The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Michael Pronko

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Michael Pronko


Summary: Rebecca enjoyed Michael Pronko's whimsical, poetic essays on Tokyo life and she had quite a few questions for the author when he popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 30 March 2015
Interviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Rebecca enjoyed Michael Pronko's whimsical, poetic essays on Tokyo life and she had quite a few questions for the author when he popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Michael Pronko: Actually, I have seen my readers a few times on Tokyo trains, perusing a copy of Newsweek Japan. I wanted to ask them what they thought, if they bought it every week, but it was always too crowded to get over to them. Several office workers at my university read my columns, they tell me. A couple of young wait staff at a yakitori place came over to me one time to say they read my column. A couple of jazz musicians. Other than being interesting people, I’m not sure if I can really see them as a whole. As for people outside Japan, I see them as being curious about Tokyo, or they traveled here or want to. Overall, I see people interested in the world and in thinking about the world, cities especially.

  • BB: You first travelled to Japan on a whim. What factors have contributed to you staying for more than 15 years?

MP: I stayed for the same reasons as anyone anywhere, I suppose, friends, marriage, job, inertia, good liquor store close by. Tokyo is fascinating, so that’s reason enough. Some things in the city irritate me, of course, and keep me outside, but it’s always meaningful irritation and purposeful exclusion. Tokyo is a huge city, so there is endless variation, of people, places, situations, experiences. The constant shifting between strangeness and comfortableness, energy hit and pure drain, keeps things circulating inside me, and keeps me here.

  • BB: These essays originally appeared in Japanese. Has the translation process altered them, and if so, how?

MP: I wrote most of the works in English, since Newsweek Japan has great translators. The editors do their work and then I read that version to check connotations, idioms, nuances and think it through in Japanese. So, in a sense, the essays were already written as/in translation. For this collection, I rewrote some small parts in English, adding a glossary and a phrase here or there for context. Some things obvious to people in Tokyo need to be explained in English for the meanings to come through, especially when the essays are so short. It’s hard to make the same things funny in both languages, too, but overall, the essays are not so different in Japanese than in English.

  • BB: How is your writing received in Japan? Do people tend to appreciate your insights?

MP: Japanese can be touchy about outsiders writing about their culture, because a lot of that writing in the past either glorified Japan’s good points or took cheap shots at obvious problems. I don’t rant or exalt, but search using words. Searching is almost always welcome. The NHK national television and radio station invites me to do shows regularly, and two other commercial stations have invited me on to their programs. Tokyoites, like all big city people, feel they know their own city best. So, for an outsider to write about what they supposedly know intimately is always a gamble. But, people usually tell me, or write me, I never thought about that before! I feel that’s a great compliment, and the point of the essays.

  • BB: You note that in Japanese 'written and oral become two ways of thinking and experiencing the world.' How is the spoken language different, and do you think you have captured something of it even in this written form?

MP: The separation between oral and informal on the one hand, and written and formal on the other, is probably greater in Japanese than in other languages and cultures, and is very hard to capture in English. When I give a speech at a former student’s wedding, as I sometimes do, I have to use extremely formal Japanese, including words and phrases I would ever use in everyday life and no Japanese would, either. So, I think of that formal Japanese as written. My students use forms of oral communication amongst themselves, even when it’s written in text messages, which adults can’t easily understand. So, oral and written in these essays are more ways of thinking about experiences and situations. In the essays I try to shift between the two modes, from vending machines to the tea ceremony, from a convenience store to a Japanese garden, to see how looking from one way to the other will pull out insights. I captured the way of thinking, but not all the nuance of spoken Japanese, which is really complex.

  • BB: Your work dwells on distinctions between what is strictly ordered and what is freeform – for example, schedules and rules versus haphazard art or improvised jazz. How do you see these opposite forces at work in your life, and in Tokyo at large?

MP: What I like most is the rapid, unexpected shift between those opposing forces. That’s what gives life here such an interesting tension. That’s also what creates comic, or at least ironic, realizations. For example, in Tokyo, trains run scrupulously on time, except when they don’t. And then, the entire city descends into total chaos, worse than if it was never ordered at all. The precise orderliness doesn’t allow for much flexibility. But people really need their loose, late, sloppy humanity, too. Or at least, I do. Strictly ordered parts of life here might be appealing as certain certainties, that hyper-control leads to a persistent need for letting go, for me and for Tokyoites, too.

  • BB: Do you consider the United States or Japan 'home'? Are there still things you appreciate about America when you go back?

MP: In the Talking Heads song, This Must Be the Place, there’s a line, Home is where I want to be/But I guess I’m already there. I have that surprised realization of being home pretty often in Tokyo, even when it feels least like home, for example, sitting in some old sake bar with nothing American anywhere. Early experience shapes you unconsciously in ways that are home in the sense of where you come from, but adult experience shapes you consciously, in ways that you feel you decided, so that’s home in the sense of where you have settled. Both are home in many ways, and neither is home completely. I miss many things about America, of course, but you have to give up things to get others. You can’t be physically living in two countries, but mentally, maybe you can. I teach American literature, film, art and music, so that keeps me connected, maybe even more than when I lived in the United States.

  • BB: What can readers expect from the second collection of your essays?

MP: In the first set of essays, I was trying to describe Tokyo, to find meaning in the descriptions. But in the second collection, I look more at interactions with people here, and what they reveal. I’m more upfront about the confusion of living here, not as forgiving about some things, but overall deeper in awe of this megalopolis.

  • BB: You have also written two Tokyo-set mysteries. How do the research and composition processes differ between writing novels and writing essays?

MP: Essays are hard because they are short, and novels are hard because they are long. Ideas for short essays can pop into my head during the day’s flow, but for a novel, you have to really force yourself away from the world to develop larger connections. For essays, I jot down topics when they hit me, like in the middle of a crowded train station, then I expand and expand, and then cut and cut. But, for novels, the expansion is often the trickiest part. At some level it’s the same process, though, molding your ideas into the strongest words to provoke the greatest illumination. It’s a difference of scale, but not of effort.

  • BB: What's next for Michael Pronko?

MP: A third essay collection on Tokyo, with essays published previously in Japanese, plus a few new ones. A completely new set of essays on Japanese “things.” A book comparing Zen and jazz. And, I’ve started my next novel.

  • BB: There's a lot for us to look forward to there, Michael. Thank you for chatting to us.

You can read more about Michael Pronko here.

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