American Holly Thompson teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University. Since she teaches in English, but her students are mostly Japanese, is language an issue? “It’s true my students bring into their English writing their thinking from a language completely different in structure from English, but I believe reading authentic stories and poems in English then striving to write their own helps non-native speakers connect to and claim the language in a personal way.”
Given the different educational approaches in the States, and in Asia – a focus on individuality and critical thinking versus exam results – is there any difference between teaching creative writing in Japan and in America? “Of course, anyone writing from within Asia, regardless of their language of writing, will be writing from within their environment in Asia. Climate and culture influence the stories we cultivate. Most of my students in Japan, unlike those in the U.S., have never written a short story in any language, and most have never tried writing poetry. My job is to expose them to possibilities, to share stories and poems that lead to prompts for their own ideas, to give them tools for creating stories and poems in English, and to nurture curious, responsive readers and writers. Most importantly, my aim is to open their minds and to inspire them to discover creativity with words.”
That’s all very well, but even in the West, it’s sometimes said that the way to break your parents’ hearts is to take an arts degree, and creative writing scarcely fits the Asian view of university as a stepping-stone to a stable job. So are students’ ambitions similar in the States and in Japan? “Few of my students in Japan aspire to be writers whereas many students in the U.S. do consider creative writing as something that might weave itself into their future. But times are changing . . .”
They are indeed, and one of the changes is that Asia is on the rise. Has that given Japanese students greater confidence to write in English about Japan? “Not necessarily. I have to convince many of my students that Japan-set stories, and Japanese characters, can be convincingly written in English. I have to push them to think of their own unique points of view and find stories from deep within their own bins of collected story seeds. I have to convince them that their Asian-based stories are worth telling to an English language readership around the world.”
That sounds frustrating. Is it? “No. I feel fortunate to have been able to teach creative writing in a Japanese university. I love to see the evolution of the students as they travel from bewildered beginners to imaginative and capable writers. At the end of the semester it’s a joy to hand out the student publications that result, and in the poetry classes to watch students listen with rapt attention as fellow students stand before them reading selected poems from their final portfolios—moving others with their own words.”
Holly Thompson is the author of two young adult novels in verse: The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House, forthcoming, May 2013) and Orchards (Delacorte/Random House), winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, as well as the novel Ash (Stone Bridge Press) and a picture book The Wakame Gatherers (Shen’s Books). She edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press).