Donald Richie Interview: Conversation with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing, Film, and Japan: An Expatriate's View: Conversation with Donald Richie, writer and film critic, 9/21/01 by Harry Kreisler

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Finding a Voice as an Expatriate Writer

It's really in Japan, writing about Japan as an expatriate, writing about film in Japan, that you found your voice as a writer.

Yes, I think so. Everybody finds his subject, whether he knows it or not. I had certainly never, when I first started writing, thought that I would find a country as my subject. I knew it probably wouldn't be Lima that I'd write about, but I had no idea that I'd go to the antipodes and discover my subject there. And, in fact, when I was living there and writing -- it isn't until recently that I have really come to the realization that that is my subject. You know, Henry James used to speak about what one's subject is. He realized that his subject was expatriation. And I do, too. There's a whole American school -- Edith Wharton, Hemingway to an extent, Ezra Pound, certainly, Eliot -- of people who are quite aware of their expatriation. And they use this in those creative kinds of ways. I don't compare myself to these people, but our ways of confronting our lives have some similarities.

You find satisfaction, you are attracted by this role of somebody who is an outsider but who is engaged in writing. Is that a fair statement?

Yes. I would enlarge a little bit. I have chosen a particular place where the foreigner, as a rule, is not welcome. Some people go to Japan wanting to become Japanese themselves. This is a great error, since this will never occur, since Japanese would never allow this. The Japanese are xenophobic to an extent. This, I have discovered, fits me very well. I became very used to this marginalized position in little Lima, and it has become a vice of some largeness, that I see myself as always ... I see alienation as a very positive, powerful, beautiful thing. It's like being on a mountain range and you look back where you came from and the foibles of where you came from can't reach you anymore. And then you look down to where you are regarding, and you can't go down there. You have the best seat in the house. You don't belong to anything. You're a social unit of one. I cannot think of anything more free or more enlarging than this. You don't belong to anybody, except yourself.

You go on to say that the act of comparison, which is presumably involved here also, is the act of creation. "I'm at home in Japan, precisely because I'm an alien body."

book cover

There you see, I said it again. It's my theme song.

That's right. But it is this having a benchmark, having something to compare that really is important.

Sure. You look here and you look there, a perfect view, and you're in a perfect position to compare and to describe this lack of coordination or this ... sometimes coordination. You can describe. I think being able to describe something is the highest human goal.

There's a lot of that in your writing.

I hope so.

How do you write? Is it hard work for you? Do you get up in the morning and ...?

It's a habit.

It's a habit.

Hemingway used to say, "The hardest thing to do is pick up a pencil." He's absolutely right. But he said the only hope is for him to have a habit, and he's absolutely right [on that], too. So I treat it like it is a bodily function. I get up about 6 in the morning and I have my shower, read the paper and have the coffee. And by 7:30 or 8, I'm in front of the computer, without a thought.

But I don't want it to be a drag, so I do allow myself a degree of freedom. I have four or five things I'm doing at once, and I'm allowed to pick which one I want to do -- what I feel like. If you involve your feelings in your writing, you're lost.

You mean if your feelings aren't there?

No. If they are there.

If they are there?

Look at Thomas Wolfe, he's unreadable.

Oh, I see, I see. So it's a question of not being overwhelmed by your feelings?

Not even to acknowledge it. I don't believe feelings. Feelings are only ideas whose time has not come yet. No, just throw away the feelings.

But in the end, the description leads to others feeling.

Oh, if it's any good, sure.


If it's any good, that's what it's supposed to do.

Okay. So you're really clinical in the act of doing?


But the impact on the reader is different.

Yes, it's supposed to be different. What you're doing is communicating the kind of feelings you know well that you have, but you're trying to communicate them in a very cool kind of way, through your writing, through a description which is so precise that the reader will have no recourse but to say, "Yes, that's the way it is."

It's interesting, because one of the pieces that I read in this beautiful new book that you have, The Donald Richie Reader, was your description of book covera stripper, actually. And it was just what you said, very analytical but really sort of left you with the feelings of that experience.

I hope so.

And its complexity ... "complexity" is not the word, but it captured both the sordidness but also something else, the dimension of the work involved by the participants.

If it did that, then it's successful.

You say somewhere, in learning about Japan, you learned about yourself. Your childhood positioned you for this. What did you mean by that? Or was that something that you may not have said, but someone wrote about you? And do you agree with that?

Oh, I agree about that, not only for myself but for everybody. Yes, I think your childhood does position you. Life is an elimination process. And, eventually you paint yourself in the corner. But in this process of elimination, a lot of things get eliminated when you are young. You do it yourself. I did it myself, certainly. I was unable to play football well. I was unable to eat tomatoes. I was unable to live in Lima. You make these decisions about yourself. I had myself well positioned, and then fate, or whatever circumstance gave me this particular country, which had a number of things in it which satisfied inchoate emotional needs. if I hadn't led an active emotional life in Japan, I probably wouldn't have stayed. I certainly don't want to go down in the annals as being a cold, analytical person. I'm not. I have a very active, inconvenient emotional life. And I found ways in which this country answered it, in a way in which my own country, in no form, did.

So this was, again, among the reasons why I stayed. They were not entirely intellectual, of course. People say, "When did you fall in love with Japan?" Well, I don't know that I ever did fall in love with Japan. But down there somewhere is it affected, admitted, a very emotional need, and satisfied it to the extent that I could live there.

Let's talk a little about Japan, but before we do that, what do you think young writers should understand about writing?

They should understand that it's not a question of inspiration. If they sit around waiting for this, it will never occur. If you're very lucky, the impulse may be strong enough that you can sit down one day and, "Oh look" -- you pull out a whole piece without it falling apart in your hands. But, usually it's like going to the toilet, you know, you have goblets. Or like giving birth -- if you're lucky, the child emerges; otherwise, you've got some mess that you have to patch together.

Most writers, myself included, don't get whole roasts out of the oven. What you get is something you can then put together. And one of the skills of the writer is to be able to do this. But the point is that your emotions are not involved directly. You don't wait to be inspired. You don't wait until you feel like it. If you wait until you feel like it, it will never occur. It's a discipline like any other discipline. I mean, why don't people treat it like a sport, or like bodybuilding or something? It is very much like bodybuilding, in that you have a regime, and you submit to it, and it seems dull, and you do the same thing over and over again. But something does come out. Muscle does grow, and you do get larger and fitter, and better. And it does happen. But I think, one should treat one's writing as a habit. Proust said that probably some of the most beautiful passages, ones that take our breath away, were written by a writer with his elbow on the table and his head in his hand, who was using the other one to fan away his yawns as he wrote. And this is probably quite true.

There must be a lot of courage involved in both the loneliness, on the one hand, and the chaos that you have to bring order to.

Well, bringing order to chaos -- of course, there's nothing more fun than that. That is really a good, cool thing to do. I love to do that. That's why I like to the arrange books and I like to do all sorts of things like that. So that's so much for courage.

I don't know about this. I think need has something to do with this. I need to validate myself. I keep journals, and I need them to validate my days, to make them having been worthwhile. I stopped my diaries in '99, and I really miss them because it's as though I'm living out of control. The days go by and I don't even remember what happened. My life had less importance or less self-importance to me, once I stopped the diaries. Boswell says exactly the same thing. He uses those very words. "He must validate the days, or else he feels that he is not alive."

What is that process of validation? Is it not just describing and recording, but also interpreting, analyzing, or what?

I would think all of those things. Boswell certainly thought so. Of course, he had a grand goal, which was Dr. Johnson. Most of us don't have anything that grand to move toward. But the very fact that you are making a record of your days signifies their worth, I suppose.

Next page: Japan: Retrospect

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