Christopher Barzak had a really excellent debut novel published this year, One for Sorrow, of which the Washington Post called “beautiful, honest and heartbreaking,” which are not bad things for the Washington Post to call your first book. And in Locus, Gary Wolfe declared it “one of the strongest first novels I’ve seen this year,” which is a damn fine compliment, too. For today’s Month of Writers entry, Chris talks about finding himself, not in Ohio, where he lived before and lives now, but halfway across the planet.
CHRISTOPHER BARZAK: Finding myself in Japan
Something that happened while I lived in Japan was the event most people refer to as “finding” yourself. A lot of theories that discuss what the idea or essence of a “self” is exist. Some proclaim the self is something you are born with, that it is an innate part of the human species, which “grows” as we grow and age. Others proclaim it to be something more like a store mannequin, which can be dressed up in various identity wardrobes. I think perhaps both of these poles can tell us something about what the self is and how it operates, but for a long time, I must admit I was suspicious of the natural, innate-oriented pole of this spectrum. Growing up with media icons like Madonna and David Bowie, perhaps, will aid in this sort of thinking.
It was in Japan that I learned a few things about myself that are very solid, and perhaps are from the nurture side of the “nature/nurture” debate. I learned that I am someone who very much likes being part of a group. Thinking about this now, I realize how far away I’d wandered from the sort of childhood I was given by my family, which was very group oriented. I grew up on a small farm in Ohio. My parents’ home was built next to my grandparents’ home. One uncle and aunt lived two miles down the road, next to my aunt’s parents. My oldest brother built a home next to my parents some years ago, for his family, and my middle brother lives a mile down the road from them as well. This is all very clannish, and looking back I can see how much of a clan we were. And how different an experience of being in the world this is for so many other Americans, who live in nuclear families with perhaps mom and dad and siblings, but whose grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins are far away, both far away in the world from them, and also farther away in their consciousnesses, unless they’ve had the chance somehow to live closely with these other people at some point in their lives.
After I left home for college, not too far away but far enough, I continued to keep on leaving places. After college I spent several years in California and Michigan with only a short stop back home in Ohio in between, then came back to Youngstown for graduate school, and after that I moved to Japan. During the periods in my life that I’ve spent away from my family and the little town where they live, I’ve met so many people who, upon hearing about how I grew up raising beef cows in 4-H and graduating in a senior class of fifty, couldn’t seem to believe people still lived that way. As if it were somehow archaic. I suppose it does hearken back to a mode of family structure that originated further in our past than the individualist, leave-home-and-make-something-of-yourself narrative that encourages so much of what seems to me to be a recipe for national isolation and loneliness. But when I went to Japan, after living more in that narrative that encourages individualism in the years after graduating high school, I very quickly found myself emotional and weepy in a happy way at times without knowing why, until I realized it was because I had found myself being a part of a group, a community, again.
If Japan knows one thing, it’s how to live in a group. Most of the families I met there encouraged their children to stay at home, and for married couples to move into the family house as well. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t meet families that didn’t live like this, of course. But a communal-mindedness felt more present to me there. The people whose children I taught in my school district spoke to me as if I were a part of the community, not just the foreign teacher; I think they responded to me in this way because I had responded to that aspect of their way of life as well, because I’d taken my job seriously and worried over my students as if they were my own children. I’d get frustrated with some of my students and enjoy others’ victories over subjects they’d been struggling with. I’d feel horrible if I thought I’d somehow failed any of them as a teacher. But because of the way I felt a part of the community I lived in when I was in Japan, I learned that I really was a person who feels happiest when I’m doing something for the greater good of whatever group I belong to.
I’ve always been an advocate for the city of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that had its heart broken in the late 70s and early 80s by the loss of its only economic platform–steel–and then spent the past thirty years shrinking in population and becoming a miniature version of Detroit, but since I came home and began teaching at Youngstown State University again this fall, I’ve continued to make that community-minded part of myself even more manifest in how I live here. It’s frustrating at times because one thing the people of this area have lost over the decades since industry abandoned it for cheaper labor in other countries is the ability to come together as a group in order to make the community better. When trust is broken in this particular way, a community breaks down and distrusts one another. It’s a typical psychology for any town that has suffered a death blow to its economy, really. We have individuals here that spend every breath on our community, but individuals alone cannot accomplish what groups can, and this is one of the main reasons why, I believe, Youngstown has taken so long to begin the revitalization process. Finally, over a period of several decades, and in a sudden burst of finding each other in unlikely places like the internet, there is a younger generation here who have returned home to this city, or who are advocating for it from afar however they can, or who have never left but never felt they had a social network of other like-minded individuals here with whom they felt they could accomplish change, that is coming together for the greater good of the group now, and it feels good being a part of that.
This is what I call true politics, in the essence of that word’s meaning of community matters. The political is nothing more than the spaces and structures in which we all live collectively, and must define how to best live in together. I think the majority of the spaces in which we live is with others, which means perhaps the narrative of the individual (the particularly American/Western version of this) ought to be revised. In the new narrative of the modern individual, I think there needs to be more about how we, as individuals, must live among others, in a plurality, and learn how to be individuals while at the same time being part of a group. I think it’s something recent generations have had to figure out for themselves without the benefit of a story to help them make sense of that process. It took going to Japan to come full circle for me. Living there, for me, felt like going back home to a place I’d forgotten. The language was different, but the gestures of kindness and cooperation were the same.
(The original entry, with comments, is here)