Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.

Meet the Interns: Jessica Swanson, Web Design Team Manager

jessicaswanson_0Jessica Swanson is a Senior at Arizona State University majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Jessica Swanson: As the Web Design Team Manager I oversee projects for the Blogger, Web Developer, and Photoshop Editor. I initiate or remind the members of upcoming projects as well as assist them with certain projects or questions. During the past few weeks the team and I have begun a rebuild of the SR webpage which I am extremely excited about. This includes redesign the fonts, colors, and layout of the site as well as creating a new banner that will represent SR during the release of the fourth issue.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

JS: I have had a few classes with Trish in the past and had heard about Superstition Review a few times. Since it is my last undergraduate semester at ASU I thought this would be a great opportunity to gain some hands-on experience with this online literary publication.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?

JS: I am a fiction girl so I would have to say that section and the art section are my two favorite areas of SR. I primarily write fiction so I am drawn to that section just from a personal bias, and I am always fascinated by artwork and, therefore, attracted to that section.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.

JS: Well he has already contributed to the journal, but I would really love to see a piece of fiction by Sherman Alexie. He is a very diverse author/poet and I find his work extremely influential in my personal life. I have a deep respect for him as a Native American author and would love to meet him one day.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

JS: I would really like to be a fiction editor (big surprise) or possible work for the marketing team.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

JS: I am very excited about the re-design of the SR website. My team has been working very hard these past two weeks to get this up and running by the fourth launch and I am extremely excited to see the final result.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

JS: Well this wasn’t really one of the first books that I ever fell in love with, but this was the first book that made me cry. I remember being in elementary school and reading Where the Red Fern Grows, probably for pleasure and not as an assigned reading. I was home alone and it was an overcast, early winter day. I sat in an oversized plush chair in the living room, curled up with my feet underneath me. As I read the novel I became overwhelmed by what I was reading, never having read something quite like that at my age. I cried and cried until my family came home and at the time I was sad, but I was also thrilled because that was the first time I had truly interacted with a book. After that I just became an even bigger bookworm and you could not pull me out of library for anything.

SR: What are you currently reading?

JS: Besides schoolwork I am attempting to read a mystery called Beautiful Lies. This has been a feat considering the workload of the first few weeks, but I hope to have it completed soon. I am very surprised with the novel so far–something I wasn’t expecting since it had been on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble. During the summer I read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris and I would like to start viewing the show True Blood which is based on the series. Also, I am greatly anticipating Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol which continues the Robert Langdon series.

SR: What artist have you really connected with, either in subject matter, work, or motto?

JS: I think I talk about Sherman Alexie a little bit too much, but he has got to be my favorite author just because of subject matter (although I hear he is a pretty nice guy as well). He has really helped me not only as a writer, but also as a Native American who always felt a little bit like an outcast within the community. I appreciate his work because he is so true and honest and humorous. I truly respect him as an author and I greatly value his work.

SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?

JS: Dream class? Naptime 101. But that will never happen. I really wish I could take a class where I am being graded to read whatever I want. If I knew that I could devote two hours a night to reading some random fiction novel off the shelf for a grade then I would be in heaven. I have found that during semesters I really cannot dedicate the time I would like to read novels for pleasure. If I could have a class where I was allowed to do that then I would be overjoyed.

Meet the Interns: Scott Sivinski, Development Coordinator

Scott Sivinski is a Senior at Arizona State University majoring in Literature, Writing and Film.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Scott Sivinski: I am formatting the work we have to be sent out to Amazon to use on Kindle.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

SS: I heard about the Review in an email, probably from the English department.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.

SS: David Sedaris who is one of my favorite authors and memoirists would be a great contributor. He has stories for everything.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

SS: I would like to be involved with the nonfiction group, probably as editor.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

SS: I just can’t wait to read all of the submissions and just see the issue in its entirety since it is something I helped produce.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

SS: Weekend by Christopher Pike was the first book I remember loving. It was a mystery and involved people just a little older than me and it really kick-started my reading habit. I still mostly read mysteries or thrillers along with the occasional memoir.

SR: What are you currently reading?

SS: I am currently reading the new memoir by Kathy Griffin who I find to be hilarious.

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

SS: I like Entertainment Weekly’s website because it covers all aspects of entertainment including music, film and book reviews. I also like a site called dlisted because it makes fun of our cultures obsession with celebrities and his blogs are always hilarious.

SR: Do you write? Tell us about a project you’re working on.

SS: I do write on my own and keep a journal, but right now all I am writing is papers for other classes. I have six classes and five of them are English courses so I’m doing a lot of drafts and stuff right now and working on my applied project for graduation.

Superstition Review’s Fourth Issue Reading Series, Second Reading

The second reading of the semester took place as part of the Homecoming festivities on the lovely Polytechnic Campus. It was lovely, sunny, but a bit colder than the last few days, and quite blustery. The wind was blowing things around and making it more than a little difficult for all of the departments and organizations with tables set up about their programs.

We hosted our program (thankfully indoors) in the absolutely beautiful facility of the Black Box theater in the Applied Arts Pavilion. Due to a shifting situation on where we wanted/were permitted to hold the reading, the location had changed multiple times, resulting in a series of emails updating our readers. Probably confused me more than anyone else really. Even though I am the reading series coordinator, I had never spent much time on the Polytechnic campus, and did not really have much conception of where all the places were located, though I did eventually find my way to where we needed to be.

I started off by welcoming everyone to the reading and introduced Patricia Murphy, our managing editor and staff advisor. She then proceeded to explain the mission of SR and how we work, operate the magazine, and take submissions.

I then was able to introduce Laura Tohe, who was kind enough to drive out from the Tempe campus to share the written word with interested attendees out at our event at the Polytechnic campus. Laura read a variety of poems, including some beautiful poems from her most recent book, Tseyi, Deep in the Rock, which included poetry in both Navajo and English. She followed this with some assorted other poems, including assorted poems from a collection she is developing that she is calling her Bluebook collection, named because she started them in a blue notebook.

Laura finished the event by reading us a piece of a short story she wrote for Phoenix Noir, a recently published collection of noir mysteries all set in the Phoenix metro area. Mrs. Tohe laughed as she told us that she had never before written a mystery, but when she asked the editor how she should do it, drugs, sex, and murder were apparently the basic ingredients. I truly enjoyed the excerpts she read, and plan on buying the anthology to read the rest of the tale.