Sarah Z. Sleeper is the author of the new novel Gaijin. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Shanghai Literary Review and A Year in Ink. A former journalist, she is based in California.
Q: You write that Gaijin was "loosely based" on the years you spent in Japan. How did your own experiences compare with those of your character Lucy?
A: Lucy's experiences in Japan sprang from my own, but not precisely. She is more naive than I was when I lived there and while I witnessed protests and conflict, I only read about things like "upskirting." That never happened to me.
And while I was aware of a rash of crimes committed by American servicemen, I never sat through a rape trial as a reporter the way Lucy does. I had to research how Japanese courts are run, including their physical set up, which is so different than U.S. courts.
It's worth noting that the magazine I worked for was a bit fluffy, with content intended to enhance the Okinawan-American relationship. Lucy's newspaper covers hate crimes and other hard news.
In addition to the difficulties she faces, Lucy also has lovely interactions and cultural exchanges and I was fortunate enough to have had those too. In fact, I had many more positive moments than Lucy does.
For instance, in thanks for a story I wrote about him, a talented quadriplegic artist graced me with a painting of my cat (which I still have and cherish). And I was invited to local community events such as dragon boat races, where I was treated as a welcome and equal participant.
A key point is that Lucy's story takes place in a few months in Japan, whereas I lived there for four years. By the time we exit Gaijin, she's just on the cusp of embracing her life there. In my real life I had more time to do more things and gain perspective.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Gaijin is an interesting Japanese word in that it has a negative connotation--unwelcome foreigner--but is not exactly a slur. To me, it perfectly fit the story and the protagonist. Lucy is in what she believes is a gracious country, yet she often feels unwanted and sometimes threatened.
As well, the street protests are akin to Japan telling the American military that it is a gaijin. And of course Lucy's love interest, Owen Ota, feels like a gaijin in his own family. So, although I considered other book titles, Gaijin seemed right to me on many levels.
It's worth noting that a minor character, Lester, talks about the time a Japanese teen tried to kick him off his bike while shouting "Gaijin!" at him.
That did happen to me and was an inciting incident for the novel. I was riding my bike up a busy road and a teenager on the sidewalk yelled at me and tried to kick me over. I was stunned and I wondered why he had such animosity toward me, someone he didn't know.
Over time I came to understand more about the tension between Japanese and Americans. And though I wasn't part of the U.S. military, my blonde hair definitely called attention to me as "other."
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started working on it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: No, I didn't know the ending at first, but discovered it as I went along. I tend to write from the middle out. First, I write key characters and dramatic scenes. Then I construct the rest of the story around those.
The characters define how the plot plays out. The plot is a combination of external events that happen to the characters and the characters' own reactions and actions.
As far as changes along the way, well, it took six years to complete the novel, so you can imagine that I made a LOT of changes along the way.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: Oh! That's a hard question. I suppose I want readers to be moved by the story and have empathy for Lucy and the other characters. And if readers learn a few things about another culture that would be wonderful too.
I definitely don't write stories to teach people lessons. But I do hope my stories reveal poignant emotional truths and break readers' hearts, at least a little.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm finding myself drawn back to a group of 12 short stories that I wrote six or seven years ago. They need work, but I'd like to improve them and publish them as a book. Their subjects are all over the map, from an obsessed tennis player, to an ethically chalIenged newlywed, to an alcoholic father.
I've also started a new novel and am about three chapters in. I can't tell you what it's about, because I learned while writing Gaijin that it's better not to share until the work is complete.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'd like people to know about the amazing art form that is called "ekphrasis." It's poetry inspired by visual art. A well-known example of an ekphrastic poem is the song "Vincent" by Don McLean. The song was inspired by Vincent van Gogh's painting, "The Starry Night," and became a beloved ballad of the 1970s. (There are many other well-known examples.)
I wrote a collection of ekphrastic poetry myself that you can see on my website, and I teach a workshop on the form. I think it's important and enriching to experience different art forms!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb