Friday, April 07, 2006

Mending Japanese Bridges

(Glimpses from behind the lines organising the first KL Litfest, taken from my notebook. This was written August 3, 2004)

The Japanese were hurt.

In the Litfest programme booklet there was a biodata for every invited writer – but not a word about the writer they were sponsoring – Kyoji Kobayashi. (I refused to be involved with the bookletbecause I knew I had to say no to some of the things he was piling on me).

Now I really felt bad for the Japan Foundation guys who had taken so much trouble to find a writer for us and fly him out, and who were also sponsoring a series of films based on Japanese novels. As soon as they realised what had happened, they hurried back to their office and printed off their own fliers with the biodata on.

Raman did apologise verbally for the in his opening speech, but the Japan Foundation guy – Shimadasan, asked for a letter of apology. No problem I told him and relayed the request to raman, but was too busy to follow up on it until after the Litfest had ended.

On the Monday morning, I suddenly remembered about the apology letter. I called up Raman who had decided to stay home for the day rather than open up the shop. He didn’t want to be reminded about the letter. I’ve apologised already, he said impatiently. But what about the letter we promised? Small matter, he said. Not small I argued. I said that I would write it – all he had to do was print it out on headed notepaper and sign it, and then I would come by and pick it up from him and deliver it personally to the Japan Foundation. He said I’m not going to open the shop just for that, so forget about it.

I read up a little about apologies in Japanese culture on the internet – when you apologise it means that you are accepting responsibility for something – and when you apologise in Japanese, the words for apology are exactly the same as those for thanks. So I constructed a letter which I made a letter both of apology and thanks for his sessions especially the haiku workshop from which I learned a lot. I constructed a letter head from the logo on the web page and signed the letter myself.

Before I could drive over to the city centre, Lorna Tee contacted me. She also was feeling very bad about this matter and was very indeed angry when I told her that Raman was refusing to write this letter himself. She had fixed up dinner with the Japan Foundation people as a move to mend bridges, and asked myself and Usha along. I wanted anyway to take the chance to say goodbye to new friends who would soon be leaving. I went back to the hotel and called up Paul Bailey’s room and asked him.

If he wanted to go for dinner and he seemed very pleased that someone had thought about him. (He had decided to stay on for a couple more days after the Litfest because it seemed ridiculous flying out all this way for just three days. He hadn’t spent the time sightseeing though, but had been shut in his room working on his novel.)

I was also so happy to see Ken Wiwa and say good bye to him before he left for the airport to catch his flight back to Canada.

We all met up at the excellent Indonesian restaurant at the top of the Suria shopping centre. Dinner at first a little formal but as the wine bottles emptied, the Japanese opened up a bit more and the writer, who’d always spoken through an interpreter (a beautiful and very gracious lady who has lived in Malaysia for many years) began to launch out into quite passable English. And once we began to talk about Japanese literature (about which Paul was very knowledgeable and I knew next to nothing), the conversation fairly flowed with the others contributing to a booklist of what I had to read. (A list which did not include Haruki Murukami strangely enough, whose books are not really regarded as serious literature in Japan. When I asked how he was regarded in Japan, there was an eloquent silence …)

By the end of the evening the fences were well and truly down. I had a good long chat to Shimadasan who invited me to have coffee with him when I called in to take a look at the Foundation’s library. And Kobayashi was both delightfully loquacious and flirtatious. When I left to take my train, I bowed very deeply to show him the respect he deserves (really getting into this cross-cultural thing!). And I felt very sad to kiss goodbye to Paul, who has become a friend ... Wonder if I will ever hear from him again?

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