"Great American writers," Gore Vidal wrote of Paul Bowles' collected short stories, "are supposed not only to live in the greatest country in the world but to write about that greatest of all human themes: The American Experience."
Vidal's comment, meant to chasten us for provincialism in having ignored Bowles (who was effectively out of print until two small U.S. presses, Ecco and Black Sparrow, spearheaded a mid-late 1970s revival), also raises the question: What is " The American Experience"? Is it circumscribed by cultural life within our borders?
If the great 20th century American literary project was the rediscovery, reclamation and celebration of the indigenous American voice, the husking of American grain--the raising up of Faulkners and Thoreaus, the erection of canonical cathedrals to Whitmans and Melvilles--what are we to make of the nagging truth that so many pivotal American literary figures spent much of their writing lives away, abroad, elsewhere, often taking "exotic" non-American experience as their subject? Edith Wharton, Henry James, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Elizabeth Bishop, Bowles, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin: full-or part-time expatriates all. (If we include writing on the internal margins, minority voices often exiled from inclusion, the literary map of "The American Experience" shifts radically.)
The fact is that American writing has in great measure always found its reflection in The Other. No tendency could be more "American."
The release of a new collection by an American writer who has long lived and written abroad offers an occasion to ponder the expatriate strain in American writing. Donald Richie--film critic, novelist, travel writer, memoirist, essayist, reporter--has spent most of his life in Tokyo. Long enjoyed and admired for his film criticism and writings on Japan (and treasured for his style by a coterie of writing peers that includes Michael Ondaatje, Pico Iyer and Tom Wolfe), Richie's best writing artfully transcends the object of his steady gaze: Japan.
The expatriate writer is like the odd, roaming uncle in the family who isn't quite like the others, who travels and lives abroad, has different interests and proclivities, operates somewhere slightly beyond the pale. Yet the mystery of this permanent stranger is set against domestic, stationary life as a figure plays against ground.
"In Rio, Dreaming of New England/In New England, Dreaming of Rio," wrote American poet Elizabeth Bishop. For some writers--those to whom a cultural missile shield defense system does not produce comfort but claustrophobia--the expatriate view is the best seat in the house: neither quite here nor there, yet in both places at once, sort of. As Richie puts it, describing the artistic and personal liberation he finds living in a culture not his own: "The act of comparison is the act of creation ... I am at home in Japan precisely because I am an alien body."
Now in his late 70s and still busy working in Tokyo, Richie has lived a life of singular devotion--to writing, to film, to a life in a distant place. A permanent, unapologetic outsider who has "come to regard freedom as more important than belonging," he widens our view of what the American experience is or can be. With the publication of "The Donald Richie Reader," a compendium of more than 50 years of work, the pleasures of this American expatriate writer's company no longer need be confined to cinephiles and Japanophiles.
Countries accumulate literatures of entry, tracks laid down for the visitor by writers before them: Malcolm Lowry, B. Traven and D.H. Lawrence mediate Mexico; Bowles and Isabel Eberhardt host North Africa; Richard Burton, Freya Stark and T.E. Lawrence unveil the Middle East; Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux split Patagonia.
Japan has amassed great groaning shelves of foreigners' literature. Every writer, it seems, wants to try his or her hand at the West's favorite Inscrutable Other. When I first arrived in Kyoto as a young man to teach and write for two years, I plowed through Lafcadio Hearn, Arthur Koestler, Ruth Benedict, Nikos Kazantzakis--to name but a few internationally known writers who've chimed in on the subject; yet these barely skim the surface of the vast Japanalia that awaits.