around for a few weeks, going back to my favorite passages whenever I needed a pick-me-up. Two years later I read it again in Japan and laughed every bit as hard. A year after that, a colleague asked if he could borrow the book and I told him I’d bring it in.

When I got home, I put Neither Here Nor There in my briefcase. On the train to work the next day, I started reading it for the third time .

If anything, it was even funnier. I laughed so hard tears filled my eyes and sweat beaded up on my forehead. A businessman sitting across from me studied me, clearly worried. I was heavily pregnant and he might have thought my excessive mirth would induce premature labor. When I finally got to my stop, my stomach was sore from laughing. I was conscious of people’s eyes on me. I hoped they wouldn’t be on the train going home. There was no question that they would remember me.

When my colleague asked if I’d brought Neither Here Nor There, I had to tell him the truth: that I’d brought it, but I couldn’t let him have it yet. “I’ll give it to you tomorrow,” I promised him.

“But you said you’d read it twice!”

“Yes, but now I have to read it again.”

I made a fool of myself on the train home, too. There is a description in Neither Here Nor There of a train trip Bryson takes, when he shares a compartment with an elderly Norwegian and a rather unpleasant old lady. I won’t spoil the book for you, but I found this part so funny I actually had to put the book down just to regain my composure. My fellow passengers kept their eyes on me. I could hardly blame them.

The next day, I passed the book on to my colleague. He had a few for me, too, and one was The Joy Luck Club.

“It’s not sad, is it?” I asked him. “My cousin said it was really sad.”

He shrugged. “It’s about the war and all. But it’s not especially sad. And there’s a happy ending.”

I started reading The Joy Luck Club on my way home. I’m a fast reader and my train journey was over an hour and a half. By the time I was halfway home, I was onto my third pack of tissues. The tears fell from my eyes and I quietly cursed my colleague, but I couldn’t stop reading. When I felt sobs coming, I had to put the book down and take out my work, but I couldn’t concentrate: I had to find out what happened to all the people I’d gotten to know and care about. This went on for the rest of my journey home: I read until I felt a sob coming, put the book down, took out my work for a few minutes, then read again. I saw two of my fellow morning commuters staring at me in deep suspicion, but I didn’t give a damn. I did make a mental note to have words with my colleague. It’s not especially sad, he said. For God’s sake, if this wasn't, what was?

I finished The Joy Luck Club on my way to work the next morning and practically dehydrated myself. When I got to my office, my eyes were puffy and red. Silently, I handed The Joy Luck Club back to my colleague. “Did you enjoy that?” he wanted to know. Still sniffing, I let him have it with both barrels and he shook his head. “I really didn’t think it was all that sad.”

“How’d you like the Bryson book?” I said, changing the subject.

He smiled slightly. “It was funny."

I stared at him, amazed. I couldn’t get over his nonchalance. The saddest book in the world wasn’t all that sad; the funniest book in the world merited only It was funny. And then I realized that it wasn't him, it was me. No wonder I found Neither Here Nor There so funny and The Joy Luck Club so sad: I was pregnant, under the influence of powerful hormones.

“If you thought that book was sad, you won’t want to read this one, I guess," he said, putting a book back into his bag. "It's by the same author."

I looked at the title: The Kitchen God’s Wife.

“Give it to me!"

I read it on my way home. I guess I just like being emotional.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Good Will Ambassadors

When our daughters were little, an acquaintance of ours came back from a trip to the U.K. with a disturbing story. Her half-Japanese daughter had gone to a birthday party with a relative and another child there had mocked her and called her 'Jap'. I was shocked by this and I wondered how our daughters would react if they heard this term. They got called gaijin -- foreigner -- occasionally, mainly whenever they were out of the neighborhood where they were known and accepted, but they had never heard the word ‘Jap’, though I had told them what it meant. I wondered what their reaction would be if they heard another child called this.

“What would you do if you heard someone use that word?” I asked our eldest daughter. She eyed me narrowly. “I'd call them gaijin,” she spat.

My jaw actually dropped at this; it was the last thing I was expecting to hear. “Why would you do that?”

She stuck out her lower lip. “Because if I'm a Jap, they're a gaijin.

For the record, my eldest daughter doesn't look even remotely Asian. She has blue eyes and blond hair.

“No one would call you that,” I assured her. “I meant what would you do if someone called one of your friends that?”

“They'd better not call us that,” she sniffed. “Because if they do, I'll tell them they're a gaijin.

This was the first time I truly realized how strongly my daughter identified with being Japanese. She'd grown up in Japan, played with Japanese children, spoken Japanese as a first language. She knew she didn’t look Japanese, but she couldn’t help feeling Japanese. And how she felt was everything. I remembered visiting a Caucasian Canadian couple and their little boy in Nagasaki, years earlier, before I even had children. One day the mother was walking through a supermarket with their five-year-old son when he saw a Japanese classmate and his mother in the next aisle. “Don’t say anything in English, Mom,” he whispered, “because they don’t know we’re not Japanese.” I’d thought that was pretty funny at the time, but at least her kid knew he wasn’t really Japanese.

When we first moved to Scotland, our daughters had a terrible time understanding people’s accents. At a classmate’s birthday party, our eldest sidled up to me when I came to pick her up. “I don’t understand a word they’re saying!” she hissed -- in Japanese. They spoke to me in Japanese a lot during our first weeks in Scotland.

I smiled when I first heard my girls developing Scots accents, but it broke my heart when they stopped speaking to me in Japanese. When they stopped wanting onigiri, rice balls, in their lunch boxes. “You don’t get it,” the eldest one told me when I asked. “They make fun of us at school. They call us Japs.”

I didn’t believe this until one day when I saw them walking home on the opposite side of the road where there is no sidewalk.

“Why are you walking on the opposite side of the road?” I demanded. “It’s not safe!”

They screwed up their faces and exchanged a look. “Because we don’t want to walk by Gavin’s house.”

“Why not?”

They wouldn’t look me in the eye. “He and James are always hanging out there. We don’t like them.”

“I don’t care if you like them or not, you stay on the safe side of the road!”

The eldest gave me an exasperated look. “They call us Jap girls.”

I may well be the only non-Asian mother in Scotland whose non-Asian kids have been called Japs. Who has had to go knock on the door of a stranger’s house and persuade her to make her kids stop using this word. Now, the term 'Jap' carries a whole generation's worth of historical baggage that I can only guess at. I’m not daft enough to claim I know how it feels to be heckled and bullied as an Asian minority. But I do think I've at least had a little nibble around the edges. And thanks to our situation, my kids and I have had the interesting experience of being called both gaijin and Jap.

For the record, Gavin’s mother was lovely. She agreed that it was an ugly word and an ugly thing for her son to do, and she got Gavin to stop doing this. James’ mother was nice too. Amazingly, we became friends.

Not long after this, both daughters started speaking Japanese again, even when we were out in public. They started asking for onigiri in their lunch boxes again and writing Japanese sentences on their hands. I would come into the kitchen and find them showing their friends how to write kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese.

Five years later, James started walking our eldest home from school and hanging out in front of our house. When questioned about this, she shrugged. “He’s okay, but I don’t want to go out with him.”

“It’s not the Jap thing, is it?”

“No.” She smiled. “He’s crazy about Japanese now, especially Miyazaki movies. He’s got more anime and manga than I do.”

Our eldest never went out with James, but she did tell him a lot about living in Japan and he could hardly get enough of it. The last I heard, James was learning hiragana and katakana. By this time, he might even have moved on to kanji.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Discriminating Reader

When I was a kid, I was a discriminating reader. I loved choosing which books I would check out. I always read the very first paragraph to decide if the story was worth my while. I can still remember the wonderful sense of power I got as I pictured the author watching breathlessly, waiting to see what I would do: That skinny kid there with her finger in my book, is she going to read it? Is she actually going to check my book out and take it home? I even pictured his or her disappointment on the occasions I decided the book wasn't interesting enough, as I snapped it shut and put it back on the shelf. I was merciless too: no matter how sad the author looked in my mind's eye, if the book didn't suck me right in, I didn't want it anywhere near me.

I used to run through a list in my mind whenever I picked out a book. First and foremost, the book had to be fiction; I had no interest whatsoever in anything that had really happened. Up until I was about thirteen, the book had to be about a girl or girls. When I mistakenly picked up a book with a male protagonist, it went right back on the shelf. Next, I couldn't be bothered with fantastic plot features unless the author sneaked them in after I'd gotten hooked. So if I opened a book and right away saw that there were going to be dragons and fairies, I dropped it fast. If the book started out in a world I could believe in, the odd dragon or fairy was fine, once I was well into the plot. It really helped if the protagonist was unhappy about something or in trouble -- or had to go on an adventure -- and my very favorite plots featured a kid who was a misfit or bullied. Best of all was when there was any kind of travel involved, especially if the protagonist had to travel alone or without adults. Madeleine l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time ticked all the boxes, and so did Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.

When I first moved to Japan, finding books in English was a problem. Within the first week, I read everything I'd brought with me. A visit to Kinokuniya Book Store shocked me: books in English were expensive and it wasn't easy to find the less popular titles. Over my first year in Japan, I combed through the books left by other expatriates and we traded back and forth. I learned to reread books I'd especially enjoyed too; after six months, I found I could reread a really good book and invariably find something I'd missed during my first read.

During the next five years overseas, I reread hundreds of books. I also learned to love non-fiction: one dark December day I picked up Rachel Carson's Under the Sea's Wind and was bowled over by the beauty of her prose. I started reading other non-fiction, including memoirs. I was shocked to learn what I had been missing all those years. Whatever I found in English, I would read, even books I might never have touched back in the States. I read detective stories, translated novels, adventure stories for boys, pulp fiction, literary fiction, Harlequin romances, memoirs, comic books, biographies, war stories, travel guides, do-it-yourself books, cook books, and classics. My only criterion was that the books had to be in English.

In short, I became an undiscriminating reader; I knew I couldn't afford to be fussy. I was the reading equivalent of a Clean Plate Club star member: whatever I got my hands on, I finished it. Even when it was God-awful.

For the next several decades, I did this: I read just about every book that came my way. In some respects, this eclectic reading has stood me in good stead: I discovered writers and genres I might never have gotten to know. But it kept me from concentrating on quality, from thinking about what I was reading and how it might have been written better.

Then I started to write myself. I started the hard way, making stupid, classic beginner mistakes: telling, not showing, meandering, rambling, being inconsistent, putting in unnecessary details, leaving out essential information, and so on. And writing has entirely changed the way I read.

It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but I now begin books and don't always finish them. A few months back, I got to the end of a novel and threw it across the room. It was didactic, pretentious, rambling, and unfocused, and I didn't know who I was more irritated with, the author for writing it or myself for actually finishing it. Last week, I stopped reading a novel after forty tedious pages: all of the characters were having too good a time. Everybody was getting along, lessons were being effortlessly learned, and I was being bored rigid. Three days ago, I picked up a book, read three paragraphs, and put it right back on the shelf: the dialogue was stilted and unbelievable. Lucky me, I've got a pile of books up to my knees, and time is too short for books that mediocre.

I've become that fussy kid again, standing in the library, holding a book, a frown on my face as I think Is this really good enough for me? Do I really want to invest my precious time in reading this? Yes, I've become that fussy, discriminating kid again.

And that's definitely the kid I want to write for.