Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life.
Jana Van der Veer: I'm Jana Van der Veer, program coordinator of the International Higher Education Program at Lesley. I also graduated from and worked for Lesley's MFA program in creative writing for many years, where I met with our guest for today, who is Janet Pocorobba, who is the associate director of Lesley's MFA program. She's also an alum of the program and the author of The Fourth String, a memoir of her experience studying shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument, under a Japanese teacher in Japan.
We'll come back to exactly what that instrument is in a few minutes, but first I wanted to talk a little bit more about your experience in general to kind of set the scene for the conversation today.
Janet Pocorobba: Sure.
Janet: Hi, Jana.
Janet: Good to see you again.
Jana: First of all, what drew you or made you decide to go to Japan in particular? I know this was back in the ’90s when a lot of people, a lot of Americans, were teaching English in Japan in the ’80s and ’90s, but what made you choose Japan?
Janet: Okay. This is going to sound really crass. The reason I chose to go to Japan is money.
Jana: Money's good.
Janet: You're right, I did have a friend who went on the JET Program, I think. That was really popular at the time, where you go and get set up in a town and teach for a couple of years. When she went, I was like, "Whatever, like Japan?" I really didn't know anything about the culture, never wanted to go there. She went. I said, “Bye.” Went on my way, I got a master's degree and then thought I was going to get a PhD and just live this quiet academic life.
Then two things happened. I was getting a little bored with life, I was in my mid to late 20s. I'm like, "I need some adventure before I settle down." I was like, "Let me think about traveling," because I had kind of a secret desire to travel the world. I had some student debt by that point and my friend said, "Japan's not a bad place. You can make money." It was the end of the bubble so it wasn't quite as big a bubble as it was but she said, there's still a lot of lucrative jobs. She lured me there. That's how I got there. I had a contract to teach nine months and I stayed four years.
That happens sometimes. Clearly, it was beginning to study the shamisen that made you decide to stay longer. I guess now's a good time to sort of say, how did you get started studying the shamisen and if you could explain a little bit about what it is to listeners who might not know.
Janet: Yes. It still remains pretty exotic. Although I have to say, when I went to Japan in the mid to late ’90s, Japan was even lesser known. I feel like anime and graphic novels have really spiked in the past 20 years, as well as there's some shamisen duos, the Yoshida Brothers who play shamisen. There are some more international things that I think people can latch on to but at the time I went.
I was studying, I was there teaching and my friend who was this friend who said, "Please come," found this tiny little ad in a classified magazine, English magazine. It said, free lessons in shamisen and singing. I didn't know what the heck a shamisen was, but she knew I was musical. She's like, maybe this is something to just get you into Japan. I was like, okay.
I went and what I discovered was that the shamisen was sort of a strange thing. It was kind of like a banjo. I think that's the closest analogy I can come. It has three strings. It has a very long skinny neck and then it has a sort of square sound box. It's covered with skin, actually, cat skin or dog skin. It took some getting used to. It has quite a large plectrum, so it's the string, but it's also a bit percussive.
It has a couple of different roles. It's an instrument that's played in a variety of ways but the way my teacher played it was as music for theater, so for the Kabuki theater, from the 18th century. We're talking about a very old form that basically was still in place and being played the same way as back then.
Jana: You returned from Japan, eventually. In this book, you tell the story of those four years and your relationship specifically with this teacher, who you refer to as Sensei, which is the term for teacher in Japan, but she was very much against using that term.
Janet: I know. I should probably just say for people who will look at the book. The shamisen itself was surprising but more surprising than that was the teacher. I had expected quite honestly, maybe a little old lady in a kimono. [laughs] She was actually that day in a kimono but she was very non-traditional. She talks about herself using Western address, used her first name, she didn't want to be called teacher, she wanted to be called her first name.
She wore just regular clothes. She really had a Western spirit, I would say, that she was applying to Japanese knowledge and Japanese tradition. Whereas I think, just historically, Japan, after the West came, they did a lot of applying of Japanese spirit to Western knowledge. She was really like taking a whole new approach to this tradition that was so cloaked in mystery, and money, and patriarchy, and all of the stuff that was making it so inaccessible to people.
She battled these hundreds of years old system and it was so admirable. She just wanted to bring music to a place of pleasure and it was her passion. It shouldn't be about who you are and who you know.
Jana: The other interesting thing that struck me was that she pretty much exclusively taught foreigners.
Jana: She was not a teacher to Japanese students. In fact, she shied away from that pretty strictly. That's another very unusual thing that she was taking this art form that is so Japanese, and deliberately--You mentioned in the book that there was some frustration, like, "Why aren't you teaching more Japanese people because they're the ones who will continue this tradition? The foreigners that come here will learn it for a while and then go back home, most likely.” Very interesting choice.
Janet: Exactly. One of the paradoxes that's never resolved. She's a puzzle in a way, as am I. I think I'm trying to suss out in the book from 20 years later. I'm like, who was she to me? Who was I and what was our relationship about? There were so many things I didn't understand and those were just accepted in the end or just embraced as part of the mystery.
She loved foreigners because of their passion, and they could be very direct about it and expressive. If we were playing with any expression in Japan, that would be a criticism. You were really supposed to play like you're kind of dead. No expression. Very different.
Jana: The whole musical realm is very different in Japan. How long did it take you to begin to work on this as a memoir after you came back to the US? Did it take a while to process the experience? What made you decide to write this story?
Janet: That's a great question. When I came back after several years, it was 2001. I think I was so in shock and just grief-stricken at having left, and confused because I think there was always a part of me that was like, should I have stayed? I left my teacher, should I have stayed? I had a new life. I was trying to embrace my future. I wanted to be home. I think the first writings were out of a need to just put everything down because I was terrified I'd forget.
The other piece, just to say like when I went to Japan in the mid-’90s, imagine this now. No internet that we were using. I had no laptop, no cell phone, no GPS, no YouTube. I couldn't Google the shamisen. I couldn't Google a video to even see what it sounded like. I remember after my first lesson with her I was so attracted to this music, and so curious and I immediately went looking for a book because that's how I learned things, find a book.
I went to the bookstore and the one book was out of print. I had to rely on her exclusively. I think it would have been a different journey had I gone there today because one of the things about the story is that being in Japan, and you have been in Japan, how do you get used to not knowing? How do you experience this not knowing part of the culture that they very much embrace? I feel in a way like the story starts, I know nothing, and I feel like it ends where I know nothing. I know that I know nothing at the end.
Jana: More important to know nothing.
Janet: Totally. When I came back I was like, "Get it all down," but it was so close. There was no story there or shape. It was just a lot of emotion, but I was writing and I sent it out. I did get the interest of an agent and I thought, "Everything's ready. Okay, my life is made." That was the beginning of a 15-year process. I eventually ended up going to Bread Loaf, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences to work on the book with a mentor there, Vivian Hornik, who was one of my favorite writers and she just tore it to pieces. She was just like, "Who are you? Why are you writing this?" Like, "You need a story."
I was like, "Really? It happened?" It took many years to go from just what happened to-- That's when I processed. It was later. Then it took a long time because I feel like I had to peel away some layers of Japaneseness in a way. One of those layers for many years was this ultimate obedience and respect for my teacher. I had to go from writing it for her to writing it just for me, including my story. As you know now, it's like a biography and a memoir. It's really like two women stories because we're both important. In the end, I think it felt somewhat transgressive to write my story because I had to just say, "I'm important, and it's not about you." That was scary. [laughs]
Jana: Has she read the book or-- I know you've talked with her about it, but how much does she actually know it?
Janet: I know. I just sent it to her. Before the book was published last year I went right to her in Tokyo and we spent a couple of weeks and I read a lot of it aloud to her. I read parts that were questionable. She had her son-in-law read it, her relatives. Anything that was suspect or-- There were things that she pointed out that I thought were totally benign, but to her, it was a certain thing so I said, "Okay, let's redo that." Then things that I thought she was really not going to like, she was like, "Leave it in."
It really deepened our relationship. I feel like it really brought me a little more into a little more equal relationship now because she has her art, I have my art now. [laughs] I'm only her disciple. It was very transformative, but I was really terrified. As soon as the book was taken I had many nightmares where I thought, "Oh, my gosh. She's going to say you can't publish that." I'm like, "They don't have to novelize it or something." I didn't know what to do. I was like- [crosstalk]
Jana: You can't publish it anyway. I'll cut you off or whatever.
Jana: That's the scary part about memoir, I think.
Janet: In one passage of the book, I was talking about suicide. I was talking about this passage where she was very down and feeling suicidal, which she had told me the story so I included that. Suicide in Japan is not unknown. I was like, "Who else hasn't had these thoughts? Of course." Then I said something like, "I didn't know she was depressed." When we talked, she really objected to the word depressed, which I found interesting because I thought suicide might be more relevant. I think too just the state of mental illness in Japan or anything like that, it's still not okay to talk about. She really was like, "Depressed." I said something instead like, "I didn't know her mood." She wanted her name out. That's why we called her Sensei. She surprised me sometimes.
Jana: Can you talk a little bit more about how the process ended up being over this 15-year process of writing the book? I know you eventually came to the MFA program and began to work with mentors there but you had work to do even after that to finish shaping it.
Janet: That's a great point. Even if you go to a program or to school you hope to get the tools to build the book. It doesn't mean you have the book. I thought I had the book. I had the agent at that time still. We've gotten a lot of feedback from publishers saying, "What's it about? I love the writing, but what's it about?" I think for memoir writers drilling down on that is really hard and it can take many drafts because we think we've covered it but we've often left ourselves out of it, or we're leaving out something. When we hear that, "What's it about? What's it about?" I tend to think it means that a point of view is missing. Even in a memoir, there's a point of view. It's you, or former you or you, but we have to somehow shape the events for the reader. Some memoirs are out there and they're published and they're great, and they don't do that a lot. They just give you a lot of scenes and they show a lot of stuff.
The most compelling ones for me really tell the reader what this meant to them. Not just the experience, but what is this? I spent, let's see, from 2006 after I graduated from the Lesley MFA program. I started working for the program, my agent disappeared, literally stopped taking my calls, I sent certified letters. I think because I wasn't selling to a Big Six publisher he was like, "Well." I was horrified. I was so embarrassed. I just felt like, "Oh, my God, he dumped me." [laughs] I had been dumped. For about two years, I didn't even try to publish anything in that area.
I was sensitive about it, I was like, "What do I do?" I just tried this and that. I would sometimes get into writing groups, but it was always the same thing. What's it about? I think I was still in the middle of the experience. I'm still going back to Japan every year to perform for my teacher. I hadn't ended things yet, and you can't write about something until it's ended. I didn't want it to end.
It wasn't until several years after that where I started to really say, "Well, I have to focus on my life and this book and creating what I wanted it to be." That was a big leap because it can feel like a betrayal almost to life. You're almost betraying life. You're making a story now, and all the people in it. You're feeling like, "Sorry, you're now part of my cast of characters." It can feel a little funny. You have to just let that go and just go into your own space and deal with that later. When I teach, we tell the students there to, "Just write it. Don't worry about mom."
It's always mom or teacher. "You'll worry about it later, but try and to get to the real story. What's this about?" I was just reading some student work for my class this afternoon. Same thing. I was like, "There's no intimacy here. I'm not seeing it. What is this experience to you?" Going to that core, I just feel like it takes years of scraping through layers of defense and what you think it should be, what you want it to be, what the world wants it to be, the persona that you think you have to have out there. In fiction, you can have that distance, but in memoir for it to really work effectively, you can't. You have to put it all out on the page, which is a scary thing. Very scary.
Jana: It really is.
Janet: You've read the book, so you see that it's written in a somewhat stylized fashion. Even this manuscript, certain agents when I first sent it out were like, "We want more of you on the page." They wanted me to spill my guts. I was like, "There's a Japanese quality to this book. It's the Japanese me." I was like, "This is not a spill-your-guts book. Sorry." I want to reveal everything or not everything because that's more Japanese to leave some mystery and I wanted to reveal things but in a slower way. Not obviously let me just say "Blah, blah, blah." It was like I wanted to have, most importantly, things revealed in relationships. That was the biggest thing for me because I didn't know for the longest time whose story is it? I was like, "Okay, is it my story?" I kept thinking, "No, it's about my teacher." Is it my story, is it my teacher? It wasn't until I met Gish Jen, who came to Lesley to do a presentation and I asked her. I just said, "Gish, this is what I'm hearing from people. Whose story is it? What should I do?" She had just given a lecture on non-Western narratives. Tiger writing had come out. Go with the baggage claim that was all that material. She said, "Well, of course, it's both of you." She totally gave me permission to do it in this way. I didn't have to have some single heroic journey. I'm independent. No, the book, if anything, is about how we're all interdependent.
Janet: Nothing ends and there is no closure.
Jana: That really struck me in reading it is how it is very interdependent which is a very sort of eastern style of relationship and engagement.
Janet: It's scary. I think it's scary than being independent because you really realize, "I do rely on this person for this. This person is part of me." I was embarrassed by the dependence. We're American, we're not dependent on things like that. I just would feel like this person has such power over me and is so important. I'm embarrassed by that. I feel like I should be more strong or more independent or free or something like that. There was a lot of that kind of thinking. It took a long time to even be able to see the experience and see Japan. I was so in it. I remember coming back and just feeling like, "Where are all the people?"
In Japan, you have all these connections with people. You're really tied to people in a way that's very special. I came back to America I was like, "I just feel so alone," I was like really sad for a while. I couldn't listen to music. I was like, "Oh my God." I think I had to come out of what I had gone into, which was tough.
Jana: That's the classic re-entering keys but it's one that is so subtle. It could be very difficult to recognize as being that sudden sense of isolation.
Jana: When you're used to this interweb of community and connection which can be its own burden sometimes but then also, you are part of it.
Janet: I know.
Jana: I know you write in the book too, about other relationships that you have while you're there, with the other students and with other teachers of other art forms as well. I guess, my questions around that are, did any of those people who are in the book know that they're in the book? Did you have to negotiate anything with them? How did those relationships turn out? Are you still in a relationship with any of them in terms of them?
Janet: That's a great question because there's a lot of people in the book.
Jana: Right. It's not just you and Sensei. There's, as you said, it's a web of people that all contribute to the story.
Janet: There is one character, who if you will read the book, there's quite a drama around with my teacher. It ends somewhat badly for her and it was someone who played music with us. I had this close relationship with and then I suddenly just because I had no relationship with and I had to release it. Cut off ties. I had not spoken to him in 20 years. When the book was taken, I thought, I have to talk to him. I have to find out if it's okay because this is a pretty dramatic light that I'm showing him in and I really need his blessing. Not permission. I felt like this is my story.
I also was humble like if someone wanted something changed, I was going to say, "Fine." I wasn't going to be like, "Hey, it's my art." I wrote to him and I sent the book in a big PDF and I just said, "Hello, hello. This is happening. Please read and let me know." I was on tenterhooks. I was terrified. He didn't write back for a couple of weeks. I didn't know what to expect, then one day, there was this e-mail and I opened it up. He gave me his full blessing but he said when he saw my message, it took him about two or three days to recover. There was so much emotion.
I think I have that too on my end because we just stopped our relationship. Even seeing and even communicating with him was like bringing back that time which was so ladened with emotion. He said, "No, this is your story. I'm going to tell mine differently but this is yours and it's fine." I thanked him deeply. Filed that away for my lawyers.
My publisher was like, “just put those in a file."
There are some people in there that don't know they're in there and I didn't feel like I had to notify them. I asked my publisher, he said, "No." You can't talk to everybody, I guess. As long as it's clear that it's your point of view, as long as it's not a libelous thing, everyone has their own memories, as we know. Everyone lives differently. Memoir is risky.
Jana: Yes, it is. The other thing that struck me about the book is so much of it is about communication. Communication, not just the Japanese and English part where you were always either struggling in Japanese or someone is trying to communicate with you in non-native English. There is the concept of communication through music, that music is for those of you who are playing these instruments, somewhat of a universal language. Then, there's the whole concept you're trying to communicate the teaching and the learning of those instruments in a way that is very different from traditional western style teaching in communication and information.
Janet: Exactly. It's on so many levels. I have to say, I think the closest level is the music. I think there's a quote I have in the book, I think I say that they say that music-- people who are musical together feel closer than people even at the same culture. I think there is something where you're playing music with people. It is a oneness. You're entering that oceanic feeling because you're in something together completely and it's non-verbal. It's more of the soul or of a heart or in spirit or something. It's got this really powerful effect I have found. I think I always knew that because I loved music and played music.
To that end, it would be confusing to me, almost. I would want to express and articulate my feelings for my teacher or something but she was always like "in the music." The two are like this, in Japan, they're linked. Who is my character? How do I play music? They say, "Don't try to separate us." I always did. She would always say, "Well, if we didn't have music and if I wasn't creating all these performances, you'd have no reason to come back to Japan." I would say, "What are you talking about? I will come back to see you." She'll be like, "Of course, no meaning." I was so mad when she said that. I didn't even know why I was mad but I was well, "Of course, you know."
It wasn't until many years later that I realized that we do exist in music. Art, really, is our relationship. Who we are and how we play is the same. Anything we're going to resolve in our relationship is going to be for music. Our love for each other, our frustrations for each other, it's never going to be separate. Maybe that's a Western thing too. I kept trying to separate it, whereas they were okay. Just having it be more amorphous. It just made me itchy. It's like, "No, get it apart. I need to have things in a box." It was so much feeling. It was hard. I always want to put feelings into words because then I can control it and master it. A lot of times, with her it was just, no, keeping it to be this big mystery. It's not my way [laughs].
Jana: How difficult was it to find English words to talk about all these concepts and these things that happened beneath the surface in Japan because that's a writer’s challenge as well.
Janet: Oh my God. You hit on it. It was another reason why it took me 13 years. I think I say in the book, "Infection without understanding." That really is the teaching style. Ma is a very big concept. The first thing you learn. It's really basically space or silence. It's silence between the notes. I was always looking at the note. To me, it was like, "That's the note. That's the melody." She was constantly stopping me. "You didn't pause correctly. You weren't in the absence." I was like, "What?" Even that was a mind blower. In some ways, and again, because of my absolute naiveté of anything Japanese and because of the lack of all the media back then, I don't know, maybe I'm over exaggerating that but it seems like I was at her command.
All I had to do was imitate her. That was the model of education. Just imitate. Just do it, do it, do it, don't ask any questions. Fine to live there but as you pointed out, when I came back and had to then describe these things, I was at a loss. I had to get it out of my system first and then say, "Well, what is it?" Once it out and you define it, what is it in the story. As I wrote each ’graph, it became clear which concepts were going to be metaphoric. Then you start making a story, right?
Janet: The ma, I've got space, that's a little bit of a metaphor of the distances between us it's even a little bit how I structured the book, because it's a lot of space. I do a lot of segmentation and little sections, so I do pause a lot which I realized later, so I think the pausing was big, the absence and the silence as a balance.
Jana: I teach intercultural communication students. Silence is as much a form of communication as speech is or sound.
Janet: Absolutely and the thing about silence I find because it's not defined it's more connected. I find it very connecting and quality, once you have words we're separate. You start calling things by name but when you don't have that you can be in it together in this amorphous warlike way and it felt like that. Which is wonderful in many ways but then at one point in my journey I was terrified. I was like wait a minute, I don't understand anything that's going on.
I was like, "How am I going to ever leave here?'' Those hard decisions now are like I got to go home and I am always going to be a white woman in this culture, I'm always going to be the white girl in the kimono, I'm always going to be treated as a stranger. I'm never going to get the satisfying intimate relationships that I ultimately crave and so I was turning towards home but then it was like-- that's when my Western mind came back and I was like how to even begin to explain or understand for myself. I think the book is a journey to understand, I think that finally was a moment where I was putting on the page. All right showdown what would this mean? You have that voice of 20 years on looking back because it was just a big journey and it's still going on. It doesn't end. Closure, that's all.
Jana: Even the title of the book, The Fourth String, it refers to, you imagine the shamisen has three strings but the fourth string is that relationship between teacher and student that continues on well past the book. It's not like, as you said, you've gone home and now you never see her again, you still see her and you still perform.
Janet: Exactly, and a lot of narratives that I had read about, people that had gone to Japan to study something, didn't treat it as a discrete adventure and they studied something and then they came home. They wrote about it in that way and maybe that was our experience I don't know but I would read these stories and just crave a deeper understanding as well. Did you not come home confused? Did you not come home sad? Did you not come home wondering about all these things? I didn't want neat and clean narratives. It just didn't feel true to me without those messy parts and those back and forth.
A lot of questions in this text bring a lot of “what did this mean?” and “what is culture?” Again it's a memoir as the craft of writing, I think it's easy to fall into this trap of like I know everything or I know this, I know this. I had to get into “I don't know,” and you could include that in a memoir. I don't know this, I doubt, I wonder, and all these great things they're part of the story too and they're very human and I hope they draw the reader in because I hope when there's doubts about what their own perception of reality is.
Jana: I think you definitely did that and I think you were able to get underneath the skin of Japanese culture in a way that a lot of memoirists who have experienced other cultures don't. I find in a lot of books there is this tendency to exoticize or otherize people from other cultures. You know, oh aren't they quaint, aren't they amusing, isn't this strange or whatever. You are only looking at it from a perspective of their perspectives are this, they're just as valid as mine and I'm struggling to understand what this means and what these concepts mean, which are very different. I really liked that about the book, I thought that you got under there in a very meaningful way that I think will, for anybody who's ever been abroad or experienced another culture in a deeper way, they understand that.
Janet: I think I had to really wrestle-- I also wanted the book, a lot of those narratives coming out of Japanese experiences or other things. It's the learning culture, so it's got mastery and I wanted to make it clear that I didn't master. I wanted failure to be a part of it, so I was trying for this perfection, it had to be a perfect something and no it's so much messier than that.
I think in Japan another thing that was shocking to me, but which has become a touchstone value in my life is limitation is the path to freedom. It sounds like koan but a Zen parable or puzzle because I thought freedom meant I get to do whatever I want, like free. I'm free, hallo. I'm just out there, but one of the first things was like no she was cutting me into a shape to be put on the stage, and it was within that shape that I started to really find some mastery over my own life. Even though I kinda failed at shamisen, I think I did learn something about life and freedom is not about you get to do whatever you want, it's about responsibility limiting, yourself in the way you want to be limited but you have to have limitations. I remember thinking about- I had come back to visit, I'd come back to America and I’d go to the grocery store and I'm in an aisle of serial that has about 500 boxes of cereal. My mind would be blown because I'd be in Japan in these little tiny markets and there's not that much choice over there.
Jana: There’s like free. [laughs]
Janet: It was three and you don't even miss it. You're back and you're like we've got all this choice in America but then I would wonder choices to what, though? Do we care about cereal, choices to our leaders yes, we want to have some choices as to our rights but then we get distracted with all these other choices. Those were eye opening, very maturing things that happened over there.
Jana: What do you hope that readers will take away from this?
Janet: From the book?
Janet: I think the book actually has a couple different audiences, and for people who know Japan I hope that they take away just another different story about Japan, and for general readers I hope they touch into maybe a special time of learning in your own life, a special teacher, if they're musical what that was like. I hope they can enjoy the push and pull and the tag and the angst of relationship, because I just feel like that's what it's all about. To not be afraid of other cultures, to not be afraid of entering them, I think not appropriate, and don't take someone's voice but if you want to know go, ask questions, be there, observe traditions and just get to know something different other than yourself.
Jana: Right. Finally what are you working on now?
besides getting the book out there. Are you doing other projects? What are you working on?
Janet: I think I'm going to be the kind of writer who always has the next project because I can't bear the thought of being like without anything. I have this other project started before I finished this one and it's about this very small village that I live in, in Vermont where there's a cooperative store, which is the oldest store in New England and it's eight years old and it's this little ramshackled place run by women. It's this little matriarchal culture that I'm a part of up there and so it's really about my coming to settle there as a single childless woman. Just settling down, I find relationships just fascinating.
Jana: They definitely are.
Janet: The Vermont story next time.
Jana: Well, thank you very much for talking with me today, Janet.
Jana: Thanks, Jana.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on Janet Pocorobba and to see a photo of her playing the shamisen, head over to our podcast page www.lesley.edu/podcast, and that link is in the show notes. Next week you'll hear more from Janet as she interviews Fabiola Decius who is introducing Boston youth to her craft. Here's a clip
Fabiola: If you want to write about single parents because that's what you've grown up in a single parent household, write about that. If you want to write about sports because you love basketball, write about that. Whatever is the thing that itches you put that on paper and see what comes out.