Four Stories rises in Osaka’s ‘cultural desert’

American woman creates old-fashioned literary salon for lovers of the written word

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — For the Kansai region’s foreign residents, a night out in Osaka has not usually meant a literary experience. Unlike neighboring Kyoto, with its reputation as a mecca for foreign artists, writers and poets, one did not usually walk into an Osaka bar or restaurant expecting to hear quality short stories or to engage in thoughtful conversations about literature, Japanese or otherwise.

But thanks to Tracy Slater from Boston, Osaka’s image among Kansai’s jaded long-term Western residents as a literary desert (at least as far as English-language literature is concerned) is starting to change.

Slater is the force behind Four Stories, a monthly literary event that alternates between Boston and Osaka, and, occasionally, Tokyo. Four short-story writers, poets, essayists and translators read aloud from selected works in an informal setting, and receive encouragement and feedback from the audience.

The inspiration for Four Stories came from a similar storytelling event that Slater attended in New York, called The Moth. While there are formal literary evenings in Boston, where Slater lives part-time while working as a freelance writer and teaching at Boston University and Boston-area prisons, she was surprised to discover there was nothing similar to the New York event.

“At the time, there was no place in Boston where one could read short stories over food and drinks in an informal atmosphere. I decided to start something, and the first Four Stories event took place in Boston in September 2005,” she said.

Inspired by the enthusiastic response to the Boston event, Slater decided to create something similar in Osaka, where her Japanese husband works and where she lives when not in Boston.

The first Four Stories Japan took place in Osaka last July. Like the Boston event, it created a buzz among local foreign residents with a literary bent.

“The idea behind Four Stories was to create an old-fashioned literary salon, the kind that was common in Europe and the U.S. during the 19th century. People in Osaka, Tokyo and Boston have responded positively to Four Stories because it offers a sense of community,” Slater said.

At the Four Stories Japan event in Osaka last Sunday, writers and translators from near and far read works on the theme of “East and West: Tales from Two Hemispheres.”

They included Nara Prefecture-based translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, who has translated Ryotaro Shiba’s “The Last Shogun” and Kobo Abe’s “Beyond the Curve” into English; Kobe-based author and poet Jessica Goodfellow, whose work has appeared on America’s National Public Radio program “The Writer’s Almanac”; New York- and Tokyo-based Roland Kelts, author of the book “JapanAmerica” and a contributor to The Japan Times; and Seattle-based Lou Rowan, who is currently living in Tokyo and is the author of the short-story collection “Sweet Potatoes” and editor of the Seattle-based journal Golden Handcuffs Review.

“The Four Stories event is quite unique and great fun for me because I can get feedback from a wide variety of people,” Rowan said.

Each of the presenters chose a story related to the main theme. Goodfellow read one of her own works, a moving account of a foreign woman who seeks comfort and understanding from her Japanese husband after the death of their baby.

Rowan spun a tale about a brother with a Bob Dylan obsession, while Carpenter read passages from “The Hunter,” Asa Nonami’s 1996 Naoki Prize-winning novel about a veteran male cop and his young female partner, which Carpenter translated.

Kelts departed from the fiction genre, reading aloud from his just-released “JapanAmerica,” which takes a look at the Japanese “anime” animation phenomenon in the United States.

About 50 people turned out for the event, which took place at Portugalia, a Portuguese restaurant close to the U.S. Consulate General in Umeda. Each of the storytellers read for 15 minutes, and then, over port, answered questions related to the theme of their work, how they approach translation and how to capture, in English, the spirit of Japanese authors, what kind of things they learned while writing their work, and what motivates them as writers.

Many in attendance were budding writers or teachers of English and American literature at local universities. Others were editors, copywriters, freelance journalists or those simply interested in the written word and who love being in the company of others who share their passion.

Noted writers who have presented at past Four Stories events in Japan include Donald Richie, who read in Tokyo, while Susan Orlean and Michael Lowenthal have read in Boston. While many storytellers at past Osaka events live in the Kansai region, such is Four Stories’ reputation that others have traveled to Osaka at their own expense from other parts of Japan just to be a part of the evening. All read for free and admission to Four Stories events is also free.

“We’re not an organization with things like dues and committees. Nor is it simply a party. It’s about building a community of people interested in the written word, and sharing a thought-provoking experience that’s free,” Slater said.

“Four Stories has helped make Osaka the new Kyoto” said Matt Kaufman, an American who runs a monthly evening in Osaka of Japan-themed foreign films and was in attendance at Sunday’s event. By this, he means word is spreading among English speakers in Osaka with a literary bent that an intellectually stimulating evening out no longer automatically means hopping the train to Kyoto.

While Kyoto resident foreigners would no doubt challenge that statement, Slater and Four Stories have shown that Osaka’s image among some foreign literary critics as a cultural desert is no longer entirely accurate.