This summer I came across the book The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World by Tracy Slater. When my pre-ordered copy arrived in the mail, I shared a pic on social media. Some of you asked for a review once I was finished.
Well, I devoured the story in a couple of days, basically sitting my children in front of the TV so I could read. (#momwin) But I was swept into the love story, and I was drawn into Tracy's reflections on gender, place, language, and so much more that the book explores.
So that's my quick review - loved it! And I'm not the only one. The Good Shufu is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, and it's been ranking #1 on Amazon in Japanese Travel.
Then I got wild and crazy and contacted Tracy for an interview. She graciously agreed, so I'm delighted to share our conversation with you! And at the end of the post, I'm offering a giveaway of The Good Shufu just for fun. Enjoy!
Q: There were times throughout the book you mentioned how your two different languages were actually less of a communication barrier and actually served to strengthen your relationship in some ways. Could you share a little about that?
Tracy: I'm not surprised you're leading off with this question! It's actually the thing people seem to be both most interested in and surprised about in hearing about my relationship with Toru. In fact, it's one thing that caught me totally off guard, too. I never thought I'd marry a man with whom I don't share a fluent language, nor that I would come to appreciate this part of my relationship so much.
But being with Toru has taught me that when you are forced to keep communication to a simpler level, sometimes the bond becomes more pure, less complicated. Especially for someone like me, for whom, analyzing everything sometimes gets me into trouble. With my past boyfriends - all native speakers - when they didn't "get" me, I took it as some kind of profound sign of incompatibility, some kind of harbinger of doom.
But really, two people fail to "get" each other a lot, regardless of their language. And because Toru did't speak much English when I met him (and still isn't perfectly fluent), and I spoke no Japanese (and still don't speak much now), I found those gaps in understanding much less threatening, and I continue to do so most of the time.
Q: In your own decisions between living in Boston or in Japan, you mentioned that you also recognized you loved Toru in Japan. Personally, I find I see my husband much more "himself" when he's in his country. Could you share a little bit about the ways your relationship is also tied to place?
Tracy: Honestly, I think being in Japan has allowed us to have a more traditionally gendered relationship in a way that might be problematic for both of us if we lived in my country. In Japan, Toru takes care of me, and he needs to, because I'm so limited in what I can do alone. I'm not a woman who would have ever given myself permission, in my own country, to be so dependent on another, or to admit maybe how much I want to be taken care of in some ways.
It's as if Japan provided the perfect excuse. I feel mixed about this truth, but I also believe that context shapes so much of who we are in ways I never realized before I shifted my life overseas, so I think it's pretty human to have your personality change a bit depending on where you are, even though that seems surprising.
I guess I'm also ok at base with this because we lived together in the US for almost a year and still had a really strong bond there, so I have some assurance that Japan isn't necessarily what makes our relationship work and that we can deal with whatever might become more problematic in terms of gender roles and our own identities when we are in the U.S.
Also, this multicultural marriage and life has helped me learn how to, or at least that it's OK to, balance the many conflicting sides of myself, conflicting sides I think a lot of women can relate to: that you can be both strong and independent in some ways and still want to be taken care of, and still even like being able to depend on, another at the same time.
Q: I loved the exploration of gender norms and how you experienced them given your academic background in women's studies. This was a fascinating theme throughout the book. Could you give those who haven't yet read it a sneak preview of the ways you've incorporated more traditional gender roles into your lifestyle and how that's been for you?
Tracy: As I alluded to before, this is another paradox I never expected and that some people find surprising (as even I still do sometimes when I stop to think about it!). But the fact that my life as a “shufu” or housewife, or at least my life doing housewifely things, takes place in Japan, in a world so different from my own native one, provides a kind of barrier from what might otherwise be threatening to me, because it feels so contained by geographical and cultural distances from my native “home.”
Especially with Toru’s father, cooking dinner and serving him tea and bowing to him and cleaning up afterwards, as I used to do at least 3 nights a week when he was still alive, all felt like a role I was playing out of respect for someone very dear to me, but someone who nevertheless came from a very different place than the one that “made” me. I even feel this sometimes still with Toru (minus the bowing, of course, which is definitely where I draw the line in a marriage!). It’s a kind of compartmentalization that perhaps some might question. But it works.
And I think all marriages, all close relationships really, work in part because of a certain level of compartmentalization. We all, to some extent, try to bring the most harmonious parts of ourselves into our relationships in different ways and figure out how to express the other parts elsewhere or in other contexts.
I don't really think the compartmentalization is the problem; it's when you're not honest or open about it that I think it becomes problematic usually. But even if this isn’t the case, and it’s just me who has welcomed a certain level of compartmentalization into my own home and marriage, I’m ok with that. Because as I said, it works, and I'm grateful for that.
Q: What inspired you to write a memoir about your relationship?
Tracy: I don't think it's my specific relationship itself that inspired me, really, but what I learned from it that I think relates to so many people's lives and that I hope, in my telling of the story of my multicultural marriage, might help others or at least give them something to think about as they navigate the murky or new or confusing parts of their own lives or relationships.
I've said this elsewhere, but I'll say it again here, because it's what I most hope people can take away from the book, apart from just enjoying and hopefully getting swept up in the story. I hope people who are facing paths very different from the ones they ever planned on following, find some level of comfort or reassurance in the book, some hint that sometimes we can give up or swerve off of our strict plan and end up right where we are supposed to be.
Marrying a Japanese salaryman, moving to his country, giving up much of my life as a fiercely independent Boston academic, and becoming essentially an illiterate housewife in Japan—these were all pretty much diametrically opposed to what I’d always planned and even hoped for myself. But this is the path where I found the greatest love, security, and even sense of rootedness I’ve ever known.
As I write in the book, I learned that you can’t properly find yourself until you let yourself get lost in the first place. I spent much of my adult life, before Toru, doing everything I could not to get lost. And in the end, getting lost was what I needed most in order to find the life that fit me the best (or a life that fits me really well, at least). This is a lesson I'm still relying on, actually, as I navigate new motherhood i my late 40s in a foreign land! But more on that in the next book, I hope!
I'm so grateful to Tracy for her time and for sharing a peak behind the scenes of her writing and life! For a little added fun, I'm giving away a copy of The Good Shufu. (Update: Giveaway ended August 13, 2015.)
LIKE TO READ? Check out some of my other favorite multicultural books here.