Writing from Yaizu, Japan — Fiction Writer Thersa Matsuura

You tackle cultural divides and stereotypes (Japanese versus American or European / East versus West / tradition versus modernity) with much humor and surprise in your short stories by blending mythologies, fables and history with contemporary tragedies, joys, and realities. What is the driving force behind such creative process?

Thersa Matsuura

I’ve been living in Japan for a long time — half my life now. At the very beginning after the honeymoon stage wore off, I went through that depressed kind of hostile phase where you’re terribly homesick and everything about the new culture you’re living in rubs you the wrong way. I came up with a little mantra that helped me out of this rut: It’s not right; it’s not wrong; it’s just different.

I still keep that in mind to this day. It changed the way I look at everything. I stopped taking sides. Instead of “in America we do it this way,” I began asking myself why something was done a certain way, what the underlying reason or thinking behind different actions could be. This opened me up to considering all kinds of possibilities.

By thinking that way I naturally blend past and present, reality and myth, horror and humor. Because it is all that mixed together that creates a unique culture. Everything influences everything else. It’s all still extremely fascinating to me.

Why do you think we should still believe in stories? Do you think about their empowering qualities?

I think with all the advances in science and how much we now know about the world around us life has gotten somewhat hard and serious, all straight lines and corners. It feels like with a quick search on the Internet all our questions can be answered. And because of this I think there is a loss of mystery and wonder, imagination even.

I believe that folktales and fairy stories, superstitions and legends add a roundness, color, and magic back to life. I also think those stories have the ability to empower by not only encouraging the imagination but also by showing us new ways to look at a situation or even the world around us. When all the answers are known — or when we think they’re known — living becomes quite dull. Stories teach us to remain open and playful and creative.

What is your writing process like?

For all of my short stories I started with a single image, usually something I saw that piqued my interest. And from there I’d imagine the story behind the scene.

Thersa Matsuura

For example, on my train ride into the city I used to pass this huge apartment building. One day I saw an old man struggling to hang up this net. It took him over a week, but in the end he completely sealed off his balcony. I was so intrigued: Why would he do that? What did he want to keep in? Or out? That was the impetus for “Eden on the 18th Floor.”

A homeless man living under a bridge that I also observed from the train inspired “The Bean Washer.” He seemed like such a cheerful man, had little cookouts and had visitors over at his makeshift table. I remember the day he acquired a dirty white dog. And I’d watch as he’d sit there and have these animated conversations with it. Here I am on a train with a bunch of dour-faced, angry-looking businessmen and I began to think about what makes a person happy.

The title story, “A Robe of Feathers,” was inspired by a real man I saw with a deco chari (decoration bicycle). He was so proud, but at the same time quite shy. I got to thinking about his story.

Any literary or artistic influences, past and present?

I adore Nathan Englander. I can read that man’s work and cry and cry. And I love Jeffrey Eugindes’ Middlesex. I also love southern writers: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Carson McCullers to name a few. I enjoy and admire authors who can blend tragedy and humor well, someone like Kurt Vonnegut who can make you laugh and cry in the same paragraph. To me that is high art.

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