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!

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Shopping in Osaka: Celebrity Ass Wipes, Relaxing Toilet Seat Covers & Painful Ramen

Today we spent the day shopping for Shogun Sr’s new room at the care house.

We went looking for bathroom wipes, which, I am not lying, were labeled “Ushiri Celeb-u”; a product name that translates to “celebrity ass.”

On our way, we passed some toilet seat covers, which we didn’t buy, but here’s a picture of one of them:

Osaka Toilet Seat Cover
Osaka Toilet Seat Cover

Then we went out for ramen. The waiter gave me a very kind bow and handed me an English version of their menu. Some choice items:

Osaka sesame ramen
Osaka sesame ramen
Osaka spicy rame
Osaka spicy ramen

My Osaka Flu Shot – If That’s What It Was

Since Shogun Sr. (my beloved father-in-law) is going soon into the care house—what the Japanese call a nursing home—I figured it was time to get my flu shot.

I’m going home to the U.S. next week for a visit, and I didn’t want to be the one who brought the U.S. flu epidemic over to Japan when I returned, especially not when I’ll be visiting Shogun Sr. everyday after I get back. He’s worried about not being able to have cigarettes at the care house, so, like a dutiful daughter-in-law, I agreed to take him out every day for a walk and a smoke—earning me a delighted grin from Shogun Sr. So the flu shot was the least I could do.

Today I went to my neighborhood clinic to inquire about making an appointment for my shot. I’m not sure exactly what happened—since I’m never sure exactly what is happening in this country—but I asked very politely, Fu-ru shot-o yoyaku onegaishimas, “I’d like to make an appointment for a flu shot.” I took out my calendar and stood politely and expectantly while they perused my health-insurance card.

The next thing I knew, the receptionist whipped out a thermometer, took my temperature, and pointed to a seat in the waiting room, barraging me with a stream of Japanese I couldn’t understand at all.

I sat down.  I guess I have to wait to make an appointment, I thought. Maybe their schedule was full and they were looking for openings.

I looked at the woman waiting across from me. She had a blue-tipped manicure, fuzzy black boots, and a black hat slanted jauntily on her head with white letters at the front proclaiming

Crazy
Sexy
Classy

She was also wearing a white paper mask over her mouth and nose.

Like almost everyone here, she saw no apparent contradiction in choosing your outfit carefully and then donning a medical mask to top it all off.

After a few minutes, the doctor poked his head around the corner and sang out Surata-sama!, the Japanese approximation of Ms. Slater.

I sat down on a tiny chair in his office and he pulled out a syringe.

I assume it was the flu shot but, since I barely speak Japanese, I couldn’t be sure. When he was done, I stood up.

Sitting in the waiting room again, waiting to pay or check out or see what was going to happen next, I texted my husband. He’d offered earlier to call the clinic and make the appointment for a shot for me, but I demurred, telling him I’d try to make the appointment myself and call him if I couldn’t. I’d felt very proud of my independence, my initiative, then.

i think i had a flu shot! I texted.

He texted back:

they may shot u sleep medicine, and sell to China!

And so it goes, another day in a life in a foreign language.

About the Good Shufu

What happens when you meet the love of your life, but being together means you must give up almost any plan you’ve ever had? When you fall head over heels for someone from another world, and then must forfeit your entire way of life for his?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West is 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. It’s about what we gain, and lose, when we forfeit our plans, goals, and even sometimes homes for that age-old cliche, love.

The book The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint.

In the meantime, here’s how the story begins:

On a typical morning eight years ago, I would wake in my studio apartment in the South End of Boston, with the sun streaming through my large bay windows, and take stock of the life I had planned so carefully over my 36 years. Lying content in my soft white sheets, I’d think gratefully of the PhD in English Literature I had earned at 29, the academic career I had painstakingly built, and the fierce independence I cherished.

On most mornings, I’d linger a while, no complicated marriage or crying child to claim my attention, and luxuriate in the stillness, watching the early light bathe the brownstones of my city. Then I’d climb out of bed, shower, dress, add a swipe of mascara and lipstick, kick on my heels, and dash to my neighborhood café for the chai-soy latté that would fuel my day teaching writing at a Boston-area university.

Before leaving my apartment, I might stop a moment at the bookshelf by my door, run a finger along the spine of my feminist dissertation on gender and sexual violence in early-20th Century literature, and feel thankful once again that I was a woman in contemporary urban America: safe, independent, and yes, over-educated. On my way out, I’d pass the mezuzah my mother had insisted I hang on the doorframe, its tiny Old Testament scroll shrouded in silver, ignored by both me and all my gay neighbors.

Once a week, my ritual differed somewhat. I’d wake at dawn, forgo the makeup and the moment communing with my dissertation, slip into plain scuffed flats, and drive the barren highway to Norfolk Corrections Center, a men’s medium-security prison. I’d have to reach the barbed-wire enclosed complex early, then pass through a series of electric gates before arriving at the classroom, where I’d spend three hours teaching college-level seminars in gender studies to male convicts considerably less feminist than I. Either way, though, whether I was headed to lockup or the Ivory Tower, I’d always begin my morning grounded in the knowledge that I was living, for the most part, the exact life I had planned, in the city I always had—and believed always would—call home. Each aspect of this existence felt like a kind of bulwark, a sturdy negation of the things I swore I’d never do: take blind leaps of faith, move permanently from Boston, become financially dependent on a man, build a traditional nuclear family like my parents, or, perhaps most importantly, cook dinner on a regular basis.

But all this changed the day I fell desperately in love with the least likely partner in the world: a traditional Japanese salary-man—who could barely speak English.

My husband and I met when his company sent him to earn an Executive MBA at the university where I taught. Within three days of meeting, I fell in love, T’s calm movements and thoughtful eyes somehow snaring my heart more completely than any man’s eloquence ever had. Within three weeks, T said, “Lub you” (which I made him repeat three times before realizing this was “love” with a Japanese accent), and we were contemplating a life together across two hemispheres. Within a year—when the sudden death of his mother sent him home permanently to Osaka—I found myself in an entirely new existence, deeply entwined with T, yet utterly lost in his world.

Japan proved both fascinating and profoundly alienating, a place where I could neither speak the language nor read the simplest cultural clues: where I was completely dependent on T to give me money, answer the phone, and order my food; where “yes” only meant yes depending on the tone of its utterance; where, when T’s aunt welcomed me to the family with a full-on kneeling bow, I crouched to the floor alongside her, thinking she had dropped a contact lens; and where, when a doctor first diagnosed my infertility, it was with the words, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tracy, but your own hormones are out of range.”

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West traverses this unexpected journey I took from proudly independent, Jewish-American, skeptical academic living a perfectly planned existence in Boston, to illiterate housewife (or shufu) in Osaka, trying desperately to build the very nuclear family I had always disdained—only now with a Petri dish and an army of doctors who barely spoke my language. In the U.S., my mother (whose own meticulously mapped plan involved me under the chuppah with a nice Jewish doctor) fretted over my marriage to someone from, she helpfully pointed out, a former Axis Power.

Meanwhile, in Japan, when I made my first foray into cooking for my future father-in-law, I learned two shocking lessons: 1) most Japanese houses lack ovens, so I had to try stuffing chicken Parmesan into a 3”-high fish grill, and 2) even with breaded Italian cutlets, my new family expected white rice. In my Japanese-language class, I was the only non-Asian and the only woman who did not introduce herself as a “shufu,” or housewife, although this is what I had essentially become, except now I was also completely unable to drive a car (since they drive on the other side of the road), dependent on my husband to handle all my finances (because I could neither communicate with the bank tellers nor read the Japanese ATM screen), and considered an eternal outsider in an utterly insular country.

But through it all, T’s calm, quiet love sustained me. “I feel proud you,” he’d say, beaming, every time I tried to take a new challenge, or embarrassment, in stride. “I love you first in world and always will,” he’d assure me, and somehow that felt more like home than anything ever had. Perhaps more surprising, it made me, at age 41, optimistic enough to want to start a family with him, even though I had no idea how to manage that in a bi-hemispheric marriage, or how I, once a confirmed critic of modern motherhood’s demands on women, could have come to want such a thing—and then undergo four years of rigorous hormone treatments in its pursuit.

Eventually, I find myself still half a planet away from home, and still childless after two miscarriages, hundreds of injections, and countless heartbreaks. But I’m also still deeply in love with my husband, grateful for our life, and more grounded, even hopeful, than I have ever been—not despite all the challenges, but somehow because of them.

Japan will never be easy, but it proves endlessly fascinating; Perhaps, I come to realize, a life worth living doesn’t always have to be easy, comfortable, or a happy reflection of one’s intended plan, as long as it’s filled with wonder and love.

Stay tuned for more posts about the book and its story of clashing cultures and identities within our increasingly global world, but also, ultimately, of unexpected joys found amidst these very collisions, and of traveling to far-flung places only to discover essential truths about self and home.