Monday, February 6, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Kaitlin Stainbrook

Kaitlin Stainbrook (author of the Tomo story “Signs”) is a recent graduate of Beloit College where she received a BA in creative writing and currently edits the Beloit Fiction Journal. She spent a semester abroad at Kansai Gaikoku Daigaku during her junior year and is now working on her first novel. Visit her blog: 

Can you tell us about your connection to Japan? How did you end up studying in Japan?

Kaitlin Stainbrook (center) ready for Obon dancing
On a whim, I signed up for a beginning Japanese language class the first semester of my freshman year at Beloit College. After that semester was over, I found myself signing up for another Japanese class… then another. Japanese clicked for me in a way that four years of Spanish never did. And it wasn’t long before I knew I wanted to know more. More Japanese culture, more Japanese history, more Japanese language, more everything!

My college places a strong emphasis on study abroad (one of the main reasons I’d picked Beloit in the first place) and I’d heard nothing but great things about our exchange program with Kansai Gaidai, so studying abroad in Japan was an easy choice to make. And I’m so glad I did, because my semester in Japan was, in short, absolutely amazing, and I’m dying to go back. The only aspect of my study abroad experience I didn’t like was the 10 pounds (seriously) I gained from eating my host mom’s excellent cooking for four and a half months! 

Did you learn Japanese Sign Language (JSL)? What was the inspiration for the deaf character in the story?

I did! Well, learned in the loosest of definitions, because I was a pretty bad student. (I love learning new languages, but my memory is terrible. All the JSL used in “Signs” is fairly representative of what I’ve retained of JSL.) The Japanese university I studied at had a JSL circle, and it was through that that I learned my basic grasp of JSL. Or rather, Osaka-based JSL because like any other language, JSL has regional differences, which is one of the reasons I set “Signs” where I did. I wanted to make sure Genki’s JSL was the exact dialect I had learned.

As for the character of Genki himself, I don’t know if there was any one direct inspiration in particular behind his creation, but rather, a culmination of many different thoughts, experiences, and interests.

And as a writer who loves writing lots of dialogue exchanges, having a main character who doesn’t communicate orally and a protagonist who does set up a fun challenge for me: how could I still maintain that back-and-forth rhythm when my two main characters didn’t communicate the same way?

But it mostly comes down to the fact that I haven’t read very many stories featuring characters who are deaf (especially characters who are also Japanese!), so in combination with my past experience (the JSL circle) and research (my senior thesis on deafness in Japan), creating a main character who was deaf seemed like something that not only I could do, but that I should do. 

The story features purikura. Did you go to purikura booths when you lived in Japan?

Actually, I only went to a couple purikura booths during my time in Japan. (Maybe I subconsciously don’t consider myself to be very photogenic.) But I was always interested in the purikura albums I would see many girls and young women with, which was where a lot of characterization for Kana’s friend, Sango, came in. 

The final scene takes place at a famous shrine in Kyoto. Can you tell us about that shrine? Why did you choose that location?

Fushimi Inari Taisha is the main shrine for Inari, a very important Shinto kami (spirit or god) of fertility, agriculture, rice, and industry and one who’s depicted as being closely related to kitsune (foxes). Not exactly relevant, but Inari is also said to be a big fan of fried tofu, which is where inarizushi gets its name.

Where the torii gate trails divide at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kaitlin Stainbrook (right) at Fushimi Inari Shrine
For practical purposes, I chose Fushimi Inari because I knew it was close to where I imagined Genki and Kana to live (Hirakata-shi, the same city where I lived), but I also just thought it was a really beautiful, striking place. I’d been to a handful of shrines in Japan, but my visit to Fushimi Inari really stayed with me. I also went to Fushimi Inari near the end of my stay, so maybe that’s why I associate it with endings. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?

Even though I'm a writer, it’s hard for me to find the words to thoughtfully and helpfully comment on tragic events, like the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011. I didn’t personally lose anything or anyone in the earthquake or tsunami. I was an ocean away when it happened. What right do I have to say anything?

So, I can only ask that the teens in Tohoku keep talking and sharing and telling their stories. Not even necessarily about what happened last April, but about everything. About your friends, your family, your pets, what you hope for, what you’re afraid of, what you carry around in your pockets. Talk about that time you fell asleep on the train coming home and had to ride it for hours until it looped back to your stop. Talk about when your best friend dared you to eat a whole tray of takoyaki in two minutes flat or when your parents gave in and agreed to let you take in the stray cat that would become your best confidant. Talk about everything.

To borrow some words from one of my favorite authors, John Green, “Telling a story changes other people just the slightest little bit, just as living the story changes you. And that change ripples outward—ever smaller, but everlasting.”

You have a lot of stories to tell, and we’re ready to listen. I know I’d like to hear them.

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