Interview by Suzanne Kamata
WOW: I think that after the recent disaster, a lot of expatriates found themselves more connected to Japan than they’d first thought. Could you tell me a little about your relationship to Japan, especially Tohoko?
Annamarie Sasagawa: I'm originally from Vancouver, Canada. I came to Japan on a working holiday visa just out of university, looking for adventure. I first lived on the island of Shikoku, then one thing led to another, as it seems to do for so many foreigners here. Long story short, I'm still in Japan eight years later with no plans to leave.
I spent four of the eight years I've lived in Japan working as a tour guide for foreign travelers. Tohoku isn't a major tourism destination in Japan, but I did have a few chances to travel there, both with clients and on my own. While people all over Japan are incredibly hospitable, I found Tohoku people to be the kindest hosts I've ever encountered. So many people in the north have offered my tour clients and I conversation, small presents, cups of tea, samples of local food, and introductions to local sights in their best English. It's hard to describe how honest, warm, and proud of their hometowns people are in Tohoku.
|Annamarie Sagawa in Japan|
WOW: I know that in addition to being a tour guide, you’re also a writer. What kind of writing do you usually do?
Annamarie: I'm working as a freelance ghostwriter now, so for work I write newsletters, marketing copy and a lot of brochure copy for the travel industry. Outside of work, I enjoy writing narrative essays and creative non-fiction.
WOW: So tell me, how did this e-book come about? Beyond the disaster itself, what sparked you to create an e-book? How did you solicit submissions?
Annamarie: After the earthquake I, like many, wanted to do something to help survivors. Since I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and nauseous as anything, heading up there to help with rescue efforts wasn't an option. (Heading outside our apartment wasn't an option!) My husband noticed I was kind of a mess, desperate to help out and feeling totally unable to do anything. He knows writing calms me down and suggested the project.
A good friend of mine, Rob Morel, agreed to help spread the word and gather submissions. He used Twitter to spread the word that we were looking for contributors, I made a quick WordPress site [http://fortohoku.org/], and we both announced the plan on FaceBook. TimeOut Japan advertised the project as well, and from there things took off. We gathered more than sixty submissions in a week or two.
Several contributors are also editors, and with their help I edited submissions and compiled the book in a Word file. Amsterdam-based book designers Hiyoko Imai and Luis Mendo found out about the project, and offered to design the PDF. They did an amazing job, and we got the book out in early April.
I think the final product is a really beautiful collection of non-fiction writing from a hugely diverse group of writers. Japanese writers, foreigners, writers who live in Japan, and writers overseas sent in stories. We asked people to focus not on the earthquake itself but on their memories and experiences of 'non-disaster' Japan, hoping the book would serve as a tribute of sorts to the kindness and warmth we've all experienced in Japan. In addition to raising money for Red Cross relief efforts, we wanted to remind ourselves and whoever reads the book that Japan can and will recover and rebuild.
WOW: As you know, there were a few other e-book projects to benefit quake and tsunami victims. However, yours seems especially feminine, with a lot of women writers. Would you care to comment about that?
Annamarie: That's not something I thought of while putting the book together, but when it was done and released in PDf I looked at the table of contents and realized how many women had contributed. I really can't say why. I can speculate--maybe word just spread through the networks of women writers first? Maybe our focus on non-disaster Japan appealed to more women writers immediately after the quake? Maybe there are just a lot more women traveling around Japan and writing about it? Maybe more women writers than men tend to write in the creative non-fiction genre? I'm really not sure. It could be due to all or none of those reasons, but it's definitely something I wonder about.
Although I don't know why the book ended up containing so many beautiful stories by women writers, the fact that it did was such a reward for me. I find it easy to feel isolated as a foreign woman writer in Japan--I rarely meet other foreign women in my daily life, and rarely read about other women's experiences in Japan. Through the Write For Tohoku project, I suddenly found myself reading dozens of funny and touching stories about life in Japan written by women who sounded a lot like me. It was the first time I've really felt a sense of community with women writers in Japan, and it was a lovely surprise reward.
WOW: Has there been any kind of response to this project from Japanese readers, or the evacuees?
Annamarie: I don't think any evacuees have read it, but;I got a lovely email from a Japanese woman in Nagano named Kaori who had read the book. She thanked everyone who contributed to the book and said that the stories really touched her "because I have the same kind of feeling about life and living." My husband is Japanese, and he loved the book as well (which is good, because it was his idea!). He commented that it was a rare chance to hear the in-depth thoughts and experiences of foreigners in Japan. He said that as a Japanese person it's easy to have surface encounters and short conversations with foreigners in Japan, but not often that you get the chance to hear so many foreigners' personal memories and feelings.
We have just started to work on a Japanese version of the book, actually. A translator who works with my husband volunteered to translate a selection of stories from the English book and a friend of ours who works in Japanese publishing is thinking of how to distribute it. If that works out, I hope more Japanese readers, especially evacuees, can read it.
WOW: Do you have any advice for someone aspiring to raise funds for a cause such as this one through literature?
Annamarie: Be in awe of the power of social media. ;) It wouldn't have been possible to gather so many stories from so many writers without that technology. I also think it helped to have a specific genre (non-fiction pieces under 1000 words) and focus (personal experiences of non-disaster Japan) for the book.
On the administrative side of things, keeping all the authors' email addresses, names, bios, submission titles, etc organized and managing the editing process was a challenge. I found it helpful to track everything in an Excel file. I also used MS Word's outline function to organize the actual text.
Getting money to the Red Cross from PDF sales was not hard with a PayPal account (the Red Cross takes PayPal donations). We were also lucky to find an e-book distributor (BookBaby.com) that volunteered to distribute the Kindle/iPad/Nook version of the book and forward proceeds directly to the Red Cross.
WOW: Thanks so much, Annamarie!
To find out more about the project, visit http://fortohoku.org/.
Suzanne Kamata is the author of Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008) and The Beautiful One Has Come: Stories (Wyatt-Mackenzie Press, 2011), and editor of three anthologies. She lives on the island of Shikoku in Japan.
More from Suzanne on WOW!:
The Art of Embracing Uncertainty: Interview with Leza Lowitz
On the Ball with Topka Press: Interview with Editor, Lucia Moreno
Just Desserts: An Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga