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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Beyond 'Fuji' — author's insights about her novel

'American Fuji' hits home
Caught between cultures: Comments on 'American Fuji'

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Sara Backer
Often in reading a book, we're left with questions we'd like to ask the writer but no way to find the answers. That's why we offered Advertiser Book Club members an opportunity to send their "Burning Questions" to author Sara Backer.

We have consolidated and reworded some questions. Here are Backer's responses:

Q. What does the title mean?

A. The novel had many titles before "American Fuji," but I think the juxtaposition of the two words conveys a bit of culture clash and lets readers know the story concerns expatriates in Japan.

Q. Does the fantasy funeral business really exist in Japan?

A. Yes, the business is real, alive and well, but I invented the "Gone With The Wind" thematic packages.

Q. How did you come to use ulcerative colitis as the illness that makes Gaby feel like an "outsider?"

A. I wanted Gaby's illness to be connected with the concept of shame, as Japan is a shame-based society. The most socially unacceptable illness in America is probably mental illness, but that would have posed narrational problems, so I chose a bathroom illness because many people find that distasteful or repulsive. I needed Gaby to have a disease she couldn't freely talk about.

Q. Are Caucasians really such items of curiosity/derision?

A. Caucasians are items of "curiosity/derision" in some parts of Japan. I've found many Americans assume Japan equals Tokyo. Just as you will find different outlooks in, say, New York and Kansas (and Hawai'i?), you will also find regional differences in Japan. Shizuoka is a city known for its snobbishness within Japan.

Q. Why did Gaby stay in Japan if it was so difficult to live there?

A. Gaby stays because she has a place in the community in Japan (even though it is as a designated outsider) and she appreciates the unique friendships she can create with Japanese renegades such as Eguchi, Rie, Aoshima. Also, due to her chronic illness and her profession, she doesn't have good options in the U. S. I can assure you that English teaching jobs in the U. S. that provide health insurance are rare, and the competition is phenomenal — I'm looking for one myself!

Q. Why didn't you tell us what happened to the characters afterward — perhaps a postscript, as in the movies?

A. Once Alex had climbed Mount Fuji, the story I set out to tell was finished. I like novels that give me characters that seem so real I can fantasize about more stories in their lives beyond the one the author has written. If I wrote a postscript, I'd feel like I was killing my characters by wrapping everything up.

Q. Do you complete detailed character sketches before writing the plot, or have the plot firmly in mind before fleshing out the characters?

A. Characters are the horses, and plot is the cart. I don't complete detailed sketches of either. I write more like a film director or method actor, imagining a scene that maximizes conflict and putting myself in the mind of each character to write the scene.

Q. Would you ever go back to live in Japan?

A. I would love to return to Japan to visit and reconnect with my friends there. The only reason I wouldn't live in Japan again is that I've already done it, and there are so many other places in the world I haven't experienced yet. Like Alex, I need to move forward, not "back."

Q. Can you explain more about the topic of giving and returning favors or "obligations?" What advice would you give to someone on an expatriate assignment that would need all kinds of favors in getting settled into a new community in Japan?

Answers: Alas, I have bad news for you. The obligation ledger is entirely subjective, and Japanese people agonize over these very issues all the time. There is no guidebook for this. Being an expat makes it impossible because — as you suspect — the debt will always be on your shoulders. No matter what you do, you will receive more favors than you can possibly return.

Teach English gratis. Translate if you can. Always have high-quality sake in gift-wrapped boxes in your closet. Be humble. And apologize constantly, using polite verb conjugations.

Q. What aspect of the "obligation" part of the Japanese culture has been adopted by the local Hawai'i culture?

A. My opinion is that in Hawai'i, there is less of keeping track of favors and more of just general helping who you can when you can, and it comes back to you eventually (good/bad; bachi!). I sense there's a difference between the scorecards of hon and the flow of aloha, but I don't know Hawaiian culture well enough to comment on this.

Q. How long did it take to write this book? Are you working on a sequel or another book set in Japan?

A. I never know how to answer the "how long did it take you?" question. My best answer might be that it took me my entire life to be the person who could write "American Fuji" at the time I wrote it. Let's just say it took several years. I'm currently working on another novel (which I hope doesn't take as long). I'm not working a sequel at the moment, but I did leave the door open for one, didn't I? As a writer, I never know how inspiration will manifest itself next.