Artist of the cross-cultural landscape

U.S. writer uses her observation skills to dissect cultural differences and human similarities


The ocean symbolizes both a microcosm of living things and the metaphoric dream of unlimited possibilities. Gazing toward the horizon, Holly Thompson, writer and teacher, seems to find these truths reflected in that hazy line.

Growing up on the North Shore of Massachusetts, Thompson explored tide pools, wondered at both the myriad strands of seaweed floating in the waves, and the lands on the other side of the sea, investigated the feelings and sounds, specimens and wave patterns with equal curiosity.

Thompson melded these passions, studying biology for her undergraduate degree, and fiction writing in graduate school. “Biology taught me valuable observational skills and the need for accuracy and precision.”

After teaching biology for two years in Massachusetts, Thompson and her husband moved to Japan, where her husband had lived before as an exchange student.

Thompson soon confirmed that biology and writing complemented each other in more ways than one, as both fields study and observe life itself. Living in Japan as a young couple, both teaching English in high schools, Thompson began to record her observations on cultural differences and human similarities, in Japan and in travels through Asia.

But it was the witnessing of an almost tragic accident with water that planted the seed for her first novel, “Ash.”

Thompson and her husband were in Suzhou, China: “A child had fallen into a pond, and from the opposite side, we watched as her playmate stood frozen on the shore while the child sank, struggled up for air, and sank beneath the water. Fortunately, a man ran into the water, grabbed the girl, and she survived. But the scene stayed with me, and I knew there was a story there.”

While working on her master’s back in New York, Thompson took that story, with the encouragement of her thesis supervisor, E.L. Doctorow, and created “Ash.”

“I realized the story I wanted to tell was that of the girl on the bank, frozen, unable to help her friend.” Thompson admits much of her writing starts “as a seed from some emotionally charged incident,” and she utilizes her experiences outside her native land to shape her fiction.

“Living biculturally, raising bilingual children . . . these have had enormous impact on my thinking, my lifestyle, my writing. I write about matters in order to understand them better. And I write to give voice to characters in cross-cultural situations.”

Thompson knows about these types of situations, having lived in Japan now for more than 14 years in total. As a teacher and parent, the cross-cultural differences surprised her at the beginning.

“When I first moved here, I was puzzled; I seemed to be using the right vocabulary to talk about education matters — learn, study, teach, instruct, homework — but the words meant completely different things to me than they did to Japanese teachers and parents. Gradually, I cast off my assumptions and began to gain an understanding of the systems and expectations here.”

Thompson feels lucky to teach advanced English courses at Yokohama City University: creative writing, academic writing and literature courses, among others.

“Although creative writing is one of the most popular courses in North America, the subject is rarely taught in Japanese universities, so I’m really pleased that I can give students in Japan the experiences of crafting stories and poems. For many students, it’s their first time in any language. I believe that students appreciate literature more if they have the opportunity to try writing it themselves.”

After publishing “Ash” in 2001, Thompson expanded her craft to include children and young adult stories. In 2004 she became the regional adviser for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Tokyo, which involves planning events, editing the newspaper and overseeing all activities.

Her own children’s book, “The Wakame Gatherers,” was published in 2007 in English and details the connections two grandmothers from opposite sides of the world can experience, through their shared love for their grandchild, Nanami, an American-Japanese girl living in Japan.

Thompson’s book was featured by the organization Program for Teaching East Asia, which sponsored a 2008 TEA study tour, “Japan Through Children’s Literature.”

Fourteen teachers and three leaders spent summer 2008 exploring Japan through literature, and Thompson enjoyed several days showing the teachers the setting for “The Wakame Gatherers,” touring the Shonan coast.

Thompson hopes someday the book will be published in Japanese, to further spread this simple but profound message. “Japan is not as homogeneous as everyone likes to believe it is, so I hope that the country, and especially educators, will improve at embracing all of Japan’s residents.”

Thompson also finds time to record personal observations in raising children biculturally; her essay, “Two Versions of Immersion,” was published in the anthology “Call me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering.”

“Our daughter, being younger at the time of the move, 2 years old, had an easier time easing into Japanese preschool and later elementary. . . . She quite naturally became bilingual, and happily, her experiences in the local elementary school were quite positive.”

Their 7-year-old son, however, as the first non-Japanese child ever to attend that school, “suffered a great deal of bullying.” Thompson and her husband eventually decided on an international school for both their children, but concedes, “the overall experience of immersion wasn’t altogether negative for our son; he continued in native-level Japanese classes at the international school and later added Spanish and Arabic.”

Thompson, herself comfortable in Japanese and committed to learning more about Japanese culture while challenging herself as a writer, took the opportunity to research various projects by living on a mikan (mandarin orange) farm in rural Nishiura, a district in northwest Izu, Shuzuoka Prefecture.

“After my novel ‘Ash’ was published, I began drafting a novel that I wanted to set on a multigenerational mikan farm. My American main character had married into a mikan farm family. During this apprenticeship, I commuted a couple days a week from Kamakura to Nishiura to work in the mikan groves.”

This experience gave Thompson deeper familiarity with rural life in Japan, and Nishiura also became the setting for a young adult verse novel as well as a picture book. Thompson is currently revising these works, and hopes they will soon be ready for publication.

Thompson tries to start each day with a run, and memories of the ocean stretch before her as she wrestles with some challenge from a current project, or creates a lesson in her head for the classroom, later that day.

Thompson appreciates the chance to live across the sea, “being able to mine a culture that not so many English-language writers are writing about, being outside the culture I was raised in, and gaining different perspectives, meeting so many fascinating people in Japan, who’ve been incredibly supportive and giving of their time.”

A wave crashes behind, as Thompson smiles for a picture. The horizon, in all its unfolding opportunity, winks in the background.