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Looking for a good book? "American Fuji" is it

February 18, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

"American Fuji" is a terrific book and I hope it gets the readership it deserves.

It's written by Sara Backer, a graduate of the UC Davis creative writing and literature programs. She now lives in San Luis Obispo.

I talked to Backer last week and when I told her I was certain she'd written a best-seller, she burst out laughing in surprise and modesty.

"I worked really hard on it," she confessed.

And it shows. The plot is satisfyingly complex but she makes it easy to follow, the writing is lovely, its several themes are original, and it takes place in modern Japan, a fascinating if not entirely loveable place.

"American Fuji" is part mystery, part love story, part travelogue. What else could you possibly want?

Backer tells the story of an American woman, Gaby, who teaches English at a Japanese university until she is fired with no cause given. Then she takes a job selling, of all things, expensive fantasy funeral packages. The guests party down at theme parks as the dearly departed's ashes are flown to the moon.

Gaby is content living in Japan for reasons that take awhile to emerge. But her carefully orchestrated life is interrupted with the arrival of Alex, an unhappy American who has come to Japan to investigate the death of his son, killed in a motorcycle accident.

It is slowly revealed that Gaby has a debilitating physical illness and Alex is something of an emotional cripple. She wants to know why she was fired from her university job and he wants to know the circumstances surrounding his son's death.

"They end up solving each other's mysteries," said Backer.

I was sorry when "American Fuji" ended.

So I was surprised when Backer said the Library Journal panned "American Fuji," calling it "nothing more than a conventional romance and sadly derivative."

"I can't think of what book it might derive from," said Backer. "I don't know of any other work of fiction featuring an American woman in Japan."

Backer lived in Davis from 1987 to 1990. When she could no longer put off leaving UC Davis, she asked Gary Snyder if he could help her get a job in Japan. Amazingly, he could and did.

She became the first American and the first woman to serve as a visiting professor at Japan's Shizouka University, located halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto. For the next three years she lived under a microscope, becoming the representative for all white people, all women and all Americans.

"Shizouka was a conservative city not used to many foreigners," she said. "I was frequently the only white person on the bus, for instance."

She knows her book will be somewhat controversial as it challenges the cherry blossoms and geisha myths that Americans like to cling to.

"This is a book about a society that is not entirely pleasant," she says. "I didn't compromise on the content. I'm going against the grain by introducing a contemporary point of view and a woman's point of view."

That's exactly what makes the book. Backer's descriptions of the heat, the expenses of living, and the way Japanese people find it absolutely impossible to give a direct answer can only stem from personal experience.

Backer said her early days in Japan were marked by all kinds of social gaffes for which she was never forgiven. For instance, when she was introduced to people at the university, she would make a little joke in an effort to help everyone relax and put everyone on an equal basis. Wrong. At the university, she learned, the hierarchy is to be preserved. No one wants to risk being put on an equal footing. So the American effort to be congenial and funny totally backfires.

And, just when you least expect it, Backer's book takes a hilarious turn. Imagine a sympathetic Japanese gangster, dressed in a pumpkin-colored suit, whose English is limited exclusively to lyrics from Beatles songs, delivered in perfect British English. When you think of it, what more do you need to know than: "Let it be" or "I get by with a little help from my friends" or "We can work it out."

The Dutch and French rights to "American Fuji" have been sold. Backer is hopeful that the Japanese rights will sell, the book will be translated, and she will be able to go on a book tour in Japan.

"I would love that," she said.

"Japanese are always curious about how outsiders observe them," she added. "I think they'll be interested. I think they'll consider this book fresh and daring."

I hope Backer will come to Davis to give a reading and tell us more about her experiences in Japan. She'll have a rapt audience.

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