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Of Being an 'American' Writer

I was born and raised in a suburb of Fukuoka, a city in the south of Japan. After eighteen years in Fukuoka, I went to a university in Kyoto and lived there for seven years. My parents are Japanese. They are both from the region and never left the country except for occasional group tours. My native language is Japanese. Like any other Japanese student, I started to learn English in the seventh grade. I am neither an immigrant, nor a postcolonial subject, nor a refugee. Now I write fiction in English in Japan and submit my stories to literary journals in the United States. I represent a small, but ever increasing group of writers.

In a way, I am a typical product of the American literary education. I never have doubts about being Japanese, but I consider myself a writer of America, if not an American writer. How have I become a part of the contemporary American literary culture? How could a person write in a second language without abandoning her native tongue or land? In my view this phenomenon partly defines today's American literature. Who and what is an American writer today?

So, I call myself a typical American product. To be more precise, I am a typical product of the uniquely American institution called "the Creative Writing Program."

In 1985, when I was a high school sophomore, I spent a year in a small Dutch Reform village in western Michigan as an exchange student because I was eager to see a wider world, and because at the time learning English was my passion. Yes, I saw a wider world there, in that it was so small and therefore so different. For a while I went to church three times a week. It was during the height of the Reagan era, and our chemistry teacher-- politically incompatible yet my favorite--had a sticker on his lab table: “Reagan Brings America Back.” I had been writing stories, plays, picture books, poems, and songs, all of course in Japanese. Then I learned that there was such a thing as creative writing class at Hudsonville High School in the spring semester. Wow, do they teach you how to write stories at school? Too good to be true! I signed up for it immediately.

I wrote three stories that semester. We had to turn in three or four revisions per story and those were the pre-wordprocessing days. Boy, did I enjoy that! I still keep all of my handwritten manuscripts with Mr. John Bergraaf's comments in the attic of my mother's home in Fukuoka even though I would never dare to read them today. I was never very impressed with my classmates' stories, and neither were they with mine. Yet I took the challenge of writing in this new language seriously, and took pleasure in its process. Mr. Bergraaf was quite a practical teacher. He introduced us to The Writer's Digest's twenty rules for writers (Show, don't tell. Write what you know. Specific is terrific.), taught us how plot develops, how important revisions are and other basics. Every time we turned in our story, we had to go through the check list of the twenty rules. And he wrote his comments in red on that check list. Sometimes he read student works aloud in the class, and one day he read my story based on a dream of people jumping off a flying trapeze, one after another. In his written comment, he called the story “almost publishable.” Imagine what that did to a sixteen-year old mind! Now here I am, claiming my American authorship. However, years later, I would have to learn the enormous gap between “almost publishable” and “publishable” through experience, after collecting fifty-five rejections before my first story got accepted, but that is another story.

At the year's end I left America, came home, then graduated from the Japanese high school where I ended up hating English because teachers were agonizingly petty. I left home for Kyoto University where I refused to take English courses and tried to major in Oriental History—learning Chinese, French, and Manchu, while trying out creative endeavors in drama, manga, and fiction in Japanese. But all the while, the experience of the creative writing class had stayed with me, and I knew I would like to try it again. But how? It was an utter “dream” in its original sense.

I found out that my interest lay more in languages than history, and switched my major from Oriental History to American Literature. English was the foreign language I knew best. I continued my studies at the graduate school in Kyoto where I wrote an MA thesis on John Barth. His essays reintroduced me to the creative writing program idea in a more academic sense. Then the creative writing dream started to haunt me again…. But I was too ashamed to share this idea with anyone until I was admitted to the Ph.D. program. You'd better have a sound, strategic plan for your academic career. Advanced degrees usually open up a wide window of opportunities in the professional world, but a Ph.D. in English? Frankly, it does nothing but narrowing down your career choices, reducing your chances on the job market, and on the marriage circuit. So you'd better plan well. It was then I meekly admitted to my advisor Professor Fukuoka that for ten years, I had been wanting to try for creative writing in the United States. She blinked for a moment and said, “But you won't be able to get a job with that.”

Be that as it may, I started to apply for MFA programs in the United States only to get a rejection after another. It was no surprise—my English writing was poor and I had written few stories in English. My ambition was of such private nature that I could not dare share my work with anyone, meaning, no workshop, no proof-reading by native speakers. Given a chance today, I would visit all the schools I applied to and burn those application manuscripts. Eventually two schools replied with invitations, and I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where the admissions committee told me to come as a visiting scholar to, see what the program was like, and improve my English. It was ten years after Mr. Bergraaf's creative writing class that I left Kyoto for Milwaukee, without the slightest idea of what awaited me there.

The four and a half years in Milwaukee made me what I am today. In the end, I was admitted to the Ph.D. program, worked as a program assistant, edited the literary journal and taught creative writing, British literature and Asian-American literature, published stories in English, completed my creative dissertation, and met my future husband.

My education in Milwaukee was social and ethical as well as aesthetic and academic. I witnessed from inside how the culture of writing and reading is supported by a vast number of other writing programs and nameless aspiring writers, and how the dynamics inside the English Department where writers, critics and theorists cohabit as colleagues have influenced the history of modern American literary education. I became convinced that the creative writing programs do not raise writers but cultivate readers, and that the Ph.D. programs—a useless degree if you just want to publish books—train creative writing teachers, instead of creative writers. But the best thing I learned there is that writing is a thing you do in your life; it is not an elevated state toward the aesthetic sublime or a way to create a tortured, alienated, genius self that is larger than life. What is most fulfilling to us is to write and therefore we should write. Your desire to write is indeed a decent, earnest desire and you should treat others who have the same desire with sincerity. It sure sounds plain and matter of course, but my experiences in Milwaukee truly shed off all sorts of assumptions and pretenses I had about “Literature.”

I also discovered that writing in English is uniquely liberating for me. I can feel a different part of my brain functioning when I write in English. I write things I never bother to write in Japanese. English slows me down; it is a continuous puzzle. I find a second language is better tuned to explore the dream world since neither of them makes perfect sense. Sometimes it is so humbling that I tell myself I should be happy for every correct sentence I can write in English. Besides, my mother can't read what I publish—this is nice, too. I was fortunate to have the best graduate colleagues I could imagine, whom I could respect and become friends with for life, and professors who may not have been famous writers but whose crafts and personalities I could admire. And when we meet, we talk about writing first of all things. My friends are now all over the United States, teaching. Some of them are now having their first books out. They are my moral support and rivals. Considering how solitary the act of writing is, and considering that the society does not grant recognition to our activities unless one is rich and famous, this friendship has become precious indeed in the long run.

Now I hold a tenured position in Japan, and teach mostly in Japanese, but the language of my creative writing is English, for I am a product of the American experiment called Creative Writing Program. The only way I can respond to everything Milwaukee gave me is to write in English. I am not an intuitive person, but this is one of the few things I hold close to my heart. I do not have faith in the creative writing system per se; my faith lies in the people I've met in Milwaukee, Iowa City, Nebraska City, or Providence. That's why I say my education was social and ethical.

But here's the irony—I would call myself a typical product of the Creative Writing Program not only with sincerity but also with sarcasm. Here's a fact: thanks to the degree I earned in the United States, I have been developing a quite successful career as an academic at the oldest private university in Japan. Here's another fact: no one calls me a “writer” because I do not have a book out, because I do not make a living from writing. I never call myself a writer except in the very limited situation-- like this one, for instance. America is the only nation where one may call oneself a writer just because one writes. In Japan, I may call myself a scholar and a teacher, but the stories I publish in journals may not be counted as academic achievements. Yet the true sense of my occupational identity comes from the fact I write fiction. So what am I? I am one of many Ph.D. holders who teach literature and English, (and I am a writer). Once you drop the statement inside a parentheses, you are nothing but a professor with a writing habit. Many of my graduate colleagues have taken the same path. Today in the developed capitalist nations, when someone asks who you are, you state your occupation. Neither your birth place, nor your family name, nor your caste defines who you are any more. It is your job and your livelihood that tell who you are.

Once at a conference for creative writers, I was a part of a panel titled “Why Write At All?” and I talked about my choice of writing in English. After the panel, a young woman—an undergraduate or an MA student—came up to me and said in a heavy Chinese accent that she had thought that she was completely alone; she felt like she had encountered a fellow sailor in the solitary ocean. She had apparently felt that her desire to write in English was eccentric, an act of treason to her native culture—she had no strategy for to justifying her desire. Surely we make up a small group, and often get mixed up with second- and third-generation ethnic American writers. I was some years ahead of her, so I could tell her that there are indeed many of us coming up. She just had to imagine there were comrades all over the United States. I've met an Australian poet who grew up in Japan, a Hong-Kong poet ofIndian descent, a Hungarian translator writing stories in English, aMuslim scholar in mystic poetry paying homage to the Romantic Englishlandscape.... And here I am, a woman living in Japan who considersherself a writer of America because America has taught her how to write.

The experiment of Creative Writing Program in this country has been partly founded on the nation's democratic ideal. I am a skeptic when it comes to the so-called Greatest Democracy in the world. At the same time, I understand and appreciate that many things uniquely American come from this ideal.

Originally published in 91st Meridian, 4.2 Winter 2006. 

See more at: http://iwp.uiowa.edu/91st/vol4-num2/of-being-an-american-writer#sthash.1...