Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Creative Nonfiction Dilemma

Whenever I publish something here that may be perceived as slightly embarrassing, that may make Colin wince or my parents shake their heads, I’m reminded of the same things. First, of how much farther I could go, and how much farther real writers go all the time. The second thing requires a reference. In the final issue of The Sandman series, Morpheus encounters William Shakespeare toward the end of his life, while he’s writing The Tempest. When we’re first introduced to Shakespeare in an early issue, he’s a bumbling wordsmith who would give anything to be talented. So he makes a deal with Morpheus, who gives him his ability, and sets out on becoming the Shakespeare we all know and love. Toward the end of his life, he questions the choice he made, and wonders if the writer’s brain Morpheus gave him wasn’t a curse. Every time something tragic happened to him, there was secret delight in how he would be able to write about it. His life was filled with suffering, and because his instinct was first as a writer, he wasn’t even completely able to feel his grief since it was partitioned off as potential material. As we suffer, we compose in our heads new inventions. When I first read this, it struck me in such an uncomfortable place. It struck me as something that rang so true, but I hoped wasn’t. I hoped it was one of those terrible ways of describing something that’s not actually that bad. I don’t really delight in my own suffering, do I?

One thing I know is true: writers are traitors and spies and thieves. We betray the secrets of our family, our friends, our own lives for the sake of some sort of testament. When I say “we”, I mean the writers and wannabe writers alike. It includes posers like me who are still haunted by visions of their own potential creations despite not having written in months. Even though I’m not a real writer, I still examine my life for lines or characters or situations I could lift and put into a story. Especially since I’ve been veering more towards creative non-fiction, the way I write is almost destined to hurt or betray someone. I’ve always had reservations.

I’ve thought about this dilemma since I was a little girl. I wanted to write what was honestly in my soul, but that might get me in trouble, that might make my parents or my religious relatives ashamed of me. I’ve had a story in my mind since I was seventeen years old. It has a central metaphor and everything:
He looks at the table, defeated and suddenly somber, “You know, I don’t even like it.”
“Then why do you do it?” I ask.
“Because the ghost of my father makes me.”

I can never write this story. Publishing those few lines for my select blog audience was agonizing for me. It reveals nothing, not the people involved or the situation, or anything to the general public. But the person involved will know. A few people close to me will know. And I don’t want the person to know what kind of profound effect these words had on me, and now he does. The rest of the story is humiliating, not only to people involved, but to myself as well. And people not involved, who are close to me, would be humiliated by what I’ve revealed about myself. But it might make a good story for a stranger.

When I was a creative writing preceptor, I taught a class on creative nonfiction. I warned the students, “You will have to write things that will make your mother cry.” I was astonished by the results. The students lay themselves out bare, revealing stories about abortions and drug use and AIDS tests and infidelity and molestation. All things I could never do. And these stories were far more embarrassing than anything I have. In fact, in my own intro to creative writing class when I was a freshman in college, I read aloud a fictional story I had written, sick to my stomach with my voice choking my throat. The reason? It was about sex and death and violence, and it was hard to reveal that something so twisted had come from me. At the time I wrote it, it was my complete, uncensored ideas, which I had never shown to an audience before. I censored only one line in my reading, because I couldn’t read it aloud.

I was praised for my writing starting in grade school. And I always censored what I really wanted to write. I pushed the envelope a little more in high school, but I was still cautious. As I became more willing to reveal my darkness, or things closer to my true self, my writing didn’t get as good of reactions. People preferred it when I was funny. So it goes.

I’m sick of that whole martyrdom for art thing. It’s easy to lead a tragic, thankless life without writing. And I know a few writers who seem to live normal lives. Art is cool and everything, but ultimately it’s frivolous. So why do I have this brain that combs through reality and composes and wants everyone to know it and love it? I don’t have anything to show for it. Maybe I’m too spineless, too eager to please to ever realize those masturbatory fantasies about putting art into the world. I’m pretty sure that with my slow rate of output, I’m not even fit to be a writer. I don’t necessarily want to be one, either. I’m just a quiet person who never really wanted to live quietly.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Caucasian Invasion

We were driving down the 207 in Shi-town when suddenly Colin gasped. “Oh, my god, white girls!” He had told me before of rumored white girls in our tiny town. He had caught a glimpse of frizzy hair and sweatpants outside the local supermarket, but he couldn’t be sure. Japanese people can really fool you sometimes, especially middle-aged women who are still into red hair-dye and perms (which are generally detested by the orange bouffant-wearing fashionistas). But these were undeniably white girls, in almost the exact location he had seen them before. Like some kind of caucasian haunting. Just as the locals had done to us on many occasions, we rubbernecked to get a better look. They were young, in their late teens or early twenties, with generic, frizzy brownish white-girl hair. They were wearing matching sea-foam green windbreakers and walking hand in hand, which told us they were Eastern European. Really, being white and not an English teacher in such a rural area should be enough to tell us they’re Eastern European. As far as I know, there’s only one job in the countryside for non-English-speaking white girls.

Japan is small, and Saga is smaller, connected by the same trains that span across the entire prefecture, leading everyone, together, to similar places at the same time. We’re so close to each other, it’s not uncommon to bump into someone you know from a distant city. If I see someone who is obviously foreign in Saga, there’s at least a fifty percent chance that I know them personally. So if I’m traveling around the prefecture and happen to see a foreigner I don’t know, I react with just as much shock as the average Japanese person does. Believe me, when I was driving in Saga City and saw a blond girl wearing a school uniform, I nearly drove off the road. Seeing unfamiliar foreigners is a rare occurrence. I used to think seeing non-English-speaking white people was unfathomable. But I used to be much more naïve on the subject.

In the fall, Colin and I had attended what ended up being a large gathering of foreigners at a bar in Saga City. As the night went on, the familiar faces began to appear, like the non-JET foreign teachers and the Japanese xenophiles eager to practice their English, dragging along reluctant friends. Suddenly, two young women and a man appeared, all blond, all white, and all speaking a Slavic language. They suckled on their drinks and perused the room from a somewhat secluded corner not far from our table, while we tried to listen to them and discuss what they could be doing in Saga. They couldn’t be tourists and they couldn’t be English teachers, so what could they possibly be doing? By the time we left, they had not appeared to have spoken more than a few words to anyone besides one another.

We knew how tough immigration laws in Japan were. It’s illegal to hire a foreigner to do anything a Japanese person can do, which leaves little other than teaching English. And these Slavs were probably not teaching English.

They appeared again more than a month later, at the next major event, a Halloween party in a club hosting a throng of gaijin and xenophiles. By this time I was drunk and bold enough to talk to them. After discussing them on the dancefloor with another JET who had studied a tiny amount of Russian, I waited for the closest female to drift my way (so the man wouldn’t think I was hitting on him), and I asked where they were from. When she told me Russia, I gestured to my friend, “He speaks a little Russian! I speak Czech. Nazdravi!”
“Haha, ok.” An appropriate response to me being so obnoxious.
“We’re from America. We’re teachers.”
“You don’t look like teachers.”
Yeah, we didn't.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“What’s your job?”
Somehow in the ADD nature of parties, our conversation stopped there. I was pulled away somewhere, and left my friend to have a probably very awkward conversation in a language he hardly knew.
When we mentioned the three Russians to Mark, who’s lived here for seven years, he promptly responded, “He’s a student and the girls are hostesses.”
“You know them?”
“So how do you know?”
“Two attractive girls in the inaka, they have to be. They’re not teachers.”
I watched one of the little Russians climb up on a platform and begin to gyrate and whip her long blond hair in circles.
“You think they’re attractive?”

The term “hostess” will require some explanation for some of you. Essentially, hostesses work in hostess bars, or “snack bars”, and are paid to flirt, pour drinks, look hot and endure sexual harassment. The bars are often male-only establishments that have exorbitant cover charges for entry. After entry, the men pick their girls from a line-up of hostesses, and pay for the girl’s time as well as for his drinks. The girls push the drinks, the bar makes more money, the girls make barely a living rate, at least around here. After closing time, the girls often go out with their patrons, which may or may not involve sex. That’s their decision. We hope.

While there’s nothing illegal about it, it still falls under the category of mizushobai, literally “water trade”, or sex work. Of course there’s a stigma attached to it. These joints are known for some shifty business, and it’s not uncommon for the hostesses to be Filipino girls or Eastern Europeans working illegally. My brain sums up the whole hostess thing with a series of images. The larger places have girls take shifts standing just outside the club as a display of the merchandise to lure men inside. I think about them standing out front in the middle of winter, shivering and dressed like they’re attending a ghetto prom.

When Mark told me about the circumstances of foreign girls in rural Japan, immediately my thoughts went to my days in the summer walking the streets of Shi-town in skirts and sunglasses, stopping at convenience stores to buy the meals that I was unable to cook at that point. I was a traffic hazard, with all the people driving craning their necks to get a good look at me. Hardly anyone walks in this part of Japan. They drive or ride a bicycle. I was a spectacle, and I had shown myself to the entire town. And what had they thought of me? What do they think of me? I guess my business-casual attire may give it away, but hostesses and I are both ladies of the evening, after all.

Am I so different, anyway? When I first came to Japan and was still unemployed, I had been approached in a Shi-town bar by the owner of Pub Tiffany, the next door hostess bar. He’s a man who nearly always wears suitpants and vests, and looks exactly like the type of person to be running a hostess bar. Anyway, speaking through a more fluent friend of mine, he casually offered me a job. I laughed, but at the same time I was considering it. And then I wondered why I was inevitably so drawn to jobs that used me for my feminine attributes of T and A. Interestingly, quite a bit of my work history seems to fall somewhere between the T and A jobs I more actively pursued and the maternal jobs I somehow was saddled with. Generally speaking, in both I ended up being intensely unhappy. It's the sexless jobs I enjoyed the most. But I digress.

We’ve had a few more white people sightings, once more of the average-looking girls who must clean up well, and briefly of some of their Eastern European associates. We learned that there are actually four Romanian girls working at Pub Tiffany, which means that there are even more hidden white people in our little town that we were completely unaware of. There’s another reason I don’t want to be confused with a hostess besides the obvious stigma. Sometimes they’re raped, quietly, and no one ever knows about it. On rarer occasions they’re even murdered, so quietly that it’s like they never existed. In any society, sex workers are an easy target, and there’s little justice for them when they’re the victims of crimes. When the sex workers are foreigners working illegally in Japan (a society that’s so used to being safe that it simply trusts its people to not break the law rather than enforcing it) there’s no protection at all.

In 2003, a British hostess in Tokyo was drugged, raped, and killed by a millionaire client. There are a few lucky reasons that anyone knows about this at all. Her nationality, the coincidental timing of a Japan visit from Tony Blair, and the fact that her family had the financial means to go to Tokyo, plaster her face over the entire city and hassle the police daily about the progress of the case. The police dragged their feet every step of the way before jailing the man whose house was filled with videotapes of himself raping over two-hundred unconscious women. Evidence that for every middle class British woman who is a victim, there are even more poor non-Japanese Asian women who have zero legal options. Some owners of hostess clubs have even reported trying to help girls press charges after being assaulted, and having the police turn them away because “What can they expect if they’re working here illegally?”

I have to clarify that Japan actually is very safe. That’s not the problem. One problem is that since the legal system relies so much on trust in its people to be good, it has no idea what to do if they’re not. The other big one is that it’s so centered on its own people, and is very clear on who is Japanese and who isn’t. The protections for foreign residents, especially against institutional discrimination, are quite lacking.

So hostesses are in a stigmatized class and are even occasionally raped or murdered, but a few months ago in Tokyo the same thing happened to a young British teacher who was teaching a private lesson at a student’s house. Given certain circumstances, the worlds of average to attractive foreign girls can intersect in the same unseemly, fetishized way. There’s no denying that quite a few of the teachers hired through JET and conversation schools are simply eye candy.

So who am I in relation to these hidden Romanian hostesses in my town? Am I more of a member of “real Japanese society”, or less of one? Do they earn more money than me, or do we earn about the same? I don’t make much, so neither case would surprise me. I’m sure we all get paid in cash, and we’re all subject to cultural workplace customs we’re not familiar with. Japan is supposed to be homogenous, but if you aren’t part of that major lump, it can really get complicated. These questions can’t be answered in a blog entry, so I guess we’ll just live our separate, nocturnal existences that intersect occasionally at the local grocery store.