Friday, January 6, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Katrina Toshiko Grigg-Saito

Katrina Toshiko Grigg-Saito (author of the Tomo story “I Hate Harajuku Girls”) grew up knowing Japan through her father’s stories. Her essays and travel adventures about Japan and places all over the world have been seen in two National Geographic anthologies, the Christian Science Monitor, NPR, CNN-go, The Japan Times, Skirt Magazine, Metropolis Magazine, and Tokyo Art Beat. Her first children’s book, Ma, The Search for Silence, is soon to be published by Little, Brown and Company. Visit her website:

Tell us about your background and your relationship with Japan.
Katrina Toshiko Grigg-Saito
Much like the main character in "I Hate Harajuku Girls," Japan came to me through my dad’s stories. It came to me through sticky natto and sanma for breakfast and elaborate preparations for an oshogastu (New Year's) more traditional than most modern Japanese. I loved Japan from afar and longed for Japan as a kid growing up in Boston, and much of my writing follows that theme. I went once when I was 6, and then didn’t go again until I was 17. Then, I lived there for 3 years as an adult, and that’s when I started writing about Japan.

Like Sady I’m Japanese and American, my mom is from the South and met my dad while crossing the street in front of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. They come from totally different backgrounds—she grew up poor, he grew up rich; she grew up Southern-Baptist, he grew up Shinto-Buddhist; she grew up in North Carolina and he grew up in Tokyo. Japanese city mouse meets Southern belle country mouse.

What was the inspiration for this story? Did your father used to tell you stories like those the father tells in this story?
I started with this voice and the line, “I hate Harajuku girls.” The voice was funny and ranting and I liked her, though I was afraid for a while that other people wouldn’t like her. That’s where it started, with that one line. I kept trying to start the story in a different way, resisted starting in such an abrasive way, but every time I reorganized the story and tried to start it in different places, it just didn’t feel right. I did about 10 rewrites before the final for Tomo.

And now, I’m working on a YA novel that’s based on the story! That was the major revelation I came to in working on "I Hate Harajuku Girls." I was on the phone with a friend telling her about the story and all of the elements, and how hard it was to condense this thing, to write a proper short story and she said, “That sounds like a novel.” Click. I realized why I was stuck. I wasn’t writing as short story, I was writing a novel. So, after I finished the short story version I dug in to writing the novel, and am so excited about the new book. I got a lot of it done for this Write-a-Thon for 826 Boston, The BigFoot Research Institute, where I volunteer. Now Sady gets to be a real full character and she gets to really know Japan and know herself through Japan.

What’s your personal take on Harajuku? Do you have any favorite places in Tokyo?
I love-hate Harajuku. Like Sady I’m frustrated by women dressing up as dolls, and also love how far from the norm they are—it takes bravery to dress up so strangely, especially in Japan. I don't know any Harajuku girls, but I wish I did. In the novel the character of the Harajuku girl gets to be developed more, she gets a name and gets to speak for herself. 

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
I love Meiji Shrine. My father and I go together every time we go to Japan, since it’s the one thing in Tokyo that never changes. I love karaoke and eating everything—okonomiyaki, gyoza, yakitori, korokke, tonkatsu, ochazuke, unagi, yakiniku, soba, ramen, karaage, I love izakaya pubs with fantastic little dishes…the list goes on and on and on. So whereever there’s good food—that’s probably my favorite place to be in Japan. I lived by Gokokuji temple and spent lots of time there as well.

Has your father inspired other stories?
My Dad was the only Japanese person I knew growing up, and it wasn’t until I actually came to live in Japan that I realized how mythical his stories really are. I realized ways that he’s foreign even in Japan—really, he was like this alien from another planet growing up, and I was fascinated by how different he was. I think it helped that my mom loved him so much too, and was always encouraging him to tell us more stories. Plus, he’s this very charismatic guy—people love listening to him.

My forthcoming picture book with Little, Brown, Ma, The Sound of Silence, is based on a story from my Dad’s childhood. It’s about how he asks a famous musician what his favorite sound is, and the man answers, “my favorite sound is silence.” This sends little Yoshio (named after my dad) on a journey throughout Tokyo to find silence.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Write to me. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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