In Donna George Storey's first novel, Amorous Woman, the reader is taken on an erotic journey into Japan, as seen through the eyes of a young American woman. Storey, who has a PhD in Japanese literature from Stanford, has adapted many of her own adventures into her novel, from back when she was a recent college graduate teaching English in Kyoto. Although readers who are (like me) unaccustomed to the conventions of erotica may be shocked by what they find there, Storey's novel opens into a world running parallel to the one the tourists see, and allows us to experience vicariously what we know is beyond our reach.
Storey has published over ninety stories and essays in
such places as Prairie Schooner (the story received
special mention in Pushcart Prize Stories 2004), Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, Best American Erotica 2006, and the past five
volumes of Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica and Best Women’s Erotica. Amorous Woman (Orion/Neon) is her first novel. She is also the author of Child of
Darkness: Yôko and Other Stories by Furui Yoshikichi, a translation with critical commentaries.
Maîtresse: Your novel is
based on the classic 17th century novel of the pleasure quarters, Ihara
Saikaku's The Life of an Amorous Woman. I haven't read it– and haven't
had time to get a copy delivered– so I'd like to know, How do you see
your novel in dialogue with that one? How did that book inspire you?
(Did you decide it needed to be updated, or was still relevant, etc.)
Why use the vantage point of a gaijin to tell the story?
Donna George Storey: I first read The Life of an Amorous
Woman in preparation for my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D in Japanese
literature. Although I’d guess the book isn’t really all that
viscerally arousing to a contemporary American reader (or a Japanese
one for that matter), I was immediately impressed by the protagonist,
Oharu, who enjoyed sex and had an adventurous spirit that led her to
experience nearly every role open to women of her time—unheard of
under the repressive Tokugawa regime. Even then I wondered what
it would be like to write the story of an American woman who experienced
every role open to a gaijin in Japan during the time I stayed
there in the 1980s and early 1990s. I was definitely drawn to
the idea of exploring that same panoramic view of gender roles and sexual
mores with a cross-cultural twist.
I let that idea simmer for a decade
or so, and when I was approached to write a novel for Orion’s Neon
series, I thought of my modern-day remake of Saikaku and wrote up a
proposal. I borrowed many aspects of the original, such as the
framing device of the protagonist telling her story to two young men
who want different things from her—in my case a young businessman
who is enchanted with Japan and another who is rather cynical.
I also used the episodic structure of the original. In each chapter,
my heroine, Lydia, throws herself into a new role whole-heartedly—wife,
mistress, hostess, prostitute–almost forgetting she was ever anything
else. Saikaku’s famous jealousy meeting and his live sex show
make an appearance in modern translation as well. And his theme
of worldly illusion and enlightenment was a touchstone for me.
At the end of both novels, Oharu and Lydia hallucinate a parade of lover’s
faces that leads to their final epiphanies.
There are plenty of differences in
my retelling, however. Oharu’s motivation tends to be general
restlessness and boredom with one lover. In short, she’s a nymphomaniac.
I tried to make Lydia a bit more psychologically complex with her Freudian
father complex and her search for a spiritual home. I identify
her as a “Kyoto gaijin,” the type who longs to read the Tale
of Genji in the original and is convinced she is a reincarnated
Japanese. I’ve moved beyond that phase, but yes, I was pretty
thrilled when I did manage to read a chapter of Genji in the
original! There is a lot of autobiography in my book as well.
M: How did you decide to start writing
DGS: When I first started writing seriously
about twelve years ago, I merely wanted to write good stories.
But whenever I sat down at my computer, my fiction seemed to take a
sexual turn, perhaps because I’ve always been fascinated by the mystery
of the erotic life. I resisted at first, and tried to be a good
girl, but I finally realized I had to follow my passion.
Only later did I formulate a philosophy
of sorts to support the natural leanings of my muse. Our society
still tends to separate the physical and intellectual, sex and scholarship.
My goal is to blend erotica’s focus on the characters’ sexuality,
and their enjoyment of it, with the literary aim of getting at the truth
of the complexity of human experience. One of the greatest compliments
I’ve heard from readers of Amorous Woman is that it provokes
thought as well as physical arousal, that is “it’s a real novel
and not just a stroke book.”
M: The recent "glitch"
over at Amazon resulted in your novel being de-ranked. Did you manage
to get in touch with them to find out why? what did they tell you? Do
you accept the explanation that it was a "glitch"? Do you
think America is still too much of a Puritanical society to enjoy erotic
literature? What about in Japan– all that manga [comic book] porn. Is that
a society that is more open to reading erotica?
DGS: Amorous Woman was one of the
earlier books to be affected. Suddenly, as of the morning of April
9, my novel no longer appeared on general searches and the next day
it was deranked. This is not good for sales because many customers
just assume the book isn’t available and don’t take the necessary
steps to track it down. I queried Amazon and initially got a clueless
reply suggesting I try to tag my book to make it more visible.
I challenged that answer and was told they’d passed on my request
to their technical staff. A few days later, 50,000 books with
tags on sexuality or gay/lesbian themes suffered the same fate.
On Monday, April 13, I got two replies from them, one was the standard
press release, the other a personal reply saying my book had been reinstated,
but with no further explanation.
I was certainly outraged along with
everyone else on Easter weekend with what looked like an ideological
attack on books that dealt with sexuality in a progressive way (for
example, books on “curing” homosexuality were never deranked).
Now I believe it could have been a glitch, either the work of an intentional
hacker or insider who mistakenly catalogued all such books as “adult.”
But it is a lesson to everyone about the arbitrary and dangerous nature
of any kind of censorship. Under the standards of the “glitch,”
Anais Nin was relegated to the back room as smut and Henry Miller stayed
right up front with the literature. James Baldwin was too dirty
for primetime, Hugh Hefner’s centerfolds were fine. It also
points out how vulnerable authors who dare to push conservation boundaries
of sexual expression still are. In my efforts to market my book,
I’ve faced a lot of prejudice from independent booksellers who refuse
to sell any erotica at all, although I would argue passionately that
my book has as much literary value, and a more nuanced view of sexuality,
than many placed cover out on their shelves. America is definitely
still quite Puritanical, although I suspect our capitalist system likes
it that way. You can use sex to titillate and ultimately sell
products more effectively if it is forbidden and repressed in the society
The Japanese government on the other
hand has traditionally seen sex as a way to channel rebellious energies
that otherwise might be expressed in far more dangerous political ways—thus
their support of licensed brothels, comfort women, and nowadays, ubiquitous
manga porn as a change of pace, or “kibun tenkan,” for
M: Lydia speaks Japanese very well,
and manages to penetrate (excuse the expression) Japanese society more
deeply than any of us visiting the country could ever hope to. How can
someone traveling to that country get past the surface and have a more "authentic" Japanese experience? Do you have any favorite places to
DGS: The “real Japan” has two faces:
an up-to-the-minute trendy side and a timeless traditional side.
To experience the latest fad, you’d have to ask your concierge or
Japanese friend what’s the coolest happening thing that week, because
it surely won’t be the same as last week.
However, the traditional side is easier
to track and I have a long list of recommendations from my stays in
Kyoto and Tokyo over the years. The best way for a traveler to
experience old Japan is to stay in a ryokan or minshuku
rather than a Western hotel. Laying out your bedding each night,
taking a Japanese bath and best of all waking up to a Japanese breakfast
of rice, miso soup, grilled fish and side dishes will get you in touch
with Japanese cultural on a visceral level. Yoshimizu Inn
in Ginza is a favorite place and their organic, healthy breakfasts are
A visit to a hot spring is an even
better route to the sensual side of Japan. Chojukan, a lovely
nineteenth-century inn at Hoshi Onsen in Gunma has made an appearance
in my novel and many of my stories. The traditional wooden bathhouse
is as awe-inspiring as a cathedral, and they allow mixed bathing, one
of the few places in Japan that still does.
Other suggestions would be an overnight
trip to Tsumago and Magome, two historic towns in the Nagano mountains.
Make sure to tour Tsumago at night by lantern light. On my last
trip to Kyoto, I loved the Sumiya Pleasure House, the last remaining
tea house in the former pleasure quarters of Shimabara. It really
is a trip back to the elegant side of the seventeenth century.
M: You don't have to answer this
question if you don't want to– I feel funny asking it on this blog,
as it's always been mostly PG-13!– but what's the biggest difference
between Japanese and American sexual mores?
DGS: I could write a book about this topic—and
I guess I did!—but in summary, I’d say the fundamental difference
is the locus of society’s control of the universal sexual urge.
In mostly Judeo-Christian America, God is always watching you, so any
sort of activity outside of procreative marital duty is always tinged
with delicious guilt. In Japan, anything goes in private as long
as you keep up the proper façade. Affairs are fine as long as
they don’t jeopardize the marriage. Commercial sex is fine,
as long as it stays within the bounds of the law, although it’s fascinating
to see how creative the sex industry can be in an effort to test legal
boundaries. As in many Japanese arts, restriction and restraint
really does inspire artistry.
M: What are you working on now?
DGS: I’m currently plotting out my second
novel, an “intellectual erotic mystery,” which is a peek through
the bedroom keyhole of American history in the 20th century.
The protagonist, a history professor, is fascinated by cultural expressions
of erotic desire including Sally Rand, the famous 1930s burlesque dancer,
Bettie Page and camera clubs in the 1950s, John Updike’s spouse-swapping
suburbia, and the secret (or not so secret) lives of our presidents.
As her research proceeds, she finds her own life in the bedroom becoming
more and more complex. I’ve been doing my own research on this project
for a while–all my life, really–and I’ve assembled a lot of provocative
material. Hopefully my passion will come through to my readers!
Illustration:Utagawa Kunisada II, 1823-1880