If you have experienced the inevitable ups and downs that accompany a romantic relationship with someone from another culture, there may been times when you thought, “I could write a book about this one day!” Meet two women who have done exactly that: Leza Lowitz from California and Bostonian Tracy Slater have turned their experience of love and life with their Japanese partners into thoroughly engaging memoirs.
Lowitz is the multi-genre writer of many books, including the award-winning “Jet Black and the Ninja Wind” and “Up from the Sea” (Crown/Penguin Random House, 2016), her new young-adult novel about a biracial boy caught up in the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Also the owner of the popular Sun and Moon Yoga studio in Tokyo, she has just published “Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras” (Stone Bridge Press).
Osaka-based Slater is the founder of Four Stories, an award-winning global literary series in Boston and Japan that brings writers and readers together in a relaxed setting. Now Slater has made her literary debut with “The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self and Home on the Far Side of the World” (Penguin). It has been chosen as a Barnes & Noble Great New Writer’s Selection and named a National Geographic “Great New Read.”
Along with writer-artist Liane Wakabayashi and Grace Buchele Mineta of “Texan in Tokyo” fame, Slater and Lowitz will be reading from their books at Tokyo’s Pink Cow on Sunday, September 27 (further details at the end).
These two women have much in common. Both are Jewish Americans who pursued careers in academia and writing and struggled with finding a place in Japan. Later, each faced obstacles and much soul-searching in her attempts to start a family before finally welcoming a child. Lowitz and Slater talked to GaijinPot about their respective journeys:
One of the challenges of writing a memoir is that it involves many other people: First and foremost your husband, but also your family, your in-laws, friends and colleagues, etc. How did you go about getting them on board with being included as characters in the book?
Lowitz: Writing a memoir is difficult enough without worrying about how others are going to react, but it comes with the territory. I showed my memoir to a few key people in my immediate family, who gave me their blessings. When I had to write about “difficult people,” I tried to turn the lens back on myself and take away the lessons. “Here Comes the Sun” is about overcoming one obstacle after another to find home and family in Japan. Each crisis became an opportunity. The subtitle should be “my quest for motherhood across two continents, two decades, and two thousand yoga poses.” But really, I wanted to write this book for my son, so that he would know his story and could write his own some day.
Slater: This was a really important issue to me, because I didn’t want to hurt any relationships. I made sure everyone I wrote about saw and approved the manuscript. The approval process was actually a bit harder for my native family, because they were more ambivalent about what I wrote, but in the end, we worked it out. My memoir is much more about my intercultural, international marriage than anything else, though. My husband approved every scene that involved him or his family before I submitted the final manuscript to my publisher.
To quote jazz great George Benson: “Hindsight is 20/20 vision”. There were probably episodes that were painful to reflect on, and others that maybe made you wince inwardly now. Was it hard t balance this with the need to be authentic in telling your story?
Slater: Honestly, not really! I’m pretty self-deprecating and self-critical. So I’m OK letting my flaws show.
Lowitz: A writer must be fiercely committed to her truth. You can’t leave out conflict or pain from life–or from a narrative. The hard times are what test our mettle, help us grow, and give us power–and the truth gives writing power, too. The most challenging thing about writing is silencing the inner critic and freeing yourself so you can find that sweet spot where the connections reveal themselves; where the story tells itself.
While things are changing slowly in Japan, it is probably fair to say that the role of “wife” comes with many expectations that Western women find difficult, even sexist. What has been the most challenging aspect for you in this respect and how have you come to terms with it (if you have)?
Lowitz: I didn’t want to be a housewife in the U.S., nor did I want to be one in Japan. I had to re-define myself within the culture, but my Japanese husband does many things that might be considered the “wife’s” domain, like going to PTA meetings and cooking (I still don’t even know how to operate a rice cooker, and can we talk about Japanese washing machines?!). I’m happy to let him handle these things. I have my own business (Sun and Moon Yoga) and we run our company together. Our roles are more fluid, even sometimes reversed. I feel very lucky that way.
Slater: This is one of the main themes of my book, actually. Taking on the traditional role of ”shufu” or housewife, after having been such a hugely independent woman in Boston, was a paradox I never expected. But truthfully, since my life doing housewifely things takes place in Japan, in a world so different from my own native one, there exists this really interesting barrier from what might otherwise feel threatening: somehow, it feels contained by geographical and cultural distances from my native “home.” It’s a kind of compartmentalization. But it works. And I think all lives or marriages work in part because of a certain level of compartmentalization, if we’re going to be fiercely honest. We all, to some extent, try to bring the most harmonious parts of ourselves into our relationships or specific situation at the moment and then figure out how to express the other parts in other contexts.
Another theme from your book was that of finding your place. Since becoming a mother, how have your feelings and sense of connection changed in relation to both your adopted culture of Japan and your home culture of the USA?
Slater: I’ve only been a mother for a year and a half, but this is such a great question, one I think about constantly. In fact, it’s the topic I’m rolling around in my head for my next book: how to navigate raising a child in a culture so radically different from my own–especially a child who is both from and of a country that will always, inevitably, consider me a foreigner. So I can’t answer this question yet but hopefully, by the next book…
Lowitz: Living in a foreign country and adapting to another culture with an entirely different set of rules and beliefs, makes you an outsider. Away from a familiar language and cultural norms that might otherwise define you, you have to re-define yourself. And becoming a mother through adoption to a Japanese child who only spoke Japanese stretched me even further–it increased my ability to empathize, belong, and to love someone more unconditionally. I had to become less selfish. And that was a good thing. In Japan, you’re part of a group–first a family, then a society (even if you are on the margins). You understand here that what you do impacts others.
Finally, any words of advice for other foreign women out there contemplating life with a Japanese partner in this country?
Lowitz: Don’t try to change the centuries-old culture and traditions of Japan. Take what you can and negotiate the rest. Change yourself. When you live from the heart, you can forge a meaningful life. You can find home no matter where you are.
Slater: Oh wow; I’m not sure I feel qualified to give relationship advice to anyone! But what worked for me was realizing that, even though this marriage and life were both so very different from the existence I’d once planned for myself, I knew if I didn’t give it a try, I would regret it forever. A decade later, I’m really grateful I did.
Meet Lowitz and Slater and listen to them read from their books at the “Married to the Mob” literary meet-up at the Pink Cow in Roppongi, from 5 to 7 pm, Sunday, September 27. Entry is free!
For more information visit www.fourstories.org/event-featured.html