Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Women and the Global Imagination: Light or Left

by Naoko Fujimoto

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Naoko Fujimoto discusses how cultures colliding can provide unexpected writing inspiration. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.


Light or Left to Inspirations for Writing Poetry

I am native Japanese. English is my second language. My hair and eyes are significantly dark. I am petite, like a grain of brown rice, and I cannot find a perfect size of underwear in the U.S.A.

Occasionally, when I walk in downtown Chicago, even when I drive in the suburbs, people ask me for directions as if I am a magnet for the lost— from a typical sightseeing question like, “Where is the Water Tower?” to more complicated questions like, “How can I get to Iowa?”

A lost driver usually gives a hand gesture for rolling the window down and asks me for directions. Of course I try to help them and say, with my thick accent, “Please turn L-ight at the corner and you will see the highway on your R-eft.” I often mix “L” and “R” pronunciations because those sounds are not familiar in Japanese.

In addition, it is a big responsibility to tell them “right” in a short time while we wait for a signal. If it is actually left, they would drive in a totally opposite direction to the middle of nowhere in Indiana. I repeat to myself in my brain—right is the hand for chopsticks and left is the hand for a rice bowl— I tell the driver, “Yes, I am L-ight!”

The lost driver then looks at me blankly, as if saying— Oops, I asked a real Asian woman. Some drivers show their disappointment, some sigh when they see Haruki Murakami’s books and a Hello Kitty bag in my car; perhaps, holding Li-Young Lee’s poetry book is not really helpful either. I would like to say louder “Can’t you see I am foreign?” pulling up my black hair.

Unfortunately my directions are sometimes wrong— maybe a fifty-fifty chance—I really regret contributing to the Asian woman’s stereotype…

Then I think of myself when I get lost in Japan. I realize that I have never asked for directions in Japan yet. I might ask how to buy train tickets or schedules, but do not remember that I asked directions from anybody.

In Japan, visitors from all over the world ask me directions instead— maybe because I can speak English more than regular Japanese citizens. Once an American couple from Ohio was looking for a trout sushi restaurant in Kyoto. I guided them there and ordered chirashi-zushi (beautifully decorated sushi) with them because I was also hungry. While we were waiting for sushi, I even taught them how to use chopsticks and hold a soup bowl properly.

I am happy helping people who are lost outside their comfort zone. In addition, those people give me inspiration for composing poems. From these short conversations, I am inspired by their faces (some have amazing eye colors), their destinations (why are they going there?), and many new discoveries.

Sometime, I walk with these people halfway to their destination. I met a lost person from Nepal who was looking for a post office. He did not speak much English, but I found out that he had a mother who recently passed away from breast cancer. He could not go back to his country for her funeral; therefore, his sister sent a package full of his mother’s memories.

That was an amazing moment for a poet. All imagination, all possibilities in the package from Nepal and I want to write about it. I want my poems to be a transmitter for those who have been through unexpected experiences and survived their moments. I just listen to their stories and wait for something to click in my brain. I screamed, “Thank you very much for asking me for directions!”

After I give directions, I always check an online map to confirm that I answered correctly after I get home. More and more now, I am comfortable in downtown Chicago and suburban neighborhoods; however, I also forget and mix street names up in my memory sometimes.

Once, a Japanese tourist in Chicago asked me “Where is a public restroom?” At the time, I did not know of many public restrooms in downtown. I felt very sorry that I could not answer him in his moment of urgency. Now, I know almost every corner of accessible public restrooms— the ones I use so I know they are clean and safe— but nobody has asked the question again yet. Perhaps, people have never guessed that this tiny Asian woman has a map of the surrounding public bathrooms in her brain, and that she is looking for poetic inspiration.


Naoko Fujimoto was born in Nagoya, Japan. She is a poet & artist, occasionally pianist. Her current favorite word is “spatula” - she found seventeen spatulas in her apartment; none of them are from her purchase— but she is not an admitted spatula collector or detective of all seventeen spatulas.