Wendy Tokunaga is a role model for writers struggling to get into print. Her debut novel, “Midori by Moonlight,” is the fifth she has written, having survived “hundreds and hundreds” of rejections from agents over a 12-year period.
“Those previous novels were all part of the process of learning and improving my craft,” she says firmly. “I finished ‘Midori’ in 2005, the year I applied also to some local MFA in writing programs.”
Having never had the opportunity to go to graduate school earlier to get a master’s degree in fine arts, she figured this would be another step in continuing to take her writing seriously: “I thought also that maybe out of those five unpublished novels I could at least get an MFA!”
The following year proved very exciting. By the time she had started the MFA program at University of San Francisco in the fall, she had acquired an agent who got her a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Griffin, a New York publisher.
“Midori by Moonlight” came out in September 2007, to some excellent reviews, typical of which was: “A delightful fusion of East meeting West, as if Banana Yoshimoto and Meg Cabot got together to create a romantic comedy.”
Many books have been written about the Western “gaijin” experience in Japan. Few have focused on the Japanese “gaijin” experience abroad. Which is where Tokunaga scores, summing up “Midori by Moonlight” as a light comic cross-cultural novel.
“It tells the story of fresh-from-Japan Midori Saito, who finds herself lost in translation in San Francisco as she searches for her American dream and the perfect dessert while in a constant battle to improve her English.”
Poor Midori, you might think. She comes to the U.S. to marry her former English-teacher boyfriend, only to be ditched in favor of his old girlfriend. But does she run home to mother? No, driven by pride and a dream, brave Midori gets a job (in a club), identifies another foreign man to dream about, finds a place to stay (with a Japanese guy), and struggles to make her way in a baffling new world.
Tokunaga knows her material well, from both sides. She became an avid Japanophile after taking some Japanese courses at San Francisco State University when she first enrolled in college. She lived in Tokyo in the early 1980s for about a year. And has since visited Japan about 30 times, staying mainly in Kanto and Kansai.
“Even though I love Japan, I always felt comfortable in my own skin living in San Francisco, where I was born and raised. Yet my husband, Manabu, who was born and raised in Osaka, never felt like he fit in Japan.”
Manabu, she explains, left for college in the U.S. at age 18 and, although he expected to return home at some point, never did. He has lived in America ever since.
“He felt stifled by Japanese society, and I have always been fascinated at why someone would want to trade their native culture for a new one.”
Like the character of Shinji in the book, with whom Midori shares an apartment, Manabu had no desire to go hang out in San Francisco’s Japantown or watch local Japanese television. “He was in America to soak up its culture, yet when he met a woman — me — who was fascinated by Japan, there was an attraction.”
Tokunaga says that while she has several Japanese friends who have taken the same path, she has noticed that it seems to be a bit more unusual for Japanese people to leave home permanently than other foreigners.
Japan is not a Third World country where one is typically seeking better economic opportunities, and usually Japanese are not joining relatives already settled in the U.S. Often they come to America through company transfers (and they almost always return to Japan) or through marriage to a foreigner.
Those women who come here following their Japanese husbands via a job transfer are generally stuck because they know little English. They end up with only Japanese friends because of language barriers.
Also Tokunaga had been aware of the phenomenon of a number of Japanese women feeling at odds with their lives and opportunities in Japan and the trend of dating and marrying foreign men to escape, often rejecting their culture.
“As a Caucasian woman married to a Japanese man, I’ve noticed how in mixed Japanese relationships — and Asian in general — it’s much more common to see a European or American man with a Japanese woman than the other way around.
“Although most are love matches,” she continues, “sometimes these women expect the foreign men to rescue them, in a way, or are perhaps using them as a ticket out. Many do not relate to Japanese men and want nothing to do with them.”
Tokunaga says she decided to create her character, Midori Saito, based on some of these observations and experiences. Also she had been tutoring two Japanese women living in the Bay Area in English who had followed their husbands because of job transfers. They insisted on learning idiomatic expressions, which Tokunaga thought very difficult.
It wasn’t easy to explain these phrases to them, and it was their grapplings that inspired Midori’s struggles with “idiotmatic expressions” (as she calls them) as depicted in the book.
Tokunaga chose her heroine’s name because “Midori means green and I think my character is a bit naive and ‘green.’ ” And although it is not so long since she was conjured up, Tokunaga imagines that Midori is now happy in San Francisco, and that her business is successful.
“I hope she’s received her green card by now and has been able to visit her parents in Japan — or maybe they have come to visit her. Perhaps she’s now working at one of the top restaurants in the wine country as a pastry chef.”
Tokunaga and her husband — a software architect in the medical imaging industry (“and a surfer dude in his spare time”) live in Half Moon Bay, Calif., about 50 km south of San Francisco. She describes him as “very supportive and a huge help in the promotion of my book, especially with his expertise on the Internet.”
In their spare time, they play music together — jazz standards, cool pop, bossa nova and Japanese songs — as a duo called Star Jazzmin. “I do the vocals, he’s on electronic keyboards.” They’ve played for some of the promotional events for Midori, especially Japanese songs that one might hear at the Miki Lounge, the sleazy karaoke bar that Midori works at in Japantown.
Last week Tokunaga handed in the manuscript of her second novel, for the simple reason that her agent got her a two-book deal, “a dream come true.” This tells of a fledgling singer who heads to Japan from the U.S. to search for a relative who could hold the key to the identity of the father she never knew.
“Ultimately it’s about how this heroine finds her own voice, which of course is what I am doing in my writing.”
Describing herself as a disciplined writer, she admits to much preferring the revision process to creating new material. She writes most days (though sometimes life and school get in the way), finding that she is so addicted now to the process that she sits way too long at the computer.
“I know it’s not good for my physical or mental health. I need to learn to take more breaks, get the heck out of the house. Maybe now is the time, while I’m waiting for this second book to be accepted and work out what I do next.”
Read more at blog.WendyTokunaga.com