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JapanFocus
[Author Interview] 'You And The Pirates'
Jocelyne Allen's first book goes against the grain of local literature
Tania Campbell (tania79)     Print Article 
Published 2009-12-11 14:58 (KST)   
Toronto writer and translator Jocelyne Allen has just published her first novel, which is a rip-roaring tale of pirates, cats and terrorists set in Japan, a country that Allen spent a decade of her life in. We spoke with her about creating and publishing a work of fiction that consciously goes against the grain of bleak 쏞anLit, and how her experiences of being a foreigner doing the daily grind in Tokyo inspired her debut novel.

What was your inspiration for writing your first novel about pirates and terrorists set in and around Tokyo?

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I was working in downtown Tokyo at the time, at this translation agency in the neighbourhood at the start of the book. It셲 a really business part of town, so every morning, everyone is all rush-rush to the office and then every evening, rush-rush back home and go to sleep to get up soul-crushingly early again the next morning. And it셲 this jam of people whenever you셱e out of your own office because everyone is working the same insane hours.

My train at the time was the Chuo line, which is the orange train that you see sometimes in movies set in Tokyo. The Chuo line is by far the busiest line in the city, serving the eastern side and the suburb cities on the east side. It셲 basically an express line for people from the edges to get to the centre. Have you seen those images of station personnel wearing white gloves shoving people into trains? That was my train every day. And this in spite of the fact that the train came literally less than every two minutes. You could look down the tracks in one direction and see a train stopped at the next station, look the other way and see another train at the previous station. And every one of these was cram-jammed with people in suits.

When your face is pressed against some stranger셲 back for an hour each way, there셲 not much you can do. If you셱e lucky, you can carve out a big enough space that you can hold a book a few centimetres in front of your face. But most of the time, you셱e stuck with an elbow in your kidney and nostrils breathing grey wool. So I would just let my mind wander and make up stories to keep from thinking about who on the train was emitting that foul odour. I wasn셳 expecting to write a novel about pirates and housecats. That셲 just where my mind went on my commute. Which says something about me, I suppose.

You lived in Japan for a decade. How do you think your experiences as a gaijin here influenced your novel?

My life in Japan was definitely a major influence. For one thing, I was living there when I wrote it, so it was what I was looking at every day while I was putting the words together. But I think the characters really express a lot of what I felt after living there for so long.

I was working as a professional translator, spoke Japanese fluently and had never actually had any kind of adult life anywhere but Japan, but I was still on the outside of things. I was still a gaijin. I could kind of forget that with friends or co-workers, but every time the guys with the punch perms selling newspaper subscriptions came to my apartment and asked me in the most hesitant Japanese if I could read, I was reminded that I was not Japanese and people would always treat me differently, no matter how I tried to be a part of society there. Which was, and is, really frustrating.

I think that part of my experience really influenced the direction of You and the Pirates. I feel like all the characters--or at least you and the gang of pirates--are on the outside in one way or another. They셱e all trying to create a place for themselves, find an identity that fits and fits in with their environments. And fits with who they feel like they are with the suitcases they are carrying from previous parts of their lives.

You have quite a cast of colorful characters, such as Pink Hair, Muffin and New Wave. Where did the inspiration for these guys come from?

When I write, I have this thing where I셫 not allowed to delete anything, no matter how crazy it is. Or how much I don셳 understand it. So whatever comes out onto the page has to stay and I have to figure out what it means. And that includes the characters. They take shape as I go forward with this no-steps-back policy. New Wave appeared suddenly, talking in his completely incomprehensible way. And when he showed up on the page, I had to stop and figure out who this guy was and what he was doing in my story.

Muffin is my favourite pirate and he came a little more purposefully from me. From research into boats, I knew I needed five people to be able to handle the ship I had in mind. And I knew that I needed a captain, someone to handle the mechanical issues, someone to do the navigating and all that and what pirate ship is complete without a drunk. But the fifth pirate was a bit of a mystery. And with the other pirates being such strong and kind of driven characters, I wanted to have someone completely at odds with the life they were living. To be the weak, worried link. So Muffin slowly evolved to fill that role. And his passive-aggressive nature made the pirates seem complete for me.

Why did you decide to write the novel in the second person?
I셶e heard people say that writing in the second person is a gimmick, a cop out, but for me, it셲 the most natural and comfortable voice to write in. I used to write in the first or third person, but I always felt a kind of distance between me and the characters, like I couldn셳 catch them the way I wanted to. And then I wrote this story several years ago in the second person and it was like walking into a warm bakery. Everything just felt right and good and all the words came out without me even trying. With the Pirates, I actually had to rewrite the third-person parts several times because of my own clumsiness with the voice.
And I think that the second person is so much more immediate for the reader as well. It셲 a way of refusing to have any distance between the words and the person reading them. It셲 harder to stay separate or create some placeholder 쁈 character in your mind when the words on the page are insisting 쁸ou, you, you. So you can get much more involved with the story, sort of be there living it, instead of sitting there reading it.

The novel is the first to be published by Toronto-based publisher, The Workhorsery, which you also had a hand in developing. Tell us about being involved in that.

Basically, some friends had been talking about the state of Canadian literature and how they were sick of all the windswept prairies stuff. Which is not to say that those books are bad or anything, just that it seems to be all that셲 coming out of Canada. And they were sort of tossing about the idea of starting a press to publish the nutbar stuff. I mentioned my own struggle to find someone to publish my own nutbar novel; people were interested, but no one seemed willing to take a chance on a book about which way is up. And before I knew it, people were maxing out their credit cards to pay the printer and I was discussing the cover with a designer friend.

I think if you셱e the first author from a brand-new press, you can셳 help but get seriously involved in the whole venture. It셲 been pretty great because The Workhorsery셲 new and I셫 new so we셱e all figuring this out together. But the amount of control I셶e had over my work is really amazing. I셶e had a say at every step of the way, which is something I doubt I would be lucky enough to get from a more established or more traditional publisher.

The Workhorsery is taking its cue from Dave Egger셲 McSweeneys. What are your hopes and plans for The Workhorsery in the future?

I selfishly hope that they continue to work to get my book out there. Because I am a selfish person. But in non-selfish terms, I really would love to see them publish more authors like me who don셳 seem to fit neatly into any particular category, or into the world of CanLit in general. There셲 not too many venues for Canadian writers to publish something other than heartrending stories of beauty and loss, so I hope The Workhorsery will manage to show Canada and the world that there is more to CanLit than tears. And now I셪l get angry emails from Alice Munro fans.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Tania Campbell

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