Malena Watrous is the author of a novel, If You Follow Me, which was the winner of a Michener-Copernicus Award (and of a Glimmer Train Fiction Open prize in 2001). She is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.
Since my novel, If You Follow Me, came out this month, I've been surprised by the number of readers who have asked me if I've ever been to Japan. The novel is set in Shika, the nuclear power plant town on the Noto Peninsula where I lived for a year, after graduating from college. While I like to think that I have a pretty good imagination, there's no way I could have imagined a foreign setting (let alone one as vivid and weird as Shika) without having spent a fair amount of time there. As it is, I worry about having gotten it right, wondering if Japanese people—in particular those from the region—would recognize the place as I described it.
I had to set a novel overseas to realize the importance of setting in fiction. I say "realize" because when I think back on the books that grabbed me as a young reader and made me want to become a writer—from Jane Eyre, to the stories of J.D. Salinger, to My Antonia—I now recognize the extent to which the characters in these books were shaped by setting. And the settings were as vividly detailed and idiosyncratic as the characters who peopled them.
But those books are set (and were written) in the past, before "the dream of constant connection" (to quote a cell phone ad), when the same dull series of chain stores and fast food restaurants had not yet spread from region to region, town to town, even country to country, bulldozing the landscape, burying the old independent businesses, and leaching the local color. Or so it sometimes seems, as if the unfortunate result of "globalization" (a trendy phrase when I lived in Japan, and the stated goal of our teaching) were that one place is now indistinguishable from the next. I don't think it's a coincidence that many minimalist stories take place in a suburbia that is barely described, leaving the reader to fill in the dreary blanks.
I had never been to Japan before signing on to teach English there on a government program. I'd briefly studied Japanese in high school, and remembered our teacher showing us a documentary filmed in Tokyo, of a subway platform so crowded that a man with a stick was prodding passengers onto the train. That was the setting I imagined for myself before moving to Japan, a megopolis flickering with neon lights, teeming with people: a far cry from where I ended up, in a coastal town that felt like a suburb of nothing.
Shika was hundreds of miles away from any major city, but there was a Subway sandwich shop half an hour down the coastal highway, and an Olive Garden a little ways beyond that. For lunch, I could walk from Shika's vocational high school to the 7-Eleven, where I usually bought a canned iced coffee and an onigiri: a triangle of rice, stuffed with tuna salad and wrapped in seaweed. After school, I hung out at Mister Donuts—a sign on the wall proclaimed it a San Francisco institution—grading vocabulary tests while eating curry donuts.
Anyone who has traveled extensively will agree that it's true: our world has become more homogenous. This makes an interesting challenge for the writer who wants to "get it right," depicting both the leveling of the landscape and the strange cultural details that remain, distinguishing one place from the next. I wanted someone who had never been to the Noto Peninsula to be able to picture the murky turbulence of the Sea of Japan, hemmed in by a beach where cars drag-raced on the sand; the sheer weirdness of the Alice in Wonderland-themed museum of nuclear power; the exquisite beauty of persimmons hung to dry from the rafters of every attic in town, like rows of glowing lanterns.
I knew that the writing was going well on the days when it felt jarring to shut off my computer and "return" to the States. When I finally finished the novel, it was like having to say goodbye to Japan all over again. But I learned a lesson from the experience of writing this novel. I realized that I had been neglecting setting in the stories I'd written before this, set in America, lazily assuming that my readers didn't need help to see what was right in front of us.
Defamiliarization is a classic writer's trick. It's easy to pay attention to detail when you're out of your element, much harder to notice what you see all the time, let alone perceive the strangeness and beauty in the ordinary and commonplace. When I was working on the book, one of my characters with whom I had the most fun was a Japanese man who had traveled extensively to America. From his own foreign vantage point, he saw all sorts of strange things about our culture. He noted, for instance, that while the narrator berated the Japanese for the "wasteful" use of disposable chopsticks, people in the United States thought nothing of cutting down trees at Christmastime, "only to hang some balls," or of burying the dead in large wooden boxes. When I got into his head and wrote in his voice, it helped me to defamiliarize the American setting that I'd been taking for granted—and to realize the extent to which setting and culture are inextricable. This is what I hope to be able to bring to my next book: a final souvenir from Japan.
About If You Follow Me: Hoping to outpace her grief in the wake of her father's suicide, Marina, a recent college graduate, has come to the small, rural Japanese town of Shika to teach English for a year. But in Japan, you can never really throw away your past or anything else, for that matter. Alive with vibrant and unforgettable characters—from an ambitious town matchmaker to a high school student rap artist wannabe with an addiction to self-tanning lotion—it guides readers over cultural bridges even as it celebrates the awkward, unlikely triumph of the human spirit.
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