Freelance writer, essayist and blogger Liz Sheffield (Hokkaio-ken, Sapporo-shi, 1993-95) recently came across an article in Writer’s Digest about Malena Watrous, the author of If You Follow Me. The book’s description and the author’s biography made Liz think there was a JET connection. Indeed there was — here are Liz’s thoughts about the novel and her conversation with the author:
Malena Watrous (Ishikawa-ken, 1998-2000) joined the ranks JET alum authors with the recent release of her debut novel, If You Follow Me, published by Harper Collins in March 2010.
Although Watrous admits she didn’t want her novel to become a “Japan weirdest hits” type of book, she does an exceptional job of capturing details and drawing upon common expatriate experiences in Japan. Part of the joy in reading If You Follow Me was having a trip down memory lane. For example: ever receive a handwritten note from your Japanese supervisor admonishing something you did? Check. What about the nasal voice booming over the portable PA system each night as an old man tries to sell his jagaimo? Check. One too many kanpais at the bonnenkai? Check.
Along with these key details, Watrous also weaves together a story that is unique and which is about much more than a gaijin living in Japan. If You Follow Me is the tale of Marina, a young American who moves to Japan with her girlfriend in order to teach English and escape the painful reality of her father’s recent suicide. The cast of characters in the town of Shika includes a quirky co-teacher of English who sings a mean Elvis on karaoke, a silent neighbor boy who is just breaking out of hibernation and the British expat who is attempting to become the next great foreign talent after his stint teaching English in Shika. As is true for many who live abroad, Marina is changed by her experience in ways she never could have anticipated.
“I’d say that the experience made me have a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be different,” Watrous says of the impact the JET Program had on her own life. “It gave me a lasting sense of the value of creating relationships between people of different ages and backgrounds, and made me less afraid of ‘strangers’ of different kinds. It also gave me a greater sense of possibility.”
She notes that she witnessed similar realizations in her students as a result of her presence in their classroom.
“I loved seeing my students become less afraid of the big bad foreigner, which actually happened so quickly and naturally, especially with the elementary school kids, who were just magic to me. I loved those first grade boys with their fuzzy heads, who talked to me like I was another one of them.”
It’s no surprise that the book has received awards and recognition in the United States as well as generous support in Japan. Watrous’ heartfelt and often humorous novel allows readers from any country to experience a journey of sadness and grief that leads to an eventual greater sense of possibility.
So, what can readers expect next from this talented author?
“I’m working on a novel set at least partly in occupied Japan. I hadn’t thought that I’d write another book in Japan, at least not right away, but a character presented herself to me and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Plus–now I’ve got the perfect excuse to make another research trip.”
Go to Motherlogue to hear more about about Malena’s experience writing If You Follow Me.