Interview: Susan Laura Sullivan

 In this issue we interview Japan-based Author and contributor to The Font, Susan Laura Sullivan. Her stories for The Font include Rubber Gloves, Four Days, and Ji. Her work has also  recently been published in Rat’s Ass Revue (Love and Ensuing Madness Edition), Otoliths, Truck (The World is Not Enough edition), Plumwood Mountain, and the Journal of Literature in Language Teaching. She is a co-founder of the Toyohashi Writers’ Group, and holds a Master of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong.

1) Why do you write, Susan?

I feel a number of writers and other artists come from families where verbal and emotional communication, such as expressing opinions, was difficult. Correspondingly, the form of meaningful communication they developed was through the arts – whether it be writing, music, fine arts or some other sort of expression. This expression, perhaps initially developed as a safe form of protecting, developing, testing, exploring and conveying identity, can sometimes transform into being the only form of communication an artist possesses, or at least the most prominent one.

Whereas once the art-form was used as a refuge and/or an outlet, it can also be used as a barrier if other forms of communication are not learnt. I was personally driven to tell stories and write when I was younger and enjoyed doing so. I didn’t have the awareness to call it communication then, however as written above, the lack of other outlets for communication covers in part why I write, or why I began to write and felt a strong sense of inevitability about doing so. Art as a substitution for denied outlets of communication is a pet theory of mine, although artists spring from all kinds of families. In my case though, I had no real awareness of my limited discourse skills until I realised I needed to learn more sustainable and interactive ways to connect with people as I grew older.

As I developed these skills, I wrote less. I was not as driven, though I still write. Therefore, I think one of the reasons I write is strongly influenced by psychological factors. I am far more emotionally balanced when I write than not, but I’m also more psychologically balanced than I was as a child and there are long periods without writing, which did not occur when I was younger. I feel writing is a talent I was born with, that was honed, and shaped with practice and time into a craft – a craft that becomes. rusty without practice. Whether it was initially an innate ability or not is also an interesting discussion. In many ways, I think writing is an expression of my true self, even when a story is far removed from my actuality, and it’s the something that I’m good at, in the way that a professional soccer player is good at soccer. There is a great sense of satisfaction from the act of skillful creation, particularly if the work produced is meaningful to both yourself and others.

2) What do you love about teaching languages?

I enjoy nurturing lifelong learning, student autonomy and creativity, among other areas. So at a tertiary level, I enjoy it when students are able to express themselves in ways that are different or not expected from the schooling in language they’ve had so far. I don’t know if this is language teaching, or what I am teaching happens to be in another language.

When straightforward language teaching is involved, I enjoy the tangible aspects of language and I enjoy it when students understand a concept and can use that concept. It’s rewarding to see the development of knowledge through use. Things that really inspire students to talk more are, for example, when there are native English speaker students of their own age in the class (such as on a short exchange) and English as a Lingua Franca develops. I can’t give them the interaction that same age peers can, but I can try to nurture confidence so that they’re more likely to seek out the world’s opportunities.

3) You work in Japan. What first drew you there?

Whenever someone asks me how long I have been in Japan, I respond that I have been here on and off or about eleven or twelve years. I originally came to Japan on the JET programme in 1991, and only intended to stay a year. At that time, it was the idea of a great overseas adventure that drew me. I stayed until 1994, due to the friends I had made, and the tenuous grasp I was getting of the language, though that unfortunately didn’t improve after I left. I returned after eleven years in 2005 to teach on a three-month contract while I once more figured out what I wanted to do with my life. After starting a masters (my second) I was able to secure a position in the tertiary system and I have for the most part remained in Japan since. The conditions and job availability are more favourable than at home. It’s relatively easy to live in Japan. It’s safe. The people are friendly. It’s a good stepping-off point for further adventure.

4) What writer has had the most influence on you?

I don’t think I can say just one writer, so I’ll list a number of them. I don’t read as widely as I used to, which is a shame, and part of the influence of the Internet era. In that, actually, I’m still reading a lot. It’s still my preferred method of getting information and entertainment, but I read a lot online, most of it non-literary.

Writers: Peter Carey (especially Bliss and Illywhacker), Richard Brautigan (the whimsical/humorous stories in Revenge of the Lawn or Willard and his Bowling Trophies), Manil Suri (Death of Vishnu), Vikram Seth (A Suitable boy), Minae Mizamura (A True Novel), most Haruki Murakami, David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest sucked me right back into writing. It really got my fires burning again), Dom DeLillo (particularly Underground – the dialogue is to die for), Toni Morrison (particularly Jazz and Beloved), Gloria Naylor (Mama Day), Jonathan Franzen (particularly Corrections), poet, Li Young Lee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (100 years of Solitude), Early Isabelle Allende, Helen De Ville (The Last Samurai), Raymond Carver, Murray Ball (Eucalyptus), the character development and subtlety of Anne Tyler blows me away because I so totally expect not to get blown away, the beauty of Shaun Tan’s graphic novels and other picture books, particularly The Arrival, The Lost Thing and The Red Tree are poignant and inspiring.

5) What are you reading at the moment?

Hmm. Tricky question. Catching up with One Piece manga/anime characters and plot lines from online Wikis to be honest. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent is on my iPad, Stephen Pinker’s, The Stuff of Thought, is in my bag, but the last thing of length and ease that I read was Liz Byrski’s Getting on: Some Thoughts on Women Ageing in preparation for an anthology I am compiling with co-editors on a similar topic. The last fiction I read was David Mitchell’s Slade House and before that I tore through Magda Szubanski’s Remembrance, which is autobiography, not fiction. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine occupied my bag and my mind for quite some time. I have difficulty reading non-fiction, so when I do, it takes time, and I try to put fiction aside for a while – to my detriment, I think. I’ve possibly read every fiction book in my house at the moment and it’s time to stock up. Other readings, the Overland literary journal, the Rattle poetry journal, and I try to stay up to date with what is going on at the political blog, The Intercept.