OK, So I May Have Omitted Some Crucial Details

And What Do You Think of Ending a Memoir Mid-Story?

In my last post, about the very generous bloggers who nominated me for the Liebster award, I wrote that I haven’t been a very good blog-poster because I have been so busy working to meet my publisher’s deadline for the memoir. And that’s true. Sort of.

There is also a little detail I left out about the other reason I haven’t been a very good blogger: I unexpectedly got pregnant last May. Totally naturally. At the age of 45 and 1/2. After 4+ years of failed IVF treatments and 2 pregnancy losses. In the middle of my beloved father-in-law’s last months of his life, when we had just learned he had been diagnosed with acute pancreatic cancer. When I was spending 4-6 hours a day in the hospital with him to try to keep him company and as comfortable as possible. (Actually, we didn’t know I was even pregnant until I was 7 weeks, because we assumed I had either caught a stomach bug at the hospital or was sick from the sadness and stress of Otōsan’s* illness. So, on a side note, there goes the theory that women should just relax and avoid stress and then they will get pregnant.)

We had wanted Otōsan to name the baby, but sadly he passed away before he could tell us the names he had chosen. We miss him very much. And we are in awe that his little grandchild-to-be finally showed up (at least in the belly) and we got to tell him before he died.

Because of my past difficulty getting and staying pregnant and all years of medical treatments I went though in Japan (a part of the story covered in the last part of the memoir), because I was already 45, and because I was simultaneously morning the loss of my father-in law, I didn’t want to write or even talk much about my pregnancy at first. I was also so sick with morning sickness that I could barely get out of bed until I passed the 16-week mark; I even stopped working on the memoir for over 2 months.

Now the sickness is waning, I’ll be 20 weeks this Thursday, and my doctor expects me to deliver a healthy little one at the end of January.

So, the Memoir Was Supposed to End with Me, at 45, Coming to Terms with Not Having a Child…

When I sold the memoir to Putnam last winter based on the proposal and first 4 chapters, the story was supposed to end with me childless at 45, since my sweetie and I had decided against adoption (as I wrote about in the New York Times online). Well now, obviously, the pregnancy complicates things. In a great way, of course, but still. So I spoke to my editor last week about how to end the memoir now. Do I end it before I get pregnant? I can’t end it after I deliver, because the manuscript is due almost a month before my due date. It looks like the story will now come to a close with me mid-pregnancy, mourning my father-in-law while celebrating this incredible surprise of  the promise of a new life.

Sometimes I love this idea, because I’m not big on memoirs that tie up every loose end; life just isn’t like that. But sometimes the idea seems weird to me, to end so much in the middle of the action. Then again, if we are lucky enough that the baby is in fact born healthy, as is now expected, I guess that could be the makings of the second book: raising a child in a country where I still don’t speak the language (!), and where I’m a first-time mother at the crazy age of 46…

——-

*Otōsan is the Japanese word for “respected father,” what a daughter or daughter-in-law calls her father or father-in-law.

Free MP3 of a Reading from The Good Shufu

Last month, I read at a literary event from a middle chapter of the manuscript-in-process of The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West.

The reading covered a scene in the book that starts on the morning in Osaka that I’m set to tie the knot, when a small scheduling glitch leaves me suddenly contemplating backing out of the entire marriage.

Feel free to download the MP3 of my reading, or access the readings from the entire literary event, also featuring the highly-talented Japan-based Western writers Marc Kaufman, Amy Chavez, and Peter Mallet. (MP3s may take a little while to download.)

Thanks for listening!

9 Years Ago Today, I Met the Shogun

Nine years ago today, I met the Shogun. I kept trying to stand near him, and he kept moving away from me, afraid, he’d tell me later, that I was going to try to make him speak English.

Two weeks later, he said, “Lub you,” to which I responded “What?” He had to repeat it a few more times before I realized his “ub” was “ove.”

As I’ve written before, seven months ago, the Shogun and I gave up expecting I’d ever be able to sustain a pregnancy, after almost five years of trying: my body somehow too full of slip for those tiny sparks of life to take hold for long. “But you know,” he told me, as our deadline to stop trying neared, “if we can have baby, that would be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert, because you will always be main course.”

So today, with nine years of days together and Mother’s Day approaching with the promise of a holiday we’ll both ignore, I won’t forget how lucky I am that, although he kept moving away from me that first day we met, I kept moving towards him, and eventually we both stood still, together.

I can’t help but add a postscript to this now, years after I first wrote and posted this. It was either on the day I wrote this post or around this time that I did end up conceiving our child, a healthy baby girl to whom I gave birth at 4 months past my 46th birthday. And it’s true that on the day I wrote this post, we had stopped expecting that I’d ever be able to carry a pregnancy to term. But we hadn’t stopped trying. The story of this, and of how I ended up getting pregnant naturally at 45 and giving birth at 46, is on this blog here, with a longer version in my book, from which the above post was excerpted.

What Does Home Mean When You Live Abroad?

ImageI’ve been thinking about the concept of home a lot lately. Partly from watching home so much on TV a few weeks ago as the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded, partly from missing home like I always do, no matter how happy I am at any given moment in my expat life in Japan, partly from seeing this wonderful poster advertising the arrival of the Boston MFA’s Japanese art collection in Osaka (I most love the “I’m home” part, written in Japanese on the left and English on the right), partly from having just finished Emily Raboteau’s very lovely, very smart new memoir Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, and partly from reading a New York Times review of the next book I want to read, André Aciman’s Harvard Square, containing the line that hooked me: “I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past.”

And of course, partly from working on my own forthcoming book and teasing out what it means to be at home in the world when you live as an expat.

How Do We Put Words onto the Feeling of Being at Home? How Do We Define It?

Raboteau’s concept of home in particular envelops the political, the spiritual, and the historical, and deals with a sense of displacement that I, as a middle-class, educated, free, white American woman will never suffer from, even while I live as a minority in a country a hemisphere away from the place that feels most like mine. (And my privilege at having a place that feels most like mine doesn’t escape me.)

But I’m intrigued by how to define home as an expat. And by Raboteau’s alignment of “home” with Zion, or the “Promised Land.” I know how easy it is, when we live overseas, to lose our gimlet eye about home: to romanticize it, to see it as a kind of lost Eden, a place where we wouldn’t suffer the same disappointments or lonelinesses or defeats that we suffer in our expat lives. (Sometimes it’s like we think the grass would always be greener if we were only back on our “real” sides.)

And if we do tend to romanticize home, especially as expats, then how do we really define it truly?

Here’s what I wrote about the struggle to define the strangely abstract concept of home, when I returned to Boston for the first time after moving to Japan:

Just walking down the sidewalk in Boston or Cambridge felt different than it had in Osaka.  My movements were the same.  My gait, my breath, my heartbeat.  But I felt different.

Was I spontaneously, unconsciously, responding to the familiarity of the New England air around me, the specific calibration of its weight or humidity, that I’d always been accustomed to without ever knowing it?  Did hearing the flat sounds of American English all around me, combined with the consistent hum and flow of some never-before noticed Northeastern traffic pattern, send untraceable signals from my ear-drums to my brain, that I was where I belonged, where I was most used to being?  Was the force of gravity slightly different here in New England, rooting my feet just so to the native concrete—and could my heart sense that, even though my brain couldn’t fully define it?  Or was it some combination of all these things, or of my mind not constantly accounting for all the new, unexpected, yet minute details of everyday life on another side of the planet?

My sense of being at home felt distinctly different, more powerful, from my age-old certainty that Boston was where I wanted to settle because of the safety its familiarity afforded. My attachment to the place and its pulse felt deeper now, like a phantom limb sprouting inside me.  My home in Boston had become a part of me in a way I had never felt: not only was the city where I wanted to live, it was where I belonged, because I so clearly hadn’t belonged in Japan.

Ultimately, I realized, Japan had made home coalesce into a new, almost magical force, a vortex of comfort and belonging whose pull now called to me with remarkable might: a siren song reverberating off some land’s foreign cliffs, vertiginous rock-face that only sharpened each echo.

So how about it? What exactly is it to feel at home? I’m struggling with this question as I write my book, with how to put words onto how exactly to define the feeling of being at home. And wondering about the question, does living in a foreign land–even by choice–somehow make our own seem more sacred, or magical?

From Osaka to Boston, With Love

When I left my first love, Boston, for my second love, my Japanese husband in Osaka, I gained a new life, but I never lost my primal connection to the city I will always call home.

For all my friends, family, Four Stories peeps, and fellow Bostonians who spent what I’m sure was a restless night last night, the only thing I can think to offer, from all the way across a continent and an ocean on a beautiful spring day in Osaka, is a memory of my first trip back to Boston after moving to Japan. It reminded me of why, no matter where I go and what new things I see and learn, I’ve always loved Boston first, and always will.

Can’t wait to come home to Boston again soon….

It was 11:30pm when we finally landed at Logan, almost 24 hours after leaving Japan. I stepped into a terminal that seemed improbably tiny and modest compared to Osaka’s. The hallway and food court were dark, and as I passed the broad windows where the city’s lights twinkled as they always had over my thirty-odd years of traveling through Boston’s airport, everything looked both the same and strangely new. The Pru, the Hancock tower blinking in the distance: each familiar site now held a fresh dimension, an edge of foreignness sharpening its contours.

A few nights later, still flattened by jetlag, I drove home from an early dinner with some girlfriends, lumbering slowly in my aging VW. Crossing the Mass Ave bridge at dusk, I glimpsed the State Capital’s dome glowing on its hill, the Charles river stretched out below, a shifting spread of blue.

 Past Copley, I crept down my neighborhood’s narrow streets, peering through my windshield, searching for the ever-elusive South End parking space. Turning a corner off Dartmouth Street, I saw a car double-parked under a headlight, blocking the road. Still in Japanese public-decorum mode, I beeped softly, but the vehicle didn’t budge.  I beeped again. Nothing.

Maybe they’ve gone inside an apartment? It was getting too dark to see the driver. Annoyed, weary, I hauled myself out of my VW, preparing a polite request. But before I reached the car, its engine suddenly ignited, and it began to move.  Then I heard the furious honking at my back.

A man in a beat-up, dark blue sedan had pulled up behind me, bumper dented, worn-out air-freshener dangling lackadaisically from the rearview mirror, spinning slowly. He must beeping at that double-parked car, too, I thought, honking in support of my patient protest, I noted, feeling virtuous in our shared vehicular predicament.

But then the driver behind me leaned out the window, jutted his head towards me in one angry thrust. “Jesus Christ!” He screamed. “Get back in the goddamn caaa, you moron! Waddya doin’? You’re blocking the whole fuckin’ street!” I begin feebly to protest, to explain that I was only attempting to clear the road. In response, he slammed his palm back onto the horn, emitting another series of long, irate, and humiliatingly loud admonishments.

In a rush, my exhaustion overwhelmed me.  I didn’t have the energy to absorb the full-throttled aggression of a Boston driver, or the thick skin to deflect it—especially not after having floated in a bubble of extreme, collective self-restraint for a month in Japan. I felt my cheeks flame in the darkening air, then burst helplessly into tears.

Suddenly, I longed for the more respectful, civilized manners of Toru’s home.  What’s wrong with the people in this country? I thought as I hurried back to my car, slammed the door shut, turned the ignition as fast as I could.  What purpose on Earth does it serve to be so rude? Why are people here so…so ill-behaved? Self-righteous indignation pricked through my shock and embarrassment.

But as I drove away, the tears receded.  An image of myself, startled and mortified under the pale wash of streetlights, flashed through my mind, and with it surged a laugh, then a wave of release. This is my crazy neighborhood. I was finally back in a place providing me, and everyone around me, permission to unloose the thoughts that lurked inside, to announce ourselves and our minute-by-minute reactions to the world.  To thrust, in a glorious rush of self-expression, our internal states into public, without a hint of shame.

I realized then that Japan’s enforced harmony, although soothing at times, was also suffocating, a dense fog of decorum settling over everyone and sealing shut, with hermetic insistence, any signs of discord. Sitting in my aging car’s front seat, rumbling down my neighborhood’s liberally pot-holed side-streets, I breathed out a long sigh, unloosening my lungs in relief and even, in a strange way, gratitude for the driver who had been cursing me moments before.

I’m home, in Boston, in America, I thought, almost giddy. I and everyone around me can finally express our feelings as we have them. 

Perhaps we could sometimes be rude or noisy. But I suddenly saw my and my fellow citizens’ carefree expressiveness as our own curious form of mutual respect, and even love: an agreement to relinquish the façade of permanent politeness and bare our souls together. Perhaps it’s skewed species of love, I allowed, but when it works, we forge a generous, communal, trust: You be you, and I’ll be me, and somehow, despite the annoyance and noise and clumsiness, we’ll have faith that we’ll all get by, ourselves, together.

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West (forthcoming, Putnam)

What Passes for Au Naturel in Japan

After four plus years of failed fertility treatments, more than a year taking care of Shogun Sr after he was confined to a wheelchair and then months preparing to move him into a care house, and over six years trying to be a good Japanese wife (without a dishwasher: oh, the horror, the horror), my hands were in disrepair. Nails weak and chipped from where I’d bitten them, waiting and anguishing, throughout countless hours at the fertility clinic, cuticles ragged from all the hand-washing and sanitizing you need to do to care for a beloved failing elder, and no chance of getting a good gel manicure while you’re fretting over how to cut out the inorganic products in your life, lest they compromise your dismal chances at fertility as a 40-something with a poor hormone profile.

So since the Shogun and I have given up trying to make a baby, and his father Shogun Sr is now in the care house full-time, I’ve started treating myself to manicures again. I found a salon right near out apaato (that’s “apartment” as the Japanese pronounce it) where the guy will give me a gel manicure for well less than the around $80 it usually costs in Japan.

For my first manicure there a few weeks ago, I asked for “something that looks natural.” Naturar-u, onegashimas! I asked in my broken Japanese; “Please make it look natural.” So we chose a pale pink–or I chose a pale pink after refusing the shocking pink he first suggested for a natural look.

Today I went back for another manicure, and this time I asked for a French manicure, with white tips and clear polish so your nails look clean: like the real, natural you, only better. Moi kai, naturar-u onegaishimas! I asked; “Again, please make it look natural.”

To-rashee-san wa naturar-u suki desu-ne! The manicurist nodded. “Tracy-san likes natural, isn’t that so!”

I noticed as he was painting the white stripe at the top of my nail that he was making it a little thick, but I decided not to protest. At least it will look clean and hopefully help my nails grow longer, I thought. Plus, I don’t know how to say the word “thick” in Japanese.

Then he whipped out the sparkle.

Spaka-ru! I protested, shaking my head. I couldn’t wave my hand for emphasis because my nails were drying under the UV lamp.

Hai, spaka-ru! “Yes, sparkles!” he confirmed. Kono mani-cua wa spaka-ru irimasu, he decreed: This type of manicure requires sparkles. Brooking no delay, he dipped a tiny brush into the pot of sparkles and began painting. Iie, ne! he’d exclaim periodically: “It’s great, isn’t it!”

Before he was finished, he tried convince me to add some additional beads and sequins to my nails, then offered to add a decal with a lacy stripe to each tip (at no extra cost, he assured me), but I demurred.

In the end, he was so pleased with his work that he asked me to pose my hands on a black bolster with little puffy hearts stitched into it. So here’s my “natural-looking” manicure, Japan-style: Like the real, natural me, only, I suppose, more sparkly:

Image

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing: On my forthcoming memoir, The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West (Putnam Press)

Tracy in MiajimaBeing a gaijin wife in Osaka, I can be pretty out of it. I’d never heard of “The Next Big Thing,” or even knew what a “blog meme” was, until the lovely Jocelyn Eikenburg set me straight.  She’s the author of the forthcoming book Red All Over, a memoir of finding love and home in China; about, as she has written, “what happens when you let go of every expectation you had about life, love and even your own wedding, and just learn to listen to your heart and say ‘I do’ to the people, places and possibilities that really matter.” Jocelyn has been one of the most enthusiastic and supportive friends and fellow writers I’ve met online since my unexpected book deal landed in my lap!

She’s also a smart and funny and a beautiful writer, and if you don’t know about her and her blog Speaking of China, then you are missing out.

As for this “Next Big Thing,” it involves answering a few questions and then sharing the love by tagging another writer you admire, which I do below:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Well, the basic idea came from my falling madly in love with the least likely person in the world: a Japanese salaryman who could barely speak English (and I spoke no Japanese).

The book is about what happens when you are a Boston-based, skeptical, plan-obsessed, feminist literary academic who meets the love of your life, but being together means you must give up every plan or goal you’ve ever had and essentially forfeit your own world for his.

Ultimately, though, it’s the story of finding love and meaning in a foreign language, as well as hope and happiness amidst the boatload of loss and confusion that we call real life. (Here’s the full overview.)

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Really??? I need to finish writing the book first before I can even start to think about this one. Now, if you’re asking what I’d want to wear on the red carpet, that’s another story. But don’t get me started, or I may just stop writing and click over to some online shopping sites, just to see what they….

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Good Shufu a true story about finding love, meaning, hope, and self in the least likely places in the world: the places we always swore we’d never go.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint in 2015. It’s represented by the very, very wonderful Rachel Sussman of Chalberg & Sussuman.

And I’m still in shock and awe over all of this!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oooh, check back in, let’s say, 7 months? The full draft is due to my editor at Putnam, the incredible Sara Minnich, in January 2014.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started writing the book at the tail end of 4+ brutal years of fertility treatments and 2 pretty heart-rending pregnancy losses, all undergone in Japan (and I still speak virtually no Japanese). I hadn’t written anything—I mean anything—in a few years because of the stress of this medical issue. And then one day, just off the cuff, I sent a pitch to the editor of the New York Times Motherlode blog about the difference between the desire to have a biological child and the desire to be a parent.

She published the piece (although with a much different title than the one I had chosen), and a few days later, an editor at Putnam emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in submitting a memoir proposal. I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile! So while all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and hide from the world and my twice-daily-in-the-stomach-blood-thinner shots that my clinic in Osaka thought I needed to have any chance of sustaining a pregnancy, I signed up for a course on nonfiction proposal writing through MediaBistro, wrote a proposal and four sample chapters, submitted it to Putnam, and they offered me a deal!

I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile!

But working on this book has been one kind of godsend, because it has helped me cope with coming to terms with turning 45 and abandoning our medical quest to try to have a child—an issue I write about towards the end of the memoir.

As my husband says, “If we can have baby, that will be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert, because you’ll always be the main course.”

So, despite some of the sadness of the past few years, how can I not feel like the luckiest girl in the world?

Now, I’m excited to introduce Kaitlin Solimine, another recent friend and fellow writer whom I’m honored to follow and know! She’s an award-winning writer about China, a former U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow, and the 2010 Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Most recently, she was the March 2012 guest editor for the magazine Cha: An Asian Literary Journal , and I got to hear her give an incredible reading from her forthcoming novel at the Four Stories Boston 2013 opening night, an MP3 of which is posted here. Rumor has it, she attracted some publishing interest at this event, which doesn’t surprise me one bit!

“Strangely, my new role as ‘traditional Japanese housewife,’ didn’t bother me, despite my history of feminism”

And my 1st official reading from the book-in-progress

I’ll be reading a brief excerpt from The Good Shufu on Thursday, March 7, at The Fairbank Center at Harvard in celebration of the March 2013 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Here’s a sneak peek from the middle of the piece I’ll be reading:

A few months after our marriage, I sat one night on the floor of my father-in-law’s living room, the worn but tidy rug rough under my limbs. I’d begun to call my father-in-law Otōsan, “respected father,” bowing low when he came for dinner three times a week, serving tea to him and Toru on the nights we ate at his house, just down the road from ours. Strangely, my new role as shufu, or “traditional Japanese housewife,” didn’t bother me, despite my history of feminism. This is not my culture, I thought. This is something I just do out of respect to Otōsan, when we’re with him. I surprised even myself by how easily I could play the part, as long as it was only for a few hours a week, in a country and language I knew I’d never call my own.

That night, while the men sipped the tea I’d served, I flipped through old albums of Toru as a baby. I saw him as a newborn in his mother’s arms, her face shining above his perfectly rounded cheeks, the red bow of his baby mouth. She stared at him with a love and pride so fierce it looked like hunger, a hunger I had never felt or wanted. Until then.

Suddenly, that hunger began to tempt me, my heart melting a bit until I could taste a new yearning on my tongue.

****

I was 41 when I first got pregnant. “Contratulation, Mrs. Tracy!” the doctor at the fertility clinic in Osaka said, dropping the “s” and confusing my first name for my last, as everyone in Japan did. She pronounced my name “To-ray-shee,” and she had doubted my ability to get pregnant at all, given my age.

The clinic nurses were giddy. They spoke no English, but I knew what their delight said: 41! Getting pregnant on your very first try of IVF! With your own eggs! They smiled happily and bowed enthusiastically when I came in for my weekly ultrasounds. “Iee, ne,” they would say—“It’s great, isn’t it!”—and their eyes would sparkle as they clasped their hands against the bright pink of their polyester uniforms.

Red the full piece in the March issue of Cha, or please come see me read on 3/7/13 if you’re in the Boston area! More info about the event is here!

How Do I Love Thee? Japanese Husbands Shout The Ways

On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give men chocolates; men do nothing. In fact, they don’t have to reciprocate until the bizarrely-named “White Day,” in March, when men give women chocolate.

Except apparently, as my friend Jocelyn (who writes the great blog “Speaking of China: One Western woman with a Chinese husband writes about love, family and relationships in China“) just pointed out to me, for the men in this article, from NPR:

Standing in front of a giant heart made of pink tulips, businessman Yoshiharu Nishiguchi tells his wife — along with a bank of TV cameras and curious bystanders — that he is utterly devoted to her.

“Rieko, I love you!” he screams, before yielding the spotlight to the next nervous husband.

“Miwa!” the man belts out, “I love you!”

Even by the sometimes wacky standards of Japanese modern culture, this is one of the stranger rituals to emerge in recent years: the annual love-your-wife shout-out….

“I’m always putting you down,” confesses one Tokyo man. “But it’s only because I’m shy. I love you, and I promise not to come home drunk.”

But judging from his impassioned delivery, it may be too late for that promise on this particular day.

Read the full piece here