A Cockeyed Valentine to Japan
An Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
by Eve Kushner
Featured in this post:
Love in Translation
By Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009. 240 pp.
In Wendy Nelson Tokunaga’s first novel, Midori by Moonlight (2007), the protagonist immigrates from Japan to California and tries to make a life in an unwelcoming country. Tokunaga’s second novel reverses the story; Love in Translation (November 2009) features a Californian who moves to Japan and struggles to find herself (and a long-lost relative) in an unfamiliar, overwhelming culture.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that these two works form mirror images. With these novels, Tokunaga fulfilled a two-book deal that she signed with St. Martin’s in 2006, right as she began the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program.
Her previous works include the novel No Kidding (a winner in the 2002 Writer’s Digest National Self-Published Book Awards) and two children’s nonfiction books (Famous People: Christina Aguilera and Wonders of the World: Niagara Falls).
Tokunaga lives south of San Francisco with her Osaka-born husband, Manabu Tokunaga. They often perform music together, with Wendy on vocals (like the protagonist of Love in Translation) and Manabu on electronic keyboard. The video trailer of Love in Translation includes impressive music that Manabu composed and performed. Wendy and Manabu collaborated with Hiro Akashi in writing “Nozomi no Hoshi” (“The Wishing Star”), a song that plays a key role in the book. Wendy and Manabu then created a music video for it. You can visit Wendy’s website here.
Eve Kushner: How long did it take you to write Love in Translation?
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga: That’s hard to say. Parts of the novel came from an unpublished manuscript about two characters who “trade lives”— a young, Japanese idol singer who comes to the U.S. after her career goes down the tubes and an American woman who has been drifting and ends up finding herself by going to Japan. Eventually, each character got her own book. But the short answer is approximately two years.
EK: Did you have something you were trying to work out, work through or achieve as you planned and wrote Love in Translation? For instance, did you have a particular image or feeling to which you kept returning, especially if your motivation or inspiration flagged?
WT: I wanted to explore several issues: how a person without a family could find one in a foreign culture, as well as the power of music on the soul and heart. I also was interested in the concept of the homestay, where an adult can be treated like a child, and how a woman who grew up in foster homes lacking in family warmth could actually find this comforting. On top of that, Love in Translation is my cockeyed valentine to Japan, a place I’ve both loved and loathed, and a place that has had a huge impact on my life and writing. I also wanted to write about a character who is at the point where she realizes that life isn’t a dress rehearsal. I thrive on deadlines, and Love in Translation was the second book of a two-book deal. I wrote it while I was in my MFA program, so there was no time to even think about any flagging motivation or inspiration.
EK: Do you have the plots of your novels worked out before you write?
WT: I have a good deal of the plot worked out before I write, but it can always change, which is what makes writing a novel so exciting. And I might find that something doesn’t work as I thought it would, or I’ll get some feedback that pinpoints a problem, and I’ll adjust things accordingly.
EK: When you’re writing about Japan, do you write for the reader who knows a lot or a little about the country and language? It seems difficult, because those most likely to read your book are also the most likely to know about it. So do you worry that, if you translate common Japanese phrases and explain bits of the culture, you’re telling them what they already know? How do you handle it?
WT: I think this is a challenge for anyone who writes about other cultures. I used to fret about it much more than I do now. Having participated in so many writing workshops over the years, I now realize that there are some readers who balk at anything with which they are unfamiliar, whereas others are accepting and trust that the writer will eventually explain enough (if necessary). You can’t completely please everyone, and you’ll go crazy if you try. When people are already familiar with certain cultural elements, I think they’ll enjoy those aspects if they aren’t overexplained. With Midori by Moonlight I had a mix of readers; some were quite familiar with Japanese culture and were drawn to the book because of that, and others were just interested in the story of a young woman’s journey toward self-actualization. I can only assume Love in Translation will be received the same way.
EK: Midori by Moonlight was well received. What was it like to follow up on that success?
WT: I’m very pleased that people liked Midori, and I hope they’ll also like Love in Translation. I know I have no control over reader reactions, and I try not to think about that. I simply write the best novel I can and hope readers will enjoy it.
EK: From a marketing standpoint, how do you feel about having a Japan niche? Do you feel that it restricts you in any way, or does it only create opportunities? And will all your future novels be Japan-themed?
WT: The only reason I have a Japan niche is that I felt driven to write about Japan from the time I took my first creative writing class (a night course at a community college), where I was required to write three short stories in a semester. The stories that poured forth all had to do with Japan and Japanese culture. Since I’d studied the language and culture in college, am married to a native Japanese (and have a Japanese ex-husband!) and have lived in and traveled through Japan extensively, it was no wonder. But I did write a novel, No Kidding, that didn’t have anything to do with Japan (although a Japanese character did make an appearance), and the novel I’m working on now has little to do with Japan except in a tangential way via one of the characters. I don’t think the Japan focus restricts me and, yes, it can create opportunities. It’s all good.
EK: If you had never gone for the MFA in writing, would Love in Translation have been different? Would it have existed at all?
WT: It’s difficult to say if Love in Translation would have been different if I hadn’t written it during my MFA program. But, yes, it would have existed because of what I mentioned about the unpublished manuscript that became two novels. And the second novel about the Japanese idol singer became my master’s thesis.
EK: In Love in Translation, the main character does a fair amount of flashing back both to childhood and to a discovery she makes at the beginning of the novel. The interweaving of past and present feels seamless. Did you struggle at all with this issue?
WT: Flashbacks have been a challenge for me in the past, but now they seem to happen rather organically. This probably comes from writing novel after novel over many years and hopefully improving each time. And then having the privilege of taking two years to concentrate on nothing but writing and reading literature in an MFA program also undoubtedly must have helped me improve my craft.
EK: The protagonist is fragile and sentimental and is quite often in tears. Although some readers may identify with her in this regard, it’s possible that others may not. How do you feel about this issue?
WT: I see Celeste as a person at a big turning point. I think she is reflecting on what has happened before, and when an opportunity drops in her lap, she uses it to move forward. But, yes, she is rather lonely and fragile, and once she goes to Japan, she has trouble making sense of the confusing culture she finds. For some people this wouldn’t be a problem, and they’d forge ahead with confidence. Celeste, however, is a bit wounded to begin with and then overwhelmed by Japan. As with many of my characters, I have little control over her.
EK: Food plays a big role in your novels, even when the character isn’t an aspiring pastry chef, as in Midori by Moonlight. Is there any reason you concentrate so much on food in your stories?
WT: I think how comfortable people are with the cuisine of a country says a lot about their personality, their fears and anxieties, and how open they are to new experiences. I also think that food is a powerful force that can be used to manipulate people in both good and bad ways. Food can even be a substitute for love and companionship for some. And I do love to eat!
EK: What’s next for you?
WT: I’m promoting Love in Translation and working on a novel about the impact of a political sex scandal on a family. I also am keeping busy with a manuscript consulting business. And this fall I’ll be teaching a course for Stanford’s Online Writer’s Studio and will also be speaking at the East of Eden Writers’ Conference.
EK: Good luck to you!
Eve Kushner (www.evekushner.com) is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California, who specializes in Japan-related topics. She is the author of Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters (Stone Bridge Press, 2009). From 2007 through 2010, she wrote the weekly blog “Kanji Curiosity” for JapanesePod101.com. Soon she will launch a website called Joy o’ Kanji, where she will publish essays on each of the Joyo kanji, the characters used in daily life in Japan.