We very much liked the device of placing excerpts from an English dictionary of Japanese culture at the head of each chapter. Did you do that right from the start, or did it occur to you later in the writing process?
The excerpts are from a dictionary that I found in the first house I lived in when I moved to Nagasaki. The book had been left behind by the teacher I was replacing. I loved the insight into the culture. The definitions are so poetic and beautiful. I carried the book around with me from home to home for many years because I knew if I did write a novel set in Japan I wanted them included.
I tried to link the definitions to what was happening in my story because I wanted to give people from a Western background a shortcut to how Ama and the other characters would be expected to behave, even if they question or defy those conventions.
I always feel a tad uneasy talking about cultures in sweeping generalities, but traditionally the Japanese come from an implicit culture, where you are expected to surmise another person’s needs or thoughts. Westerners are much more explicit in their interactions. Group identity also plays an important part in social cohesion in Japan.
You taught English in Nagasaki and Sapporo for three years. What struck you most during that time: the differences in our two cultures, or the similarities?
My first day in Nagasaki, I walked to the language school swigging from a can of fizzy pop. The first lesson I observed was based around tips for foreigners, probably created on my behalf. Yup, I’d made a faux pas with my drinking in public and continued to stumble into many more.
The best life lesson I learned overall was to be respectful of people regardless of their background or yours. That seems a message both cultures share, even if we don’t always practise it. I think the Brits and the Japanese are also stereotypically known for their politeness and reserve, for their love of order – until you get a couple of drinks in us and then our mischievous party spirit surfaces.
I was overwhelmed by the generosity shown to me during my time in Japan but I never fully got to grips with the culture, partly because of my limited language skills. I had an ‘alien registration’ card and that seemed an apt description for how I felt. I was other, outside the norm, but I was also treated with kindness, and cared for, included and afforded wonderful opportunities because I was different.
It’s a wonderful idea for a story. Did it come to you fully formed, or piece by piece?
I wish I could say it came to me fully formed, but the birthing of that book was a painful process. I probably chucked away at least 200,000 words in the end. In the first drafts, my main character, Ama, was dead and her daughter survived. I also wrote it in the third person. The prose was so dry and formal and the story was stilted and frankly not that interesting!
Then, luckily, I realised the story belonged to Ama not Yuko. She had experienced the most loss and the most guilt. Her secrets haunted her. When I realised who my main protagonist was then all the other characters’ stories and inner lives also came into focus.
Ama has fire even if she seems outwardly cold. As a teenager she is hopeful and romantic but her poverty makes her vulnerable. When we meet her as an old woman she is withdrawn, suspicious and broken. I wanted to find out why and then the ‘baddie’ Sato led me to the plot. He is the rope that tethers the characters to one another in often terrible ways.
Finally I let Ama tell her own story, and even if she is a reluctant narrator, she is forced to unburden herself by the injured stranger who arrives on her doorstep.
What’s next? Something in the same vein, or completely different?
Readers have said to keep writing about the Far East during that period of history. There are so many stories to tell. I’m fascinated about the US occupation in Japan after the Second World War, especially in Hiroshima or Nagasaki where tensions ran high between survivors and the American scientists carrying out research into the effects of the atomic bomb. However, I am still mentally exhausted by all the eyewitness accounts I read of the devastation, which leads me to think I’m not the woman for the job.
At the moment I’m working on a piece set in a place where my maternal great-grandfather was born before he came to Scotland. When I visited Achill Island in Ireland I rather naively thought to myself: “Why would he leave this beautiful place?” The answer is simple: poverty and the need to find work. Economic migration and the mass movements of people forced to flee famine and war are some of the biggest issues facing our global community. Syria is happening on our watch.
I lived briefly in the UAE, which has been built by migrant workers and many of the jobs are occupied by non-Emiratis. The capital, Abu Dhabi, began as a fishing village, and in less than fifty years skyscrapers, air-conditioned shopping malls, five-star hotels and golf courses have grown in the desert, but at what human cost? Surely extraordinary fiction is also waiting to rise from those sands.