Jul/Aug 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Donna George Storey

Interview by Maryanne Stahl

The bathhouse was deserted, the water smooth and glassy. Hot spring baths in Japan usually follow a guiding fantasy, transporting the bather to a rocky grotto, a tropical garden, or terrace with the perfect view of Mount Fuji, even if the mountain itself is an image set in mosaic tile. This inn was more ambitious than most. The soaring cross-beamed ceiling, glowing pedestal lanterns, and swimming pool-sized cedar tub brought to mind the cathedral of a cult that worshipped both purity and indulgence.

I was more than eager to make my own offering on its altar.

Donna George Storey has taught English in Japan and Japanese at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from Stanford and has published over sixty literary and/or erotic stories and essays. Her first novel, Amorous Woman (Orion, 2007), is the story of an American woman's love affair with Japan, inspired by Ihara Saikaku's classic 17th century novel of the pleasure quarters.

Maryanne Stahl, author of the novels Forgive the Moon and The Opposite Shore, interviewed Donna about her novel, Japan, motherhood, feminism and art.


MAS     Donna, you are such a talented writer you can—and do—write anything. Why do you write erotica? What inspired you to write Amorous Woman?

DGS     When I first started writing seriously, eleven years ago now, my dream was to be accepted in salons everywhere as a brilliant artiste of impeccably literary pedigree. The problem was, every story I wanted to write seemed to focus on my characters' sexuality. Even the stories I've published in "respectable" literary magazines veer perilously close to the erotic. After a while, I just gave up chasing respectability and wrote stories about the topic that fascinates me most. They say "follow your passion" and when I did, I was no longer papering my walls with rejections, editors came to me asking for stories. I'd found my calling.

In the meantime, I've realized there is another important reason I write erotica. While mainstream fiction is well-supplied with talented writers, literary erotica is in its infancy as a genre. Our society is still very uncomfortable with writing that aims to stimulate the mind as well as the lower regions. Porn is okay as long as it's very, very badly written. We need more writers willing to acknowledge that the sexual urge is as worthy of a complex literary treatment as anger, jealousy, ambition or love in its PG-rated form. Honest female sexual expression in particular is still a growth area. So often I read in interviews with other writers that they have trouble writing sex scenes. I find them totally engaging and energizing, so clearly I'm a reasonable candidate to provide this important public service to humanity! Besides, it's very exciting to be part of the literary erotic community. I've met so many wonderfully humorous, generous writers and editors and no one raises an eyebrow about my subject matter—they just pour me another glass of Malbec.

Amorous Woman is another example of how passion has fueled my writing. My quick description of my novel is that it's about "an American woman's love affair with Japan." Surprise, surprise, it's also about my own love affair with Japanese food, Japanese culture and aesthetics, Japanese men and women. I hope to convey that complex, sometimes twisted love to my readers—you don't go through a Ph.D. program in Japanese literature without getting a little twisted along the way.

Now, as a first-time novelist, I was quite intimidated by the project, so I decided to make things easier on myself by stealing my plot from the famous 17th century Japanese novelist Ihara Saikaku. His masterpiece, The Life of an Amorous Woman—about a Japanese woman's sexual adventures all over Japan—provides a witty look at male-female relationships combined with a very sympathetic understanding of the limitations women faced in the society of the time. I thought it might be fun to translate that into modern idiom with an intercultural flavor. By the way, I'd written several chapters of the novel with "literary" restraint back in 2001, then got bored with the project. Once I allowed myself to embrace the eroticism of this love affair, I dashed off the novel in six months. My very amorous protagonist, Lydia, took on a life of her own. She wouldn't let me stop until she'd exhausted all possibilities for adventure.

MAS     Although Lydia is in some ways very bold and free, she seems to be at the mercy of her desire to be desired. Have you had any reactions from feminists in regard to this aspect of the book? And what is your own view of feminism vs. the erotic ideal?

DGS     Lydia is indeed bold and comfortable with her sexual desires—you may have noticed that in every amorous scene, Lydia is the one to make the first move and get things sizzling. And yet it's also true that she thrives on attention and male desire, a traditional female trap. When she doesn't have enough, she ends up doing things that are, to put it delicately, unwise. It's her tragic flaw, no doubt about that.

A lot of feminist friends have read the novel, and a few did mention that in the classic, Kate-Millet-style feminism of the 1970's, a good soldier in the cause would liberate herself from a dependence on male attention and approval completely. This model heroine most certainly would not define herself by her sexual power in relation to male oppressors. But this was all said in the abstract. It didn't seem to detract from their enjoyment of Lydia's story, which, to my pleasure and surprise, has gotten a very positive response from all kinds of readers. Now there is another school of feminism, the Andrea Dworkin-Catherine Mackinnon anti-porn school, that would go so far as to insist no true feminist should write a book that celebrates the rape that is all heterosexual sex.

I have a number of responses to these "charges." First of all, I prefer to broaden the definition of a problematic reliance on attention from the opposite sex to men and women alike. It's a human dilemma. Although popular culture might lionize them, I believe that the male version of Lydia, a "player" who collects female bed partners, is just as much at the mercy of his desire to be desired. Sometimes it's fun, a fantasy come true, but other times he's facing his own loneliness and emptiness as much as any party girl. We all want to be desired. Many men who patronize prostitutes, which you might think represents the ultimate expression of depersonalized sexuality, actually hope that they are seen as somehow special, above the crowd. They want to think the lady of the evening would pay them, if only she didn't have financial obligations to fulfill.

For me, feminism is about two things—choice and telling the truth about the female experience, independent of traditional definitions of proper female behavior. Choice means we can choose to be submissive in bed one day or every day, then take control the next or forever. We can remake an expression of sexuality that has been seen as catering to male fantasy, like posing nude, into something that serves our own needs. Amorous Woman is a woman's confession of her sexual experiences, her growing understanding of what she needs and what turns her on. Although it is fiction, I tried to make it as true a representation of what really goes on when the lights are off as I could—in contrast to the usual pornographic story where multiple orgasms are a given and sex brings no consequences.

No doubt about it, we've come a long way from the early 1970's when publishers told Nancy Friday that My Secret Garden was unpublishable because women didn't have sexual fantasies. However, it is still shocking to many that a woman with a Ph.D. from Stanford, a soccer mom in her forties, a self-described feminist, would write an "adult book." But I see it as a small, but earnest, effort to blast open the categories that confine all women. I plan to change the world one dirty story at a time.

MAS     So, you consider yourself a feminist.

DGS     Yes, indeed. However, I think 1970s feminism used male standards to measure women and adopted a male value system to the detriment of valuing the female experience. This might seem like a strange example, but as a daughter of 1970s feminism, I felt on some deep level that I would be more "liberated" if I pretended pregnancy and childbirth were no big deal at all. So I made it a point to jump out of bed and return to normal life immediately to show I wasn't a slave to female biology, when any human body, male or female, would need rest after the ordeal I'd been through. I was kinder to myself with my second child, but by then I had more respect for the demands of motherhood.

MAS     I was a 70's feminist, though never a strident one. In fact, as co-editor of my high school literary mag, I wrote the 'she' part of a 'he said/she said' argument with my male counterpart. (Our English teacher advisor thought it would be amusing.) I was a big time supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. And I went to see Betty Friedan debate Norman Mailer and thought she was brilliant, he a pig.

But when I got pregnant, my feminism was subsumed by my maternalism. I was always a humanist first, artist second, feminist maybe third or even tenth. It seemed important to me that women be treated equally, but not AS important as (and in fact perhaps derived from) other, deeper concerns. Feminism is, after all, essentially political, and I never put politics before love, philosophy/spirituality or art.

Thus, when you say you " prefer to broaden the definition of a problematic reliance on attention from the opposite sex to men and women alike. It's a human dilemma, " I couldn't agree more.

DGS     Humanism should always come first—maybe that's the most encouraging definition of  "post-feminism"? That reminds me that one of my intentions in writing Amorous Woman was to give a more nuanced view of my Japanese characters than is typical in many Western novels about Japan, that is, to humanize them, especially Japanese men. Not that stereotypes aren't based on some truth—even the common view of "ugly" Americans as loud bumblers with no sense of style—but I wanted to show that Japanese men could be more than just gangsters with missing fingers or salaryman drones. I'd met plenty of complex, kind and very sexy men during my own travels to the country. This is one area where I felt I was breaking new ground in Amorous Woman.

For example, one of Lydia's lovers—an older businessman who seems the perfect stereotype of captain of industry adding a blonde to his harem—reveals to her that his mother would give her rations to her children during and after the war, sacrificing for them in the most fundamental way. Because of this, one of his deepest fantasies is not licentiously sexual, rather he wants to go back in time and give his now-deceased mother as much of her favorite food, white rice and pickles, as she could eat. This moment was inspired by moving stories I heard from friends, by the way, and my hope is that readers will think differently about the forces that shaped Japan's economic miracle.

MAS     I was intrigued by the tension between Lydia's adventurousness and her desire to fulfill the role of a Japanese woman, which seemed to mean being submissive. Did you mean to suggest a struggle within her nature? Do you think such a struggle is an inherent part of what it means to be female?

DGS     When I went to Japan for the first time, I brought lots of luggage, including some preconceptions about the submissive Japanese woman who was just waiting for her Western sisters to liberate her from medieval bondage. It wasn't long before these ideas were profoundly challenged. True, most of my friends were housewives, they cooked and cleaned and took care of the children, and of course also found time for English conversation classes, which is how I met them! But they didn't feel oppressed. They took pride in their work and specifically told me so. "This is my responsibility and I'm happy to do it well." I noticed throughout Japanese society that many jobs we would consider lowly—the lady who cleans the handrail on the department store escalators with a white cloth, the old man who picks up trash in the subway, taxi drivers, receptionists, waiters—are performed with pride and dedication, rather than the surly I'd-rather-be-writing-my-screenplay attitude we get here. It got me thinking that maybe it wasn't the housewife role that was "bad," it was our society's devaluation of that work. Raising children and making a comfortable life is pretty important in the grand scheme of things. Not to mention the life of a salaryman is not exactly free and easy and full of independence either. Men may still rule, in Japan and here, but they don't seem all that happy and they certainly die younger than women.

With regard to my novel, it may indeed seem strange that a woman intrepid enough to travel to a foreign country alone would embrace Japanese ways. Lydia felt an affinity for Japan and she wanted to get closer to the heart of the culture. That meant, for better or worse, adopting its customs, which have a built-in humility for every member of the society. And yet, again, things are not quite as they seem. For example, when Lydia entertained her rich lover, she seemed to be anticipating and serving his needs, a docile servant to him. But she was really like the director of a play, one so skillful her craft was invisible. She was in control of the evening, very much like an artful geisha, who shapes the evening's entertainment beneath her apparently yielding courtesy and charm.

For Lydia, and for me, adopting Japanese female behavior was not really becoming submissive. It was an active challenge to master the language, both the verbal and bodily expression of onna-rashisa (womanliness). It was like acting out a dramatic role, with a strong anthropological element to it—meaning Japanese customs gave us an illuminating perspective on our native ones. But in the end, both of us were too Western to give up our rebellious streak, so we gave up and moved on.

I would also argue that submission is not always detrimental. Lydia did not have children and for me that was a huge learning experience about different ways to express love and power. Again I think men and women both have submissive and dominant sides. Orgasm, for example, calls on all of us to relinquish control and submit to something beyond us. (Orgasm does lead to the topic of children by the way, as much as we try to separate the two!) When you raise kids, you do have to give up some of your own desires to serve their needs, but a good father does this as well as a good mother. And both get surprising satisfaction from this "submission."

MAS     You wisely say, "When you raise kids, you do have to give up some of your own desires to serve their needs, but a good father does this as well as a good mother." Your children, both boys, are still young. Do they know you have written a book, and do they have any sense of what erotica might entail? Do you think your work will be something you discuss with them as they get older, and if so, how?

DGS       My boys do know I write stories for adults. So far, they are not in the least interested in knowing any more. I will not push anything, but I will answer future questions appropriately. When they're adults I'd welcome any discussion, but will respect their wishes if they'd prefer not to delve into that side of my life.

I know the standard expression of parental control about sexual information in our society is to suppress it or deny it. I have some of that in me, but with a twist. I want to protect them from porn because I think it gives a warped image of sexuality, not because I don't want them to know about sex or see other people doing it. At 9 and 13 both are still too young for this anyway, but they are bound to be exposed to it, and I'd like to have enough of an open dialogue about it that I can contribute my opinions and perspective rather than let the marketplace have all the power. Sort of like consumer education, you know?

How did you handle these things with your kids?

MAS     I completely agree about consumer education and have tried always to have an open dialogue with my kids; however, for the most part they stay away from the author side of my life. I think, in truth, they are/were slightly embarrassed by the fact that I write, especially about neurotic women.

My first novel, Forgive the Moon, has a graphic sex scene, which I might not have included had I known I would end up teaching high school. When my students say, "You wrote a book! Wow, can we read it?" I have to steer them off. Of course, I live in the Deep South. Berkeley is another world!

DGS     It is and I realize very well that living in Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement, gives me the freedom to write under my own name, for example. Even though my name sounds like a pseudonym...

But back to kids, I'm not surprised both mine and yours want to keep a distance from our writing. It's hard to accept one's mother as a person with a separate, complex, even shocking inner life. On the other hand, my kids are vaguely proud I'm a published writer. But mostly I'm just mom.

MAS     Just a mom who happens to be an artist. Which brings me to: A motif in the book is the idea of finding art through constraints. Does Lydia represent the artist?

DGS     All of my stories have a bit of the "meta" in them in terms of artistic creation. It may or may not come through, but it amuses me during those long hours at the computer.

I believe that limitations are crucial to shaping any kind of art, but again this point was brought home to me in Japan—which is the home of my heart in many ways. Haiku is probably the easiest example to illustrate this. A haiku is brutally brief. All you have is three lines of five, seven and five syllables to express yourself. You need to include an accepted word that evokes a particular season as well. If you choose to take the challenge and write something good—not that I personally have, but I've studied some classics—you have to get very creative. You must choose words with resonance, make good use of every possible connotation of a word as well as the pregnant silences between the lines. When I write I am always aware of the restrictions of the medium, but those very limitations call to my rebellious spirit—I vow to overcome them! Impossible, perhaps, but the fantasy fuels me on into finishing another story.

Lydia is very much an artist. She's a storyteller, she chooses to remake herself again and again in new roles as a foreigner in Japan. And in particular, she's an expert at shape-shifting to seduce very different lovers according to their weaknesses and their desires. One can be an artist in matters of the erotic and Lydia has definitely completed a few courses and advanced seminars in that area.

MAS     What's on the horizon? Can we expect to see more of Lydia in a future novel? Are you working on anything else?

DGS     I'm ready—any day now—to start writing my second novel, an edgy erotic romance that is a peek through the bedroom keyhole of American history in the 20th century. A thirty-something woman at a crossroads in her life meets a mysterious antique dealer who serves as an ideal playmate in the pursuit of her interest in our sexual past. Hmm, is this my blurb already? It's never too early to start thinking sound bites, although maybe I should lose a few adjectives? Anyway, the famous stripper Sally Rand will make an appearance, along with Bettie Page and camera clubs in the 1950s, John Updike's spouse-swapping suburbia and many more milestones in the saga of American erotic expression. I've been doing research for a while—all my life, really—and I've assembled a lot of provocative historical material. I've already gotten a few short stories out of it ("To Dance at the Fair" in Dirty Girls and "The Secret History of Lust" in Best Women's Erotica 2009), but now it's time to tackle the big project. It won't be a direct sequel, but it will involve a similar displacement: a trip to another time instead of another land. And in a way, any novel I write will be a sequel in that it will explore female desire in a way that builds upon what I learned in Amorous Woman. For writers, it's all material!


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