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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 16, 2002

Book is like a quick return to Japan, poet says

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

 •  Book club info

"American Fuji" is the premier selection of The Honolulu Advertiser Book Club. We'll be reading it until July 12. That's the deadline to mail, fax or e-mail in your comments.

A follow-up will be published in Island Life for the club's virtual "meeting"on July 21. Or follow the book club online.

Maui poet Eric Paul Shaffer has been following Sara Backer and her funny, thoughtful novel about Americans in Japan, "American Fuji," every step of the way.

Reading the book now, Shaffer said, is like taking a quick trip back to Japan, where he taught for eight years.

"You remember all the things that were annoying and all the things that were sort of ..." He pauses, searching for a word, and settles on "invigorating."

Shaffer, the author of the poetry collections "Portable Planet" (Leaping Dog, 2000) and "Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen," (Leaping Dog, 2001) moved to upcountry Maui in 1998 with his wife, teacher Veronica Winegarner; he teaches at Maui Community College and she is studying to earn her Hawai'i teaching certificate. They have continued their friendship with Backer via e-mail. Shaffer met Backer when they were both studying at the University of California-Davis, she in the creative writing program and he completing a doctorate in American literature.

A professor got Shaffer a job teaching American literature and culture on Okinawa at the University of the Ryukus. Then Backer teased the same mentor into getting her a job at Shizuoka University.

That job, and the adventures Backer, Shaffer and Winegarner had together in Japan, led to "American Fuji," which Shaffer read in drafts that flew back and forth between Okinawa and Shizuoka. They visited each other every few months and had many discussions about the strange cultural gap they were occupying. Both — like Backer's protagonist, Gaby, an American professor at a Japanese university — found themselves in the peculiar position of interpreting their own culture for their Japanese students while trying to get their own minds around Japan.

"In Gaby, (Backer) has created an extraordinary character who can stand between two cultures and in a way serve both," said Shaffer, who just returned from speaking and reading at the American Literature Association Conference in Long Beach, Calif. He doesn't think either of them ever quite attained Gaby's facility; for one thing, neither spoke her fluent Japanese.

"I went to Okinawa utterly wordless, and I returned only minimally competent," said Shaffer. But even if a foreigner spoke the language, "you are always an outsider there," he said. But since he, like Backer, has traveled a great deal and lived many different places, he found this more intriguing than troubling — at least most days. When the strangeness got to be too much, he and Veronica would have "America days" — renting some American movies and staying in the apartment, eating popcorn and hot dogs.

Backer's book shows how "being an outsider can be both a comfort and an annoyance." For example, Japan's formality, elaborate courtesy and distancing attitude toward strangers sometimes puzzle Gaby, but also allow her a welcome measure of privacy — difficult to attain in America.

For Shaffer, part of the joy of reading the book came in recognizing the characters — "the old lady in the hospital who calls Gaby a 'stupid gaijin' (foreigner) to her face, the taxi driver, the pizza-counter guy.

"Her characterizations are dead on," Shaffer said. "I met those people in Okinawa."

He said he is particularly impressed, having seen the book through several drafts, at how Backer has pared away what was unnecessary. "She understands plot in a way that I still don't understand it," he said. "In this final draft, the plot is tighter, and she's pulled it into a very nice, compact package. Even though it's a relatively long book (404 pages), it reads fast. She moves it along at a perfect pace."

He also appreciates his fellow writer's restraint. "That's a strength of hers. She knows what's going to get emotion out of you and she underplays it, which makes your response feel more honest," he said.

Shaffer and his wife, with Backer, climbed Mount Fuji, as Gaby does in the book.

"Before we climbed the mountain, I took a picture of Mount Fuji, and when it was developed, the color scale of the mountain was so close to that of the sky that it completely washed out. There was no mountain in the picture," he said.

"That struck us as being so perfectly Japan — to show you something but give you no evidence or proof that it's there, even though you know it is."