Japan

March 28, 2011

It is two weeks since the calamitous events in Japan wiped Libya off the front page of the New York Times. If I had been in the midst of a work of fiction, I probably would have needed to take a long, solitary walk into the mountains to reassure myself that the ground beneath my feet—the title of a novel by Salman Rushdie—was still steady, or steady enough to return to my desk and work. But I am in the midst of the teaching term, researching my next project, so I stayed in New York and connected with former students and friends who have friends and relatives in Japan.

I developed an interest and abiding connection with Japan some years ago when I took a part-time job in a Japanese language school that caters to Japanese businessmen and their families. I needed extra money to support “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” because the publisher could only afford a small advance and I knew it would take me at least a year to gather the stories and then several more months to get them into shape for publication. I mentored the contributors long distance or in person at various locations—some out of the country—which meant I also needed money to travel. It was one of those projects that, once started, I could not in good conscience abandon. I did not write anything else for two years and when I was done I had trouble writing insipid articles for the women’s magazines. Botox didn’t seem to matter anymore. That said, I have learned a lot from aid workers about relaxation. They work hard and play hard, too. Many are avid readers and writers. They keep journals. Which is why so many wanted to tell their stories when I sent out my first query email. I was inundated.

Thankfully, the book has had legs and is still doing well at an on-demand reprint house in Oregon. And it’s still in print with the original publisher in the UK/EU. I continue to get queries from aid workers and I am in touch with most of the contributors some of whom have become friends.

But I have already digressed from the calamity in Japan, which is not difficult to do. How can we linger on the unimaginable and be of use? And what, in particular, can a writer do? I suppose the answer is obvious: we can write about it and into it. By this I mean that we can put ourselves—literally or imaginatively—into the minds and hearts of those who are suffering. This is what I tried to do when I wrote to Mayumi, one of my former students. We had been in email correspondence over the years and sent each other holiday greetings. She is a film buff and much of our correspondence has been about American and Japanese film but I also know a lot about her life because, when she landed in America, she was recovering from chemotherapy. She was very young to be diagnosed with breast cancer and the diagnosis hit her and her family hard. It happened at the moment her husband was about to begin his posting in New York and the company he worked for would not allow him to delay his departure and keep his job. So he left for New York while Mayumi stayed on in Japan until she was strong enough to travel. When she arrived, she still had a scarf on her head and had to have regular follow-up appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering. But she was happy to be in New York and eager to improve her English which was already quite viable.

At the school, teachers and students rotated depending on schedule and the notes, intended to provide continuity, were often playful. Mayumi’s were odd. The teachers seemed frustrated by her reticence which seemed more intense than most of the other students. It had been bandied about that Japanese men and women don’t really want to learn English. The long American occupation—1945-1952—had created resentment and defiance. Not learning English was an act of defiance, some said. But no one went so far as to suggest this with Mayumi. They said she was shy, could hardly read and write English, and that she came into class with a strange scarf on her head. Someone had drawn an insulting picture of her with a scarf and the caption, “So what’s with the scarf?” I couldn’t think of anything more awful. It angered me to read these notes and I am sure they would have shamed Mayumi if she had seen them. Obviously, none of the other teachers had gotten to know her or asked her any questions about her life. True, the director of the school didn’t encourage any personal connection which was considered to be unprofessional and intrusive. The younger teachers towed the line because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. I didn’t care as much—my stay was only temporary—and even if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to abide the director’s insistence on monitoring what went on in my classroom.

So I asked Mayumi some gentle questions about her scarf. It wasn’t difficult to see that she had no hair underneath. Rather than being offended, she was relieved, and began to cry. After that, she always asked to see me. When this didn’t work out, she asked if we could work privately.

Her English improved exponentially and, when she left for Japan after her husband’s tour was over two years later, we promised to stay in touch. Naturally, I thought of her immediately when the quake hit and popped off a quick email: “Are you okay?” I knew that she lived south of Tokyo but I had a recollection of some family living north of Tokyo and a grandfather in Hokkaido. She was always traveling to see him. I hoped she hadn’t been on one of the pulverized trains.

An email came back almost immediately, not from her regular address, but from a special address attached to her mobile phone. It was short but well written. All is well with us and we remain hopeful, she said. Not much electricity which is why she was writing to me on her phone instead of her PC. “We cannot stop thinking about the nuclear terror,” she said. I replied immediately asking what, if anything, I could send her on email that might be consoling or helpful. “It’s enough to hear from you. I am so grateful that you are thinking of me,” she wrote.

So that’s what I’m doing: I’m writing to Mayumi, she is writing back to me, and I am honoring her courage, and that of the Japanese people during this disaster, by writing this blog.




At the Algonquin Redux

March 17, 2011

Though I am an indigenous New Yorker, I had never visited the Algonquin Hotel until I returned to the city after a ten-year sojourn in Europe. By then I was a writer searching for quiet spaces in which to read, write, and converse with friends. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a venue to have business meetings because I needed a place to relax away from my home office. But I have since had a business meeting or two in the Algonquin lobby. I always get there early, find a comfortable chair near a dim light, and read for a while before my guest arrives. Indeed, I feel that the lobby is my lobby and that I am entertaining guests there, so homey is it to me. I carry a portable light with me-- especially helpful when I open my Kindle—and settle into deep reading. The waiter may or may not come over. When he does, he’ll be gentle so as not to interrupt my reading too harshly. I order a pot of hot green tea, one of the cheaper items on the revamped more upscale menu. And I sip from that pot all night. Sometimes I even ask for more hot water. The waiters get it—I don’t want to spend a lot of money, I’m a writer—and they leave me alone. Usually, my guest orders a drink or two which subsidizes the writers on the premises. Unless my guest is also a writer.

The tradition of extended conversation in a quiet club was embedded in me during my years in London. It’s a genteel tradition, not one in which I was raised, but I took to it quickly. I’m not an elitist, far from it, and always defied the locked squares in London’s tonier neighborhoods (we have one or two in New York also), by pretending I’d forgotten my key. I figured I looked as though I could belong. I knew that the polite Brits would rarely confront an interloper and when they discovered I was a class-less American they would simply laugh. This happened more than once. I had acquaintances who were Lords and Ladies and friends who were members of clubs and they always enjoyed a good American tease about their class pretensions. When they invited me to their clubs, and I didn’t decline, they were equally amused. I soon understood the purpose of them: luxury is very seductive. In London, it was an oasis from the hardscrabble neighborhoods I had to visit as a journalist or, in my early days there, when I taught in the still Dickensian schools on the periphery of the city. In the clubs, I could let my body and my mind relax for a while and refuel.

And that’s how I feel when I sit in the Algonquin lobby—relaxed in mind and body. And although I don’t want a thousand people to read about it in this blog, I’m delighted to be able to share this New York Literary and Historic Landmark with my students and writer friends. There’s no membership fee or hazing. Anyone can join because there is nothing to join. Walk in, sit down, enjoy. If you have a book club of ten or more, you can even reserve space in advance. I did this once with a new book club I had started. We weren’t ten so we couldn’t book in advance but, as soon as we arrived, Doomy, the gatekeeper of the lobby, found us a small round table at the back, very close to the Algonquin Round Table. I was thrilled. As we were leaving that day, Doomy came over to ask us how the discussion had gone and if we’d been comfortable. His family is from Haiti, he told us, he is at college when he is not working at the Algonquin, and he loves to read. My recollection is that we had been discussing Naipaul’s “Bend in the River,” and that Doomy was very interested in this book which is about colonialism in Africa. I gave him my copy.

Doomy is still at the Algonquin and has progressed from under-graduate to graduate studies. Every time I enter and he is there, I smile. We embrace and he helps me find a comfortable location. He might stop a moment or two to ask how I’m doing, and to tell me how he is doing. This week, he was reading “The Great Gatsby,” and when I told him that I read it once a year, we began to talk about why it is a classic. His copy is filled with marginalia. I approve. We could have talked all night but Doomy is a professional and I am not the only regular. The lobby was getting busy again and he had to get back to work. We said good-bye just as my guest walked through the door.

Good News Bad News

March 8, 2011

I got a Kindle for my birthday a couple of years ago and have been enjoying it and worrying about it all at the same time. Not the device itself—that is more than fine—but what its purchase signified—Amazon’s initial monopoly on e-books, and the danger to local booksellers. Then, sometime last year, it was announced that more e-books were being sold than hardcover books. And, in January of this year, the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble closed. Borders at the Time Warner building will soon follow, if it hasn’t already. I began to miss these stores almost immediately. I went into them to browse, have a coffee, sit and read, make lists of books I want to read, some available on Kindle, some not.

In the midst of all these very rapid changes, the Authors Guild (which hosts this site) was paying deep attention and getting involved-legally-in the fray. If you are a writer reading this blog, you’ll want to understand this gripping legal saga which includes Amazon’s blackout of Macmillan books, how the launch of the iPad changed everything, and the acceptance of the “agency model,” as follows:

http://blog.authorsguild.org/2011/02/02/how-apple-saved/

Yesterday, an email arrived from the Guild announcing Random House’s acceptance of the agency model: "Book retailers have faced extraordinary challenges in recent years a double whammy of recession and a shift to digital books that had cut many stores out. For anyone who loves bookstores, this is the best news out of the publishing industry in a long time. Random House's move may prove to be a lifeline for some bookstores."

With this news, I began to wonder if the book-seller landscape will change again. Maybe, as the mega chains fold-up, the small, independent bookstore will rise again. I can see it now: shelves of book covers with ISBN numbers and a cash desk where we can order either print-on-demand copies or e-books.

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