Tracy Slater on ‘The Good Shufu’
Tracy Slater’s memoir, The Good Shufu, is out now. Shufu means “housewife” in Japanese, and it’s the last thing Tracy ever thought she’d call herself. A writer and academic, she carefully constructed a life she loved in her hometown of Boston. But everything is upended when she falls head over heels for the most unlikely mate: a Japanese salary-man based in Osaka, who barely speaks her language. Tracy stops by Shelf Pleasure to answer our questions.
The Good Shufu is already garnering wonderful comparisons to Eat, Pray, Love, but what did you have in mind while writing?
I really enjoyed reading Gilbert’s first memoir, although I actually had in mind her second memoir, Committed, or something more similar to it, while I was writing The Good Shufu. I wanted to write something about both the struggles and joys faced by independent American or Western women not just while traveling, but while confronting the challenge of adopting to a new culture, or any new experience really, as home or as the new normal. Like a search for self but not just on vacation: more precisely, in another world or role or existence that eventually must, to some extent at least, become your own.
Our co-founder Kristen thought moving from New York to Los Angeles for love was rough, but you move to Japan from Boston! What’s one piece of advice you’d give our readers who might be coping with a change like this?
Well, the thing that helped me most make peace with Japan was realizing that I didn’t need to fall in love with it or have it feel exactly like home in order for it to be the right place, or a right place, for me to be, at least for now. I write in The Good Shufu about my struggle to fall in love with Japan like I’d fallen in love with my husband, and my belief that I’d never stop regretting or second-guessing my move there until I’d fallen for the place just like I’d fallen for the guy. Then one day, a very wise, very theatrical long-term expat in Tokyo summarily dismissed, with a broad wave of his hand, my question when I asked him how long it had taken to fall in love with the country. He told me something on the order of, No one loves Japan, but we are still fascinated by it. And I realized, yes, it’s OK, it’s totally legit, to build a life of fascination and meaning even if it’s sometimes difficult and alienating and home-sick making. That the hard parts of being in a new place, of being an expat or being away from home, don’t mean that the decision to be in that place was wrong or self-sabotaging. And that sometimes, having the chance to explore new places and learn new things and be fascinated by new experiences means more, in the end, than simple happiness, easiness, or convenience.
Of course, having access to Skype and frequent flyer miles helps too…
What are a couple of the must pack books that bring you comfort when you’re in Japan?
I’m not a huge re-reader–and the houses in Japan are so small (and the extra baggage fees from all the shopping I do at home already so hefty), that I don’t tend to bring books I’ve already read back from Boston to Tokyo, where we live now. That said, there is nothing I love more than being swept up in a great story, so books that let me get lost, get fully embedded in their worlds help a lot when I need a break from a world where I will always be a foreigner–especially books set in the U.S. Northeast or other memoirs. Recent books I’ve been head-over-heels immersed in: Julia Glass’s And the Dark & Sacred Night; Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year; Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure; Cindy Chupak’s The Longest Date: Life as a Wife.
I also love listening to podcasts about books. This makes me miss the East Coast literary community a little less. I try to do a yoga at least a few times a week and listen to podcasts, instead of doing the deep breathing (a kind of literary meditation, I guess). Some of my favorites are Books on the Nightstand, Book Riot, and Shelf Pleasure, of course.
It may sound corny, but those podcasts you and your cohorts do really make a difference to listeners, especially ones far away from their native literary communities. It’s such an easy but also intimate way to feel back in the mix of things, even while you are miles away.
What can readers expect next from you?
I’m starting to work (OK, I’m trying to get my baby to sleep through the night so I can see straight in order to work) on a book about raising a child in a culture so radically different from my own–especially a child who is part and parcel of a country that will always, eternally and inevitably, consider me a foreigner. At the end of The Good Shufu, I’m still pregnant: shockingly, over-joyingly, nervously so, being 45 years old and having been told I was basically infertile, and then getting pregnant naturally. I write about the new prospect that’s dawning in my life of having a baby after all, and how that both resolves and in some ways extends some of my feelings about Japan: “In a sense, [this country has] now become an irrevocable part of my body, the flesh of my flesh deriving from a foreign world.” And I wonder, “How does one reconcile such paradoxes?”
Hopefully, while writing the next book, I can start figuring this out.
Tracy Slater is the founder of Four Stories, a global literary series in Boston, Osaka, and Tokyo, for which she was awarded the PEN New England’s Friend to Writers Award in 2008. An essay on her bi-continental life was published in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008, and her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, The Chronicle Review, and the New York Times Motherlode blog. Learn more and order your copy of The Good Shufu here.
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