Vivian Gornick, writer of In Search of Ali Mahmoud; An American Woman in Egypt, once said that her problem with documenting her life in Egyptian was detachment. “I didn’t even know [detachment] was something to be prized—that, in fact, it was crucial, that without detachment there can be no story” (They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (The Writer’s Craft), p.111). How two people are different—an accomplished author and travel writer who has lived double the life of an American teacher in Japan—can suddenly look similar is what makes writing about our lives so fun.
When I try to convey Japan in text, I’m paralyzed with emotion sometimes. I want readers to understand that the wonders of Japan, whether it be its famous anime industry or its traditions, need to be treated with respect, not excitement or narrowness. But I can’t find the right words to explain everything I’ve experienced in 5 years. Maybe I haven’t found the right second to write it.
While Ms. Gornick was in Egypt, she took notes of her adventures. Tobias Schneebaum kept a journal when he visited the Asmat that resulted in his book, Where the Spirits Dwell: An Odyssey in the Jungle of New Guinea. Notes! Journals! Why am I so unprepared and unorganized in tracking my life through the urban woods of Japan? I think back at the times when I wanted to write about the Dream Robot Exhibition where the Terminator, AstroBoy, and other robots danced and shined in my childlike vision; when I took pictures on an obsolete slider phone, hoping that later I’d email them to myself and didn’t; when the numbers and email addresses and names on my contact list fail to bring a face to my memory.
It’s a good possibility that my memory, though fuzzy as it is, holds more emotion than actual memories. My best friend from mainland Japan is my brother. My friend with CWH on my contact list is my beloved uncle who makes me laugh and think, a real mentor and father figure for the one I don’t have. And my Japanese tutor who corrected my diary entries brings calm and warm conversations to mind. The many students who tried to hug me but policy forbid any physical contact between foreigner and student made me feel pride at their graduation and joy at their transition into college goers. The teachers who changed my view of every day life in Japan, picking apart my quiet stereotypes and giving me laughter and lessons, remain at the forefront of memories labeled “work life”. I struggle to sort these feelings into cohesive thoughts, and I suddenly understand, after being shy of 2 months in the US, Ms. Gornick’s detachment issues.
Every writer—every person—needs to take a step to the side and look at their experiences and surroundings with unclouded eyes. Without that clear vision, the memories tumble out and confuse listeners and readers. I’d like to lead an unambiguous life, a life without struggle for both me and those around me.
The real question for me is: can I construct a real memory without emotion, or do I stand on one side, sifting them from one another, without actually saying anything? The latter is what I fear the most. I hope in the future I’ll understand what my memories truly mean to me.