Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

In her second published novel, Love in Translation, author Wendy Nelson Tokunaga explores the meaning of family through the story of Celeste Duncan, a 33-year-old singer who leaves behind her deadbeat boyfriend and her life in the United States in search of a relative who might know the identity of the father she never knew. Along the way Celeste gathers a supportive cast of characters, including her “homestay” brother, Takuya, to whom she is attracted and a less-than-conventional Japanese language teacher who encourages her to enter a karaoke contest on live, national TV. T

In addition to being a great read, the novel is peppered with details of life in Japan that reminded me (and I imagine many other foreigners) of those things that make Japan such an interesting place to live.

I had the pleasure of conducting an e-mail interview with Wendy. She will be stopping by over the next few days to answer questions or comments. Read on for details about how you can obtain a free copy of Wendy’s CD!

Where did the idea for Love In Translation originate?

Parts of Love in Translation came from an unpublished manuscript that told the story of two characters who “trade lives”—a young Japanese idol singer who comes to the U.S. after her career goes down the tubes, and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 at a crossroads in her life who ends up finding herself by going to Japan. Eventually each character got her own book. I expanded the latter character and her story, which turned into Love in Translation.
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 somewhat like a child, and how a woman who grew up in foster homes lacking in family warmth could actually find this comforting instead of stifling. I also wanted to write about a character who is at the point where she realizes that life isn’t a dress rehearsal.

You captured so much of modern Japanese culture and peppered the book with quick lessons in useful Japanese language. What are your own experiences with Japan? How have those experiences come to life in this novel as well as in your debut novel, Midori by Moonlinght?

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 on my writing. I studied Japanese language and culture in college and my first trip to Japan was as a winner in a songwriting contest sponsored by a Japanese record company. Later I moved to Tokyo for about a year and played music, taught English and did narration work, but didn’t “make it big in Japan.” When I returned home to San Francisco I got into Japanese karaoke and competed in contests. And I also returned to Japan for visits many, many times. Later, when I started writing short stories, I found myself writing about Japan without even thinking, a force over which I had no control. And my two published novels are tied to Japanese culture and the Japan experience.

My husband is Japanese, born in Osaka. I met him in San Francisco after he’d been living in the U.S. for some 12 years, having left Japan to go to college in America. He never felt like he completely fit in Japan and is now a permanent expatriate. I took a bit of his experience and outlook, gave it a sex change, and wrote Midori by Moonlight about a young Japanese woman who feels constrained by Japanese society and the roles placed on women, and seeks to escape by moving to San Francisco and marrying her American fiance. Things do not go as planned, to put it mildly.

One review of Love in Translation described Celeste as being “adrift in a strange land”.  My perception was the opposite – I felt that Celeste was adrift in America and once she was in Japan she learned about her family roots and in many ways found herself. Do you think “finding oneself” is a common experience for foreigners who live in Japan?

I do think Celeste feels quite adrift in Japan for a good part of the time, but I think you are right that she was also adrift in America. And, yes, she does eventually find herself in Japan in many ways. I think there are lots of people who go to Japan and end up learning things about themselves, and some even “turn Japanese” in an extreme way. But I think if you are open and flexible you might undergo this by living in any culture that is foreign to you. It puts you on the defensive in some ways and your identity can flounder since, a lot of the time, everything you know and feel is “wrong” or doesn’t hold weight in that particular culture. There are those foreigners, though, who find themselves miserable in Japan and can’t wait to get out.

On your blog, you made the comment, “I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, despite many changes going on in Japanese society, couples made up of Japanese men and Western women are still unusual.” Why do you think that is?

I’ve been conducting a series of interviews called Love in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, which have turned out to be quite interesting. Of course I’m speaking generally here, but for many Japanese women, Western men hold an appeal because they are unlikely to hold them to the strict conventions women can be held to in Japan. And this might even be their ticket of escape as it was for Midori Saito, my protagonist in Midori by Moonlight. Many Japanese men feel that Western women are “kowai” (scary)—in other words, too assertive. They may have expectations that Western women can’t and don’t want to fulfill. I know that I could not get along with a traditional Japanese man. And then there is often the case where a Japanese man might get together with an American woman in the U.S., but the couple will move to Japan. Then the wife is surprised to find her husband “turning Japanese” and adhering more to the traditional side of Japanese culture because of the strong pressure to conform. Of course there are always exceptions, but I’m sure statistically that the numbers of couples consisting of Western wives and Japanese husbands are much less than the opposite.

I loved how you tied so much of the novel around the enka (Japanese folk) song, “Nozomi no Hoshi,” that Celeste learns to sing. What came first – the lyrics of the enka or the storyline?

The storyline came first and then I put the description of the song together in the book.

And, now you’ve combined your writing and vocal talents with the musical talents of your husband and made a recording of the song “Nozomi no Hoshi”! The results are fabulous – please tell us the background story of this creative endeavor.

Thanks very much. We had a lot of fun doing this. My husband wrote the music and arrangement in late 2008. And I tried for a long time to find a Japanese lyricist who would take the description of the song in the book and make it into a real song. But I never got very far and finally I decided to write some lyrics myself. My Japanese is okay, but I am no poet! So I wrote kind of a rough draft and then a friend, Hiro Akashi, polished some of what I wrote and added his own magic. I also decided, in order to make the song stand on its own and be more accessible to the general listener, to add an English verse, which of course is not how the song is in the book. But I think I’m allowed some creative license!

Note to readers: if you’d like to receive a copy of Wendy’s CD, please send an e-mail to info (at) wendytokunaga (dot) com. Replace words in ( ) with symbols. Include your name and US postal address.

You received your MFA in 2008. What was your experience with your program and why did you choose to seek the degree? In what ways has it helped your writing practice and writing career?

When I was applying to MFA programs in the Fall of 2005 I had by then written five novels and had been unable to get an agent. I’d gotten hundreds of rejections. So my thinking was that at least maybe I could use all this writing experience and get into graduate school. This was also at a time in my life when I could finally afford to go to grad school. I had no notion that getting an MFA would suddenly make me get published, but I did think it was a good way to take my writing to the next level. And what a privilege it would be, I thought, to spend a good chunk of my time reading literature, studying writing and workshopping. I ended up at the University of San Francisco and it was a great program and I had a wonderful experience. And now that I do manuscript consulting I think it gives me an added credibility along with being a published novelist.

When you signed the two-book deal with St. Martin’s in 2006, did you already have the idea for both books? And, what is the path that led you to this book deal?

After all the years of rejection, it was quite gratifying to sign with an agent just as I was about to enter graduate school and then get the two-book deal about a month after I started. Midori by Moonlight was that fifth novel I’d written and that book was the one to get me agent representation (though it had been rejected by other agents). The deal was for Midori (which was already a finished book) plus one other novel. As I mentioned, I did already have the character from the other unpublished novel, so I had a vague idea of what the second book would be. But when I signed the contract I did not have to tell the publisher at that point what it would be about.

What is your writing method/process – do you use an outline?

Yes, I do write a rough outline, sometimes with a list of scenes. And I also like to “talk the plot” to a friend and brainstorm a bit, which always gives me new ideas and perspectives. And I am constantly revising, which I love to do. Writing raw, new material is the most difficult for me, but once it’s written I love molding and kneading it. And, as the book progresses, I’ll often revise the outline and scene list. It is usually in the revision process that I discover the real story.

Any advice for aspiring novelists?

Don’t give up, keep working on your craft and find a good teacher or consultant who will give you honest, constructive feedback. Also, read recent books by debut novelists in your area or genre to see what’s being published now.

Can you share with us what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a novel that is a departure for me—it has very little to do with Japan.

Thanks again to Wendy for sharing her writing experiences here at Motherlogue!

This entry was posted in Japan, Writer Interviews, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

  1. jesakalong says:

    Fantastic interview, Liz! Thank you so much for “introducing” Wendy & her work to your readers here.

    Wendy, I’m extra curious about your MFA experience. Since you started planning to attend before getting an agent, were your intentions that an MFA might finally get you an agent and published? Or were you thinking about getting an MFA to break into other writing-related areas, like teaching?

    Thanks again for sharing your experience!
    Jesaka

  2. Jesaka,

    Thanks!

    That’s a good question. I didn’t have any expectations regarding getting an agent or book deal when I decided to get an MFA. There are certainly many writers who are get published who don’t have MFAs. I figured that being able to take two years to concentrate on my writing plus reading and analyzing literature would only cause me to improve as a writer. And, regardless of the outcome, that would be a good thing. I wasn’t particularly interested in teaching in an academic setting, but I have always wanted to do manuscript consulting for novelists. Now I am doing that and I feel my MFA training is helpful for that and gives me some added credibility along with having two novels published.

  3. Interesting that Wendy likes to “talk the plot” of her novels. I’ve always felt that if I talk about a project too much, I’ll talk it out and never write it.

  4. Liz says:

    I know what you mean, Suzanne. I am the same way, or I worry that if I tell someone else what’s in my head, they might influence me too much and it will change into something that I wasn’t intending. I guess that’s part of getting more confident in my own writing and my own ideas!

  5. When I talk out the plot then I get excited about writing it — it’s more like brainstorming. And of course it goes through changes as I write and revise. But everyone has a different process and what works for me might not work for others. :-)

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  8. jesakalong says:

    Wendy ~ thanks so much for answering my question and sharing your goals/ insights on pursuing an MFA. I look forward to reading Love in Translation!

    Liz ~ thank you for a fantastic author interview!

  9. sarah says:

    Fascinating! Thanks, Liz and Wendy!

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