As a novelist, poet and book reviewer, Iain Maloney knew he didn’t want to write that book.
A resident of Japan since 2005, for years family and friends had been asking him when he would write a memoir about life here. But Maloney had no interest in penning yet another expatriate perspective.
“There are so many books out there about foreigners coming to Japan,” says Maloney, 39. “There are a lot of good memoirs but many tread the same ground — chopsticks, pachinko, ‘Blade Runner’ allusions. I always thought, ‘I don’t really have much to add.'”
But when the website GaijinPot asked him to write a yearlong column, both the process and the positive reaction from readers made Maloney reconsider.
“I’m one of those writers who usually hates the actual writing,” he admits. “But doing these columns, I enjoyed sitting down and seeing the connections my mind discovered as I was telling the stories. It just seemed to work quite quickly and to resonate with a lot of people.”
The columns eventually evolved into Maloney’s book, “The Only Gaijin in the Village,” out this month from Polygon. It chronicles the first year of his life as a proud inakamono (country bumpkin) in rural Japan.
In 2016, Maloney and his wife, Minori, moved from a bustling commuter town in Aichi Prefecture to the countryside of Gifu Prefecture where they bought a house despite the misgivings of their real estate agent. Although the memoir roughly follows the first four seasons in their new locale, Maloney uses this framework to examine an often underappreciated question: What makes somewhere home?
Maloney poses one answer in the first few pages as he hilariously skids from earthquakes to killer bees to North Korean missile launches: “Home is where your heart stops,” he proclaims.
Juxtaposition of humor and insight proves to be the central pattern of the book. Each chapter is layered with shrewd observations about race, gender and generation, and cultural asides, all glued together with levity and distinctive social commentary.
In the “Summer” section, for example, the heat turns up with various minor turmoils: disputes over gardening and backyard barbecues, as well as misunderstandings over chainsaws and neighborhood associations. Maloney’s prose teems with cultural nods to everything from “The Good Life,” a 1975 British sitcom, to China Mieville’s 2009 sci-fi novel “The City & The City.” But it all leads toward his developing sense of belonging: “Home is half an acre in Gifu Prefecture. I have embraced exile. I am home.”
As Maloney explains, “Humor is one reason the original column was so popular, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to have my say about being an immigrant and the positive aspects I see of immigration.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy back in Britain, especially in saying, well, we’re allowed to go wherever we want, but people shouldn’t be allowed to come here. People like me — male, white, straight — do have such a privilege, in Japan and elsewhere, and we need to recognize that. The way immigration is talked about, particularly in the media, is full of double standards. The experiences of all immigrants — women, people of color, LGBTQ communities — need to be talked about more.”
“The Only Gaijin in the Village” is Maloney’s first major foray into nonfiction writing; each of his first three novels were narrated by a fictional protagonist. As someone used to writing fiction, he struggled to find his voice at first.
“Of course, the most obvious challenge when dealing with real people as characters is that you can’t just make things up,” Maloney says.
Occasionally, his creativity would unhelpfully launch into gear: “Sometimes, when relating an event that happened, the part of my brain that creates fiction would kick in, and I would think, ‘Oh, this can happen or this could happen,’ and I would have to stop myself and really focus on what did happen. It ended up being a different type of challenge, as I was forced to find ways to make reality more interesting, while sticking to the facts.
“Reality is often very boring. You must shape the raw anecdote into something worth telling.”
The finished memoir is a story that is indeed worth telling, a thought-provoking, lively examination of one immigrant’s quest to create a new home outside his country of birth. As Maloney observes near the end of the book, “The hammering of the woodpecker, the splash of the fish catching insects, the gerogero of the frogs at night, they are what makes somewhere home. I’d traveled to the other side of the globe, as far east as I could go and had tried to build a little piece of Aberdeenshire in Japan’s green and pleasant land.”
“The Only Gaijin in the Village” will be published on March 5. Iain Maloney contributes to The Japan Times on a freelance basis.