Umeboshi: a dried, pickled Japanese prune; sour, salty. In most societies, the structure of a conversation between strangers demands that one begins in the outer circle of the impersonal and gradually works inward toward the more intimate and relevant. Language gives us the pieces with which to build this structure. Sometimes, however, the intimate appears inadvertently through translation or analysis of the language. In her debut novel, If You Follow Me, Malena Watrous uses both language and structure to build intimacy between characters, reveal layers of emotion, and to lend form to the random vagaries of life.
When I had the opportunity to chat with Watrous regarding her writing and the book based on her own experiences as an English teacher in Japan following the death of her father, I opted to begin with the generic and work inward. When asked about her favorite Japanese dish, Watrous had an immediate answer, “Umeboshi. Well, I guess that’s more of a flavor than a dish…” Yet, each of the dishes Watrous went on to describe revealed the same facet of her personality, a liveliness that shuns pretence. “I ate a lot of curry when I lived in Japan. I went on a hike with a student group, and we had a curry competition. Each class had put their own ingredients in…There were some really unusual combinations.” Chocolate and apple?? “I like street food; I like flavorful, hearty things.”
In her novel and in conversation, Malena Watrous displays a wry awareness of the quirks and details that flavor life. The structure of the novel provided a framework on which Watrous could layer some of the seemingly random details of her experiences in Japan. As she wrote about her time teaching English in rural Shika, Watrous discovered that life truly was stranger than fiction. “The area that I was in, and the experiences that I had – I had to almost normalize them.” While Watrous realized that, in life, events occur without regard to plot, “in fiction you need to create cause and effect and build on them.”
One of the strangest events of If You Follow Me — an episode that I was certain had to be borne completely of the author’s fancy — takes place toward the end of the novel. In this section, Marina, the narrator, finds herself using an array of sex-ed materials to teach an English lesson to a group of disaffected high school senior boys. Far from being a figment of her imagination, Watrous raised this scene as an example of an event for which she had provided a more believable context. “In real life, I taught an even stranger lesson with a Japanese teacher.”
While, in the novel, the lessons tie in loosely to a sub-plot involving a pregnant student at the high-school, in reality “there was no moral reason for it.” “The real reason he gave me the material was that we had some classes that were just so hard to teach.” In real life, Watrous found herself creating “a worksheet teaching heroin users how to clean their works.”
It took Watrous multiple drafts to work into the novel that experience that she describes as “one of the most surreal and comical experiences of my life.” Bear in mind that Watrous, 21 years old at the time, was teaching sex-ed in English to a group of 18 year old Japanese boys. Despite the richness of the material, Watrous felt that she “had to earn it. I couldn’t just throw it in because it was funny.” Indeed, the idiosyncratic material gleaned from her stay in Shika proved to be a double-edged sword for Watrous. “On one hand, it was so easy and lucky to have strange and different material to use. On the other hand, having to fit it in [to the structure of the novel] was harder.”
Another incident that was far stranger in life than in the novel involves a place that became symbolically significant both for Watrous and to the book. A museum themed around the Lewis Carroll story Alice in Wonderland was built outside of Shika to educate the people about the nuclear power plant above the town. “The museum of nuclear power was stranger than I was able to do justice to because I couldn’t pause the book to explain.”
In the book, Marina is taken to the museum by her supervisor during a tour of the town. In reality, Malena fell down the rabbit hole: “I got into the car with a strange older man who picked me up at the library and he drove me to the museum. It was very Alice in Wonderland.” At the museum, Malena experienced difficulty reconciling the propaganda extolling the virtues of nuclear energy in a country that had suffered such extraordinary devastation from nuclear weapons. This strange juxtaposition tickled the dark edge of Watrous’ sense of humor.
Humor informs Watrous’ writing and her life. I had noticed that Watrous had participated in a reading with David Vann (Legend of a Suicide) and had been struck by the disparate strategies employed by the two novelists in handling the common subject matter of coping with the death of a father by suicide. While the tone of Vann’s book is starkly beautiful in the intensity of grief, Watrous’ If You Follow Me blends the grief with a quirky, almost light humor. Watrous professes herself to be an admirer of Vann’s writing and says that she “enjoyed that collection.” However, she said, “I love humor, but it’s not always available to me as an author.” Yet, she knew that “if I was going to write about the subject [her father’s death], it was important to me to have that balance of pathos and grief and dark humor.” For that matter, “if I was going to write about being a foreigner in Japan, it was impossible to write without humor. It’s such a comedy of errors.”
For Watrous, “in dealing with the suicide, humor was a lifeline to me.” Even in loss, she found a tie to her father through her sense of humor. “My father was a surgeon; he had a dark sense of humor. I found comfort in that when I found something funny. Humor produces a connection between two people. You can’t force someone to find a thing funny if they don’t.”
Remarking again on the surreal details of life, Watrous reminisced, “thinking back to my father’s death and going home, that situation was as, or more, foreign to me than going to Japan. I found details that seemed almost funny.” For reasons that still seem unclear to Watrous, one of her mother’s friends had sewed tuxedo aprons; “everyone came over wearing tuxedo aprons.” Watrous postulates that the leaps outside of a logical reality may be more intrinsic to unexpected deaths such as suicides because the structure of grief has been disrupted. “People don’t know how to handle it. The structure found in a prepared death is gone. It’s awkward.”
The importance of structure as a societal coping mechanism pervades If You Follow Me. For Watrous, this is something “that interests me about Japanese culture. Formality and structure give people a way to handle things that are difficult. In Japan, harmony is so important that structure is even more so. Any breach becomes jarring.”
In the years following her father’s suicide, Watrous realized that she “hadn’t read a book that handled it [suicide and grief] in a way that made sense to me yet.” She knew other people who had gone through similar shocking losses and who handled their grief through a mix of humor, appreciation for the bizarre, and contemplation. But, “I hadn’t found a book with that same sensibility.” “People seem to think that there’s a proper way to grieve.”
Like her protagonist, Watrous does not seem to like being told how to do anything. In discussing Marina’s session with a grief counselor, Watrous said, “it’s as though people have a script, and they want you to go along. The character resents being told what to feel. She doesn’t want to do what she’s supposed to do.”
This reluctance to blindly follow social expectation and mores collides with the regimented Japanese culture for both character and creator. Watrous admitted that she initially found “that rigidity frustrating.” She tells a story of working for the Board of Education her second year in Japan,travelling from school to school, “sort of like an itinerant salesman.” In this sense, Watrous and her colleagues, while working under the larger umbrella of the Board of Education, did not have a defined place where they belonged. Thus, during school holidays, even when they had no lessons to plan or work to prepare, they were expected to sit in the offices of the Board of Education along with the regular workers, because otherwise there was a perceived injustice to the workers whose office jobs demanded regular hours.
However, Watrous eventually found some measure of comfort in the rules and structure of society. “There was the sense that once I got it, once I knew the rules, I could follow them.” Other rules had a certain appeal as well. “The rules for how to comport yourself at a wedding, I found interesting and sort of satisfying.”
Marina, too, finds eventual solace in structure. “For the character, she’s not obedient; initially it’s really challenging, but by the end she sees the advantage to structure as a container. She realizes that people can find ways around that structure. She sees the benefit to having structure in place as she comes to know people better. Structure can be helpful; it doesn’t mean that they’re conformist people.” Watrous described Marina as someone whose “circuitry exploded at the beginning.” Having a life mired in structure gave the character a place to fit her emotional experiences.
For Watrous, in writing the novel, structure gave her the means of exploring her “strange experiences” in Japan. She also commented that “finding structure helped me to explore the formlessness of emotion.” Watrous noted that “the book has a formal structure, but it doesn’t really have plot. It’s not the most riveting plot to describe, in the same sense that a year of life isn’t that riveting. So, I wanted it to have the shape and feel of a novel where you want to know what happens next.” The content and emotions of the novel with its echoes of reality required “a structure that had form, to give form to the randomness of life.”
For Watrous, time and the act of writing have helped to lend form to this randomness. I asked if she felt that the act of writing If You Follow Me had impacted the way in which Watrous remembered or perceived her father’s death. “I do think so. There are different themes in the early part of the book where different people accuse [Marina] of being emotionally shut down or in denial. I think as I wrote those scenes, I was blindly – or numbly – on the narrator’s side.”
However, time, and the acts of writing and revising the novel, edited Watrous’ own perceptions. “By the time the years passed, and I had done the revisions, I came to realize that the character/I really was shut down.” Looking through the filter of the text, Watrous realized something critical about her protagonist’s behavior. “There is something very frightening about that well of sorrow that she doesn’t want to sink into. By the time I was going through the revision process, I realized that she really was in denial.”
However, fictional characters have an advantage over live humans. “It had taken me a decade to get to where [Marina] was at the end of the year.” However, Watrous resists the notion of a pat ending for Marina, or presumably for herself. “I want the sense that she’s more aware [at the novel’s end] than at the beginning, but not that it’s all fixed.”
The paradox of real time vs. novelistic time widened the gap between Watrous and her fictional counterpart. “The longer I worked on the book, the older I became and the more emotionally different we became. It was interesting to write about this character for whom the ground under her feet is so shaky now that it is less shaky under me.” Watrous enjoyed playing with the bittersweet, and often joyful, uncertainty of early adulthood in writing Marina’s character.
“Young people are in some ways playing at the things that older people do naturally. You can have a really intense love affair at that age and know that, no matter how real it feels, you have that sense that there’s a lot of life ahead before it becomes real. There’s a sadness in that.” Watrous paused, “but it feels real.” She reflected on the “tension” between the intensity of feeling particular to youth and the sense of impermanence. “An early title for the book was Temporary Person.”
The concept of a “temporary person,” the designation for a foreigner living in Japan, arises several times throughout the novel. The phrase contains layers of meaning, denoting not only one residing temporarily within the country, but also the more literal feel of one who is temporarily a person, who has been granted a visitor’s pass into a culture and thus into life. The structure of Japanese society is so ordered that deviations from the norm stand out starkly.
I asked Watrous about her Salon.com essay “Hello Kitties” in which she discusses two Japanese youth subcultures. “I feel like the eccentrics I met in Japan were stranger than the eccentrics I met here. Maybe because the structure is so rigid.” She noted that, in Japan, even eccentricity had its own demands for conformity. “If you’re a Goth in Japan…and I guess this is true here, too, but it seemed more so…there’s a whole uniform for it.”
Yet, in her capacity as an English teacher, Watrous experienced a unique view of the variety of individual expression within an outwardly monolithic society. “I felt like people opened up a lot about where they perceived to be in the cracks [of society] or dissatisfaction with the status quo through English. I used to have adult students write poetry, and they’d write stuff that was so personal.” The ability to reveal intimate feelings more comfortably in a language other than one’s own is explored by Watrous in her novel. “I wasn’t sure if [this form of expression] was particular to people who spoke English and that they liked English because it gave them the license to express these things, or if others felt this way, too.” Language provides social structure; foreign languages offer temporary escapes from that structure.
Watrous who, after her time in Japan, received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and who now teaches writing through Stanford University, has spent much of her life exploring the strictures and freedom of language from the polar vantages of both teacher and student. “My mom’s a teacher. I love teaching; it’s natural to me. Writing is more of a passion…”
Watrous stopped for a moment to contemplate her cyclical exploration of language. “ I sometimes feel like I need to get out in life in some way…Writing, teaching – it’s like a snake eating its tail.” Yet, as she continues, it becomes clear that, for now at least, the snake is satisfied with its diet. “I love working with people who are getting into writing – particularly starting a novel…[I like] seeing that come to fruit. Especially with creative writing, it’s fun to teach when that’s the thing that people want to do.”
Teacher at her core, Watrous, whose stories have been published in journals such as Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, and Triquarterly, generously shared some of her own experiences with me as I bemoaned my latest rejection notice. “Keep sending. Everything that I’ve ever had taken got 10 rejections at least.” “I sent to 15 journals at a time; in every batch, I would get 14 rejections for the one that would get taken. It’s like raffle tickets; you want to make sure that 10 in the box are yours.” “Poor writers – it feels like they’re always getting punched down.” Watrous also commented on the imperative of revision. “Everything that I’ve ever thought was done – and I’m a relentless tinkerer – by the time the last rejection came in and I could muster up the courage to see it more closely, I thought maybe that means there’s something to revisit.”
One subject that Watrous revisits frequently in her novel is that of garbage — more specifically, Japan’s rigid garbage, gomi, laws. Although Marina is accused by her lover of being controlling and of keeping everything in, she is unable to follow the rules for the separation and disposal of trash. Her creator thinks “There’s a lazy streak, too. I think she thinks she can get away with more than she can. It’s the desire to get away with something.” There is an element of reality in Marina’s recycling dilemmas. “No foreigner could get these things down. I wanted to reproduce how impossible these rules are to get down.” However, the metaphor of letting go looms large in Watrous’ mind as in the novel. “I wanted to show that there’s a lot to get rid of and that it’s hard to get rid of. It’s a metaphor for grief.”
Clearly, though Malena Watrous has not gotten rid of much that is life and grief, she has instead repurposed and restructured her experiences, funneling them through time into the fullness of adulthood and through language into art.