Saturday, July 12, 2008
Interview with Donna George Storey
If you haven't yet read Donna George Storey's An Amorous Woman, I fail to see why you are denying yourself the pleasure. Get the book. It's a marvelous read!
Donna George Storey's career as a writer could be officially considered "launched" when E. L. Doctorow, one of her writing teachers at Princeton, praised her work. When her wanderlust took her to Japan after college, it was only a matter of time before culture and talent collided in the delightful of ways. Donna fell in love with Japan, and went to graduate school to study Japanese. After graduation, she taught the language at Stanford as well as Berkeley.
Her experiences in Japan and with Japanese culture inspired Donna to write her first erotica novel, An Amorous Woman. The richness of detail that runs throughout the book could only have been crafted by someone with first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, so I asked Donna a few questions about her wonderful book. She was gracious enough to answer them.
The West has always viewed Japan (probably all of the East, actually) as a place of exotic mystery. Do you think Westerners do that because they simply don't understand or know about Japanese culture, or are there truly some difference in the way the Japanese view and approach the erotic?
Donna George Storey: The unknown Other always has a certain erotic appeal, be it the other sex, another sexual orientation, or a different culture. While we get all tingly at the thought of submissive geisha girls or clubs with mock-ups of train cars for would-be subway perverts, Japanese popular culture projects a similarly heightened sexual allure and perversity onto the West. (One of my older Japanese friends once told me with a straight face that Americans introduced homosexuality to Japan during the Occupation.) On the other hand, I do think expressions of eros take on a distinctive flavor in every culture, just as national cuisines develop unique ways to stimulate the palate.
My experience is by no means exhaustive, but I will hazard a few observations based on my research, some hands-on, some academic. Behind the politeness and propriety, the Japanese seem more relaxed and less guilt-ridden about sex than Americans, who know that God is always watching, even in the bedroom. In Japanese culture, sex is a natural human urge to be enjoyed in its proper setting, but context is key. That’s why love hotels -- special rent-by-the-hour places where you can get away from obligations of the home and workplace -- are a national institution. Apparently married couples use them as well, to find private space away from the kids. Of course, forbidden sex is as ripe for fantasy as it is in our culture. In porn comics I've regularly come across stories about seducing your boss' wife, sex on the dirty floor of the office restroom, and of course oversexed uniformed schoolgirls -- all busting one or more cultural taboos.
Another historical difference that shapes erotic expression in Japan is the government's longstanding support of a licensed pleasure quarters as a way for males to release their energy sexually rather than, say, through political rebellion. This is a bit different from our government's approach, which seems to consist chiefly of discouraging anything other than missionary position between married heterosexual partners for the purpose of procreation. In Japan, entertainment districts still flourish as an outlet for stress today, in spite of new restrictive laws chiefly intended to convince the West of a more "civilized" (read: underground) approach to sex-for-sale. Again the Japanese seem more accepting of the importance of fantasy and variety. We've all heard about the bars with mirrors on the floors and bottomless waitresses, soaplands where customers received a very special kind of washing, or brothels that where the prostitutes pose as schoolgirls, nurses or office lady commuters who actually welcome a quick grope on the subway during rush hour. The hottest fad comes and goes, but there’s always a playful variation to take its place. Against a backdrop of rock-solid tradition, the Japanese consumer economy thrives on the appeal of novelty, in sex as anything else. By the way, I'm not advocating prostitution, I'm just observing some cultural differences.
You'd think I could write a book about this and, in fact, I have. Amorous Woman explores love hotels, fantasy play, extramarital sex and the various offerings of the entertainment district, both high and low, among other things.
I know you have a strong background in Japanese culture and language, but for the sake of letting readers know, please sum that experience up for them here. What drew you to Japan and what keeps you fascinated by it?
DGS: I've always been interested in traveling to foreign countries, but the Japan focus started when a boy I had a crush on in high school was reading James Clavell's Shogun. I didn't have the nerve to speak to him, but I thought reading the same book would be a secret way to get closer to him. The crush faded, but my fascination with Japan lingered. After college, I decided to go to Japan to teach, which seemed one of the more interesting ways to use a degree in English.
In a way, it was just "something to do," but once I actually settled in Kyoto and got to know the city and made friends, the attraction turned to red-hot burning love! I found my thoughtful, observant personality was more valued there than in the U.S. where outgoing types rule. I felt an immediate connection to the culture: the attention to the seasons, the fabulous food, which miraculously doesn't seem to make you fat, the preference for suggestion over the obvious. And yes, the mutual appeal of sexual Otherness, which made for many memorable adventures.
After about two years in Kyoto, I decided I wanted to teach less English and focus more on mastering written Japanese, so I applied to graduate school in the United States. This gave me the chance to get warm and cozy with Japanese literature -- I even read a few pages of The Tale of Genji in the original, the ultimate in scholarly dedication. After my first son was born, I left academia and started writing fiction -- and having a lot more fun in my work -- but Japan still captures my imagination. It's the setting for countless literary and erotic stories as well as my first novel. I was just back for another visit to Tokyo and Kyoto this past April, twenty-four years after my first trip. I still love the place.
What inspired your book? Real events? A fantasy?
DGS: Both! I also have to confess an important literary antecedent for Amorous Woman. The truth is I 'borrowed ' -- not to say stole -- my plot from a 17th-century Japanese erotic classic by Ihara Saikaku called The Life of an Amorous Woman. In that famous novel, a lusty, wise-cracking woman travels around Japan taking on almost every role available to a female of her time: dancing girl, concubine, "wife" of a priest, calligraphy teacher, prostitute. I thought it would be interesting to translate this picaresque adventure into a modern form by writing about an American woman with an equally irrepressible sexual curiosity.
There is no question that a significant portion of the book is autobiographical. All of the settings are places I know firsthand, the delicious meals are all lifted from my journal entries. I actually had a "marriage meeting" -- really a blind date -- with a cute salaryman who had one sensitive nipple. I dined with sexy dentists in a fiendishly expensive, three-hundred-year-old restaurant overlooking the Kamo River and sneaked into the men's bath at a hot spring with my lover after midnight.
But much of the book involves a very conscious use of fantasy as well. I explore Westerners' fantasies about Japan, Japan's fantasies about the West, fantasies borrowed from Japanese manga porn and books on shibari, or artistic rope bondage. I learned a lot about my own fantasies in writing the novel. Writing erotica is an excellent way to explore the shadowy corners of your psyche -- and cheaper than therapy, too!
What are the primary misconceptions that Americans have about Japanese culture?
DGS: Again I could go on and on, but I'll stick to some basic ones. The biggest one in my opinion is that Japanese women are all submissive and down-trodden. Let's start with the geisha, the national symbol of service to male fantasies. In fact, geisha have always been artists first, more like career women than sexual slaves. They offer their clients sophisticated conversation and a private performance of music or dance. No sex is involved, although thoughtful and sometimes flirtatious attention is expected.
How about the meek housewife? That was the biggest surprise for me -- how much pride my Japanese friends took in their work as mothers and home managers. They didn't feel oppressed at all. Then I got to thinking that maybe it was the American view that devalued everything female—homemaking, nursing, teaching, even a job like therapist that was once dominated by men lost status as more women entered the profession. Not that Japan isn't a male-dominated society, but especially today, "down-trodden" women seem to have more choices and more fun than men.
Maybe the biggest misconception -- and the Japanese are equally prone to this one -- is that the culture is inscrutable and ultimately unknowable to Westerners. One of the themes of Amorous Woman is my heroine, Lydia's, hunger to find a sexual and spiritual connection with the people and the culture. Although her journey does not proceed exactly according to plan, she ultimately does become more intimate with Japan's desires and demons than she ever dreamed. And, surprise, surprise, much of it is very familiar territory after all.
Thank you so much, Donna! Discover more about Donna and her prolific writing career at her Web site.