Friday, February 17, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Thersa Matsuura

Thersa Matsuura (author of the Tomo story “The Zodiac Tree”) is a long-time resident of Shizuoka, Japan where she lives with her husband, son and various dogs, cats and newts. Her collection of dark, mythical short stories (A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories) was published by Counterpoint LLC. Visit her website: 

How did you end up living in Japan? 
I think one of the first loves of my life was Ultraman. We had this afternoon TV program that showed all the old—badly dubbed—Japanese sci-fi flicks and I just couldn't get enough. From there I became interested in martial arts, Buddhism, and the Eastern culture in general.
Thersa Matsuura

Later, during high school and university, I studied Chinese kung fu while doing Zen meditation at a local zendo. But it wasn't until I began studying both languages (Chinese and Japanese) that I quickly learned Japanese came much more easily to me. In another stroke of good luck I discovered my university had a sister university in Shizuoka, Japan, and every year the Japanese Ministry of Education offered two full-ride scholarships to study there for a year. I applied, wrote the papers, did the interviews, and was thrilled when I was chosen to go. That was back in 1990. I ended up extending my studies and staying for two years, returned to the States just long enough to graduate before heading once more back to Japan. I live in a smallish fishing town now. 

Your story involves some bullying of Izumi. Were there instances of bullying that you witnessed that inspired those scenes? 
Yes, I've witnessed bullying back in the States as well as here. But what the girls do to Izumi is actually inspired by a talk I had with a friend many years ago. She was telling me about her daughter being bullied at school. The way I remember bullies back home involved a lot of taunting, making up names, maybe picking fights. But my friend was explaining how this group of bullies would sneak into her daughter's desk and mess with her stuff. Once they got into her calligraphy set and broke all her brushes and poured ink into her things. To me this seemed so much more devious and cruel than what I was used to. The story really stuck with me and I knew one day I wanted to use it in a story. 
The story touches on insider/outsider issues in Japanese society. Can you discuss this theme? 
Japan is a very group-oriented society. If you belong to the group (sports, work, neighborhood) and you fulfill the unwritten rules that go along with that group it's golden, a very comforting and safe and powerful place to be. However, if for some reason you don't belong to the group, or if you do something to get ostracized from the group, it's quite shocking and can be incredibly lonely. In the story "The Zodiac Tree" Izumi has recently moved from another prefecture and is very much the outsider. She learns, though, that sometimes for an outsider rather than trying to be a part of the "in" group it's better to find another outsider.

"The Zodiac Tree" features zodiac animal carvings. Can you explain about the zodiac system?
Ceramic dragon for 2012, a dragon year

If you can imagine a twelve-year rotating cycle with each year represented by a different animal, you have the Chinese/Japanese zodiac. It's neat because the year—and every person born in that year—is said to have some of the qualities of the animal. Ox-year people are dependable, calm, hard working while monkey-year people are quick-witted, innovative, and clever. Much like the western zodiac it's a lot of fun to get together and see if your friends and family really are like their designated animal. 

Some of the story takes place in a tree. Did you spend time in trees as a kid? Do you still climb trees now? 
Yes! I was your typical tomboy. But I've found that in Japan because yards are quite small compared to back home—at least where I live—there aren't a lot of good climbing trees. Trees are more ornamental and dainty and trimmed within an inch of their lives. I'd do some serious damage if I scaled the dwarf maple I've got in my front yard. That said, places with more room, big parks, temples, and shrines tend to have larger trees. This is where the main characters in my story go to do their tree climbing. And for the record, since coming to Japan I've only climbed one tree at a temple and that was to get a better photo of a local festival and I was one of many that day. I think my tree climbing days are long gone. 

What was the inspiration for the character who is the son of the head abbot of a Buddhist temple? 
Like I said I'm very fond of Buddhism and studied quite a bit back in the States, but one of the perks about living in Japan is I actually get to visit temples and meditate or talk to the monks. I remember meeting a young monk in another prefecture once who turned out to be the eldest son of the head abbot at that temple. While not quite as much as it used to be, being the eldest son in Japan is a big deal. And it was this young man's duty to follow in his father's footsteps and become the head of the temple. However, he was still young and had other dreams he wanted to pursue. It was fascinating to talk with him about his problem. All these years later, I still I wonder which path he chose. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
I think it would be wonderful if all the young adults in the Tohoku region were able to find some creative outlet for their stories. Maybe through photo journals, keeping sketchbooks, making music, writing essays, anything at all. I believe they can create some amazing art just for themselves or for others to enjoy. The world would be very receptive, help in any way it could, and be deeply interested in what these brave teens had to say.

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