The Japanese word gaijin means “unwelcome foreigner.” It’s not profanity, but is sometimes a slur directed at non-Japanese people in Japan. My novel is called Gaijin…
Lucy is a budding journalist at Northwestern University and she’s obsessed with an exotic new student, Owen Ota, who becomes her lover and her sensei. When he disappears without explanation, she’s devastated and sets out to find him. On her three-month quest across Japan she finds only snippets of the elegant culture Owen had described. Instead she faces anti-U.S. protests, menacing street thugs and sexist treatment, and she winds up at the base of Mt. Fuji, in the terrifying Suicide Forest. Will she ever find Owen? Will she be driven back to the U.S.? Gaijin is a coming-of-age story about a woman who solves a heartbreaking mystery that alters the trajectory of her life.
Excerpted from Gaijin. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Z. Sleeper. All rights reserved. Published by Running Wild Press. https://sarahzsleeper.com
Mono No Aware
Awareness of Impermanence
Love, tea and flowers.
Are you aware of beauty that flames up and out
before it can root itself in the earth of truth?
Memory is truth, like brown dirt
smeared on a cherry-blossom pink canvas
—Inspired by antique Japanese porcelain gilded with makie
A person or a memory can sit inside you and you might have no choice about it. You don’t have to think about a person for him to be part of you. That’s what my best friend Rose told me years ago, in a moment when she saw me more clearly than I saw myself, a moment when I was restless and heartsick and about to board a plane to Japan.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “You’re going to hunt down Owen.”
I scoffed and lied, said I never thought of him.
Now years later, I know Rose was right, that you don’t get to decide what sticks and what doesn’t, who gets in and who gets blocked. You like to think you control your destiny and choose your path, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re propelled forward in the most unexpected way when something or someone takes hold of you and doesn’t let go.
That’s how it happened to me. My college love, Owen Ota, burrowed his way into me one tantalizing moment at a time, over the course of a sweltering Indian summer at Northwestern University. He etched himself into the side of my neck and he took root in the pit of my stomach. He changed the trajectory of my life, set me in motion, and then he disappeared, like a puff of smoke or a phantom I’d hallucinated. He gave no feasible explanation, stopped all communication, and fled back to Tokyo in the same startling way he’d arrived. He was gone but I couldn’t let go. I needed to find Owen, and to experience the Japan he described. I clung to the notion that my dreams of the person and the place would match the reality.
Nothing, not Rose, not the application of common sense, could have dissuaded me from leaving Chicago on that overheated afternoon at O’Hare, when car horns, screeching voices and jet engines drowned out our goodbyes. A jumble of images jostled around in my brain, crowding out logical thoughts. Delicate pink cherry blossoms on porcelain teacups, a thin ivory book of haiku, a red silk blouse on polished glass skin, steaming spicy cuttlefish served on a black lacquer tray; a dazzling collage of the things Owen had shown me.
I was naïve and grief hollowed out my heart; I was determined to solve the mystery of his disappearance, as if finding him could erase the pain I’d felt when he abandoned me. I didn’t put it together then, the folly of searching for someone who didn’t want to be found, moving to a country I didn’t understand. And so, I went, flying into the unknown with a single suitcase of clothes, clutching my computer and cell phone as if they were life preservers.
On the plane I read the latest news from Japan. There were stories about the failed economic policies of the prime minister, the scandal of the royal princess who wanted to marry a commoner, the looming threat of North Korean missiles. Of course, I’d studied Japan in college, but looking back on that day, I knew nothing of the true character of the country.
The flight took an eternity and I immersed myself in a book of Japanese art filled with photos of ancient pottery and porcelain, chipped and faded, but glowing and glorious at the same time. I was striving to be a poet back then, a person who dealt in beauty and art, not only a journalist who worked with black ink and cold data. The art book held a luminous photo of a powder blue teacup swirled with feathery gold patterns, captioned, “Makie.” I Googled and learned that it meant “sprinkled picture.” Makie was an art object sprinkled with gold or silver powder, so that it gleamed with warmth. Inspired, I wrote a little poem on the plane, which I still have today. I titled it “Mono No Aware,” Awareness of Impermanence, a Japanese term I would come to understand deeply over time.
On my way to my new life in Japan, memories of my moments with Owen colored my mind with a makie haze. The landing of the plane brought the crash of reality. I was confronted by a gritty, dangerous nation, so unlike the exotic islands he’d described to me. A place where coworkers gave me gifts wrapped in gold foil while darting disdainful glances at me. I found few of the glamorous, mannered people I’d expected, and instead found an angry schizophrenic culture, alluring and hostile by turns, that kept me constantly at bay and confounded. And as I ventured further, in my quest to discover Owen’s fate, I realized I might not be able to find him before Japan chased me out, like the gaijin I was, a foreigner, unwelcomed by my adopted country.
Thank you, Sarah Z. Sleeper and FSB Associates
About the author
Sarah Z. Sleeper is an ex-journalist with an MFA in creative writing. Gaijin is her first novel. Her short story, “A Few Innocuous Lines,” won an award from Writer’s Digest. Her non-fiction essay, “On Getting Vivian,” was published in The Shanghai Literary Review. Her poetry was published in A Year in Ink, San Diego Poetry Annual and Painters & Poets, and exhibited at the Bellarmine Museum. In the recent past she was an editor at New Rivers Press, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road. She completed her MFA at Fairfield University in 2012. Prior to that she had a twenty-five-year career as a business writer and technology reporter and won three journalism awards and a fellowship at the National Press Foundation.