Amelie Nothomb: From Tokyo to Manhattan

“Japan is perhaps the most important country of my life,” Amélie Nothomb said, sitting in a sidewalk café shortly before the opening ceremonies of the PEN World Voices Festival last week. She was born in Japan (her parents were Belgian diplomats) and lived there until she was five, but those early experiences stayed with her as the family moved to China, the United States, and on to several other nations: “I kept saying that I was Japanese, that one day I would go back to my country.” In 1989, at the age of twenty-one, she got her chance. “Two years later, I escaped after a professional catastrophe and a love disaster,” she continued; she wrote about her work experience in an autobiographical novel called Fear and Trembling published in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2007 that she published the book which was eventually translated into English as Tokyo Fiancée.

“I think it’s much more difficult to write about happiness than to write about any other subject,” Nothomb explained, “so I needed almost twenty years to be able to talk about it.” It took her far less time to digest the humiliation she endured at her job, where she’d eventually been assigned a position as a washroom attendant, than the good times she had with Rinri, a young man who originally hired her as a private French tutor. The scenes from their relationship in Tokyo Fiancée don’t always seem happy—his parents can be insufferably condescending; he invites all his friends to meet her, then vanishes into the kitchen and makes her fend for herself conversationally—and finally she realizes that he’s serious about wanting to marry her and she’s just as serious about not wanting to marry him. Still, she puts off telling him no because, as she writes, “to refuse would have meant breaking up, something I did not want.” She does enjoy his company, after all, and it’s only when the pressure to marry becomes too stifling that she flees to her sister’s house in Belgium.


4 May 2011 | interviews |

Civil War Book Club: Adam Goodheart’s 1861

When you get off the train in downtown Richmond, Virginia, you’re just a half-block from the site of that city’s former slave market; reading the plaque that explained this bit of local history, and looking across Main Street at the Slavery Reconciliation Statue, I was forcibly reminded of one of the main reasons I wanted to start the Civil War Book Club—While I may know quite a few things about the Civil War, there’s still much of it I don’t fully understand. The 150th anniversary, which began last week, is a good opportunity to expose myself to this history, and hopefully to share it with others.

I had come to Richmond to meet Adam Goodheart, the author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, a book that does a fantastic job of exploring how the months after the presidential election of 1860, and the early months of the war, were not a simple matter of “North against South,” but a personal crisis of conscience for every American citizen: Where did our loyalties lie? What did we hold most dear about our nation? Were we willing to fight for it? Adam and I came to Fountain Bookstore to talk about these volatile months for a small but appreciative audience. In the clip above, you’ll hear him read for about fifteen minutes from his account of the last moments in the Confederate assault on the troops stationed at Fort Sumter.


20 April 2011 | civil war 150, interviews |

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