The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

In 2000, a young British woman named Lucie Blackman working as a club hostess in Tokyo disappeared after taking a ride with one of her wealthy customers. Her body was found dismembered seven months later in a seaside cave.

People Who Eat Darkness by award-winning British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of Lucie, her family, her disappearance and the subsequent investigation and legal proceedings of the case. It is also the story of her abductor and killer, Joji Obara.

Before traveling to Japan, Lucie had worked as a British Airways flight attendant until she realized that the grueling schedules and isolation (she was never in any place long enough to make real connections) were too much. She subsequently resigned and, knee deep in debt, accompanied her best friend to Tokyo where they planned to work at a hostess club, an establishment on the fringes of the sex industry and that caters to wealthy Japanese businessmen willing to pay over $100 an hour for female company. The clubs paid handsomely, or at least compared to English teaching, and Lucie believed this to be the quickest way to get back on her feet financially.

The hostess clubs are an interesting phenomenon. There is, supposedly, no sex involved. Attractive women, often foreign, are paid to basically stroke men’s egos. The hostesses exist to pour drinks, light cigarettes, listen to the men and laugh at their jokes. The most difficult part of the job seemed to be boredom. But the women did have pressure; to keep their jobs, they needed to establish their own clientele of regulars, whom the clubs relied on for steady business.

Perhaps Joji Obara was a prospective regular. One evening, the friend receives a cell phone call from a seemingly delighted Lucie. Lucie says that Joji will soon be giving her her own cell phone, and that they are now driving to the seaside. That was the last time her friend ever heard from her.

The book details the long months following Lucie’s disappearance: the role her parents and siblings played in drumming up media and other support to keep the story and investigation alive (Lucie’s father went as far as reaching out to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair); the sometimes infuriating and slow responses of the Japanese police; the way Lucie’s family’s dysfunction played out in each person’s grieving process; and, finally, the identification and discovery of the abductor and murderer, and the final attempts to bring him to justice.

We learn, upon his arrest, that Joji Obara was a serial rapist. In his apartment were detailed records and videotapes of the women he had lured and drugged for thirty years. He used a different name with each woman. Another club hostess had gotten sick and died some years back after spending a night with Obara and complaints had been made, but the police had not followed up.

In the author’s profile of Obara, we learn that he is an ethnic Korean whose parents had immigrated to a poor Korean ghetto in Japan. Though Parry does not excuse Obara’s crimes (most people with difficult pasts do not become rapists and murderers), he paints an illuminating picture of a troubled man with a troubled past, a personal history that became a window into the ugly but often hidden and unspoken realities of Japan’s ethnic minority communities and the prejudices they face.

Parry, too, is honest in his portrayal of Lucie’s family. Her father Tim, who flew to Japan frequently and never tired in his efforts to fight for his daughter, is a confusing portrait of loyalty and self-interest. Where had he been when Lucie was growing up, when he became involved in multiple affairs before finally leaving his family? Why had he accepted a substantial amount of money from the killer during the court trial, in exchange for providing some verbal support? Lucie’s mother and father, who were icy at best before Lucie’s disappearance, became even more hostile after her death. Without judgment, Parry does an admirable job of laying bare the flaws of a family trying to survive a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.

Though some parts felt repetitive, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it simultaneously intimate and chilling. I was fascinated to read about a part of Japanese society that I’d never entered. It is an eye-opening look into Japan’s mizu-shobai, or “water trade,” a euphemism for its diverse night entertainment or sex industry; its criminal investigation/justice procedures (one of which is a heavy reliance on criminal confession and inevitability of cooperation and remorse); and its Korean community and history. On a personal level, the book is an intimate account of a flawed but real family and how they contributed to both creating Lucie and remembering her in her death. And, finally, it is a disturbing story of a human being gone wrong. I remain haunted to this day, by the images of Joji Obara.

My Writing Process

One of my favorite bloggers Rudri at Being Rudri tagged me some time ago in this meme about the writing process. I have mentioned Rudri and her wonderful blog before. She writes thoughtful and reflective posts on the process of growing, healing, and finding joy. Her words are compelling because they come from a place of loss. She also writes regularly for The First Day, a quarterly print journal and on-line magazine about the spiritual journeys taken by people from all faiths and cultural backgrounds. Thanks so much for including me in this exercise, Rudri.

What am I working on as a writer?

I’m in a gap period in my writing. I’ve enrolled in writing courses over the last few years and worked on some personal essays for publication. Then I realized that I was suffering from a huge gap as a want-to-be writer: I wasn’t reading enough. A former classmate advised me to “learn from the masters” and so for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to return to the classics as well as familiarize myself with contemporary writers. I’m trying to figure out which voices and styles resonate with me most. I continue to write in my blog and last year began writing about books as well.

I would actually like to write a short story. For years I thought I would write a memoir but I struggled about privacy. Fiction, however, made me feel inauthentic. But I think blog writing has helped to release much of my pent-up emotions. I can comfortably try my hand at fiction now, as soon as I feel confident enough to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). For some reason I feel terrified about doing this.

I am also interested in poetry. I actually signed up for a free on-line poetry writing course that started while I was still traveling. I have a few course emails waiting for me so I need to get on that. But talk about a reading gap – I definitely need to read more poetry!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I can say that my writing belongs to a genre and, if it does, if I can say that it differs from others. I’ll just say that in general my writing tends very much to be on the personal side, and sometimes that applies to my book reviews too. I usually like to incorporate a personal voice into my posts.

Why do I write what I do?

I often get very personal in my writing, as my readers know. I’ve asked myself many times why I do this, when clearly I’m the only one among my (non-blogging) friends who reveals so much. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do it because I’d led a life of secrets. I come from a culture in which the most human conditions are seen as shameful flaws: hardship, injury, illness, failure, misfortune. I’ve been made to swear more than once to not utter a word to anyone about [something completely normal]. I also grew up in a home in which emotions were not acknowledged let alone discussed. This could work for some people, but I’m expressive and sensitive by nature. I see and interpret the world through words and feelings. Not allowing an expressive person to communicate is like forbidding an athlete from moving. I’ve had to write the most personal in order to heal and to find a healthy way to exist. I also do this in the hopes of making others (who may have grappled with similar issues) feel less alone. Being personal has helped me connect with readers, and I love and appreciate my small community here.

How does my writing process look?

I only sit down to write (blog) about two to four times a week (usually write 2x and edit 2x). I do, however, go about my days alert for possible topics. It might be a feeling that I have watching my son do something, or it might be something that my husband or friend brings up in conversation. Does that incident or comment reveal something larger about what many of us go through? I look for those moments and sometimes I talk them through with my husband. I store my ideas away mentally and on my phone and then get on my laptop the day before I want to publish the post. I try to write in the early mornings, and will postpone (non-urgent) work if necessary to get a post done. I write it all out in one sitting and then go back and edit small parts here and there. My most authentic posts get written the most quickly. For me personally, if I am in writing mode but the words are not coming to me easily, it’s a signal to me that I am not really writing what I’m feeling but writing because I feel pressured to churn something out. (The pressure is all internal, of course.)

Regarding my book reviews, I keep a small notebook of notable quotes to trigger memories of my biggest take-aways. More often than not I rely on memory. I’m not sure if this is the best tactic, though, given my no-longer-so-young-brain, so I think I need to start taking more notes!

Do you write? What is your writing process like?

Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

Well, I’d overestimated my ability to blog while traveling so I apologize for having disappeared! We had a wonderful time in Japan and I am now back, finally getting over a very bad cold that I had caught the day we left for the airport. While my primary goal in Japan after seeing family, friends, and clients was to eat, I also made sure to check out the book scene in Tokyo. Japan has a strong literary and reading culture and was ranked #1 in number of bookstores in 2012 according to The World Cities Cultural Report released that year. Below is a small peak into Japan’s reading world:

First, the bookstores. I visited about seven or eight during my trip. According to The World Cities Cultural Report in 2012, Tokyo had 1,675 bookstores that year. There is also what is known as the Book District in the university town in Jimbocho – a half square kilometer of almost 160 used and rare bookstores. I spent a short afternoon walking around here, wishing that I could read Japanese as most of the books I found were in Japanese (naturally). The Book District is known to be the largest book market in the world.

The Book District

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Junkudo, a popular bookstore chain -There were about 18 active cash registers and a staffer managing the queue. From my experience the major bookstores have as many as 5 to 8 floors of books.

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A display of Haruki Murakami books at Junkudo

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Ernest Hemingway and other western literature in translation at Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain with stores in the U.S., several Asian countries and Australia. They’ve recently remodeled one of the main stores to dedicate the entire top floor to foreign books and Japanese books in translation. I was quite impressed by their selection and the prices were not exorbitant. Wouldn’t it be something to find this kind of selection of foreign books at Barnes & Noble?

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These English-language novels are labeled with corresponding TOEIC scores to assist non-native English speakers in choosing appropriate books. The TOEIC is the Test of English for International Communication, taken by many non-native English speakers who wish to qualify for various work and academic requirements. 

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Japanese literature wrapped to ensure their good condition. I asked Max about these, and he thinks these may be out of print or somehow “special” books, since contemporary books for sale are not wrapped like this. I found shelves and shelves of these at one of the larger and more modern bookstores in the Book District.

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And speaking of wrapped, whenever you buy a book in Japan, you have the option of getting it wrapped (usually in brown paper) for free. At first I thought this was to protect the book – and this is true – but when I started reading my purchase on the train I realized that the book cover holds another benefit: privacy. 

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There are also many fancier book covers for sale at book and stationery stores, meaning that covering up is quite popular in Japan. Here is one that I found. I love Japanese English!

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Some of our western feminist sensibilities might get a jolt when visiting Japan. In some bookstores are sections for “ladies,” but then maybe this is simply the Japanese equivalent of the labels “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.” (More knowledgeable readers, feel free to weigh in!) This photo is of the “ladies'” comics or manga section at a shopping mall bookstore. (Manga are also protected before purchase by cellophane ties or plastic wrap.)

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And at last, my Japan finds, because I couldn’t visit without bringing back something for myself: Haruki Murakami’s (translated into English) memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, two books on speaking Japanese, a Japanese novella that a friend recommended to me as one way to practice Japanese, and this Kinokuniya tote bag. There were many Japanese books in translation that I wanted to get but I controlled myself, knowing that I can get them cheaper through the internet :-(. Plus I can only carry so much back in my suitcase…

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Have you visited bookstores in other cities? What are your favorites? How is the literary scene in your city?

Greetings from Land of the Rising Sun

And the sun rises early here…like before 4:30. I know, because I’ve been awake since 2:30. Jet lag.

We got in 36 hours ago and have hit the ground running. We’re here for both business and pleasure. I expect to still post when I can, if even just photos.

I might go back to sleep now, so I’ll see you again next week. Or, as the locals say, Mata raishuu!

 

Blogging Award and Q&A

I am always thankful to receive blogging awards but bad about passing them on…I think because I always feel awkward about choosing the next set of recipients for fear of leaving out someone. Anyway, the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink nominated me for the Liebster Award not long ago and I was intrigued by the set of questions that she asked me to respond to, which I have done below.

Thank you so much, Naomi. :-) Naomi writes a very thoughtful and personable blog on Canadian (and other) literature over at Consumed by Ink. I have learned about many great Canadian writers through her. I hope you will stop by and check out her blog.

1. What was your favourite book when you were a child? A teen? Now?

Child – Deenie by Judy Blume

Teen – Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews ;-)

Now – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

2. What was your most memorable trip?

I would say San Francisco, when I was 9. My cousin was getting married and my mother took me out of school for a week. California was so different from the northeast and my uncle’s home so different from ours. I remembered waking up and seeing mountains. My aunt and uncle also had plush carpeting and a floor-to-ceiling patio screen with sliding door. And my cousin, the one getting married, wore make-up and high heels (unlike my mother). And I got to wear a floor-length dress for the first time and go to Toys-R-Us. And eat meatloaf (for the first time) at my uncle’s diner. Most of all, I started my first journal. My second grade teacher whom I was still in touch with gave me a beautiful red faux leather blank journal and told me it was for me to write about my trip.

3. Have you ever met a well-known author? What was your experience like? If not, which one would you like to meet?

Yes! Junot Díaz earlier this spring, which I posted about here. Years ago when Memoirs of a Geisha came out I also had a chance to meet Arthur Golden at his talk/book signing. One of the people he acknowledged in his book happened to be my Japanese teacher at the time, so I actually had something to talk to him about. He turned out to be very friendly and I didn’t feel as though I was talking to someone “famous.” Last week I went to listen to Khaled Hosseini. He’s a lovely, thoughtful man, but much more reserved than Junot Díaz and Arthur Golden.

4. What is your favourite reading spot?

My bed. It’s not the best reading spot (my bedroom is cluttered) but it’s where I’m most comfortable.

5. Which literary character would you most like to trade places with?

This is a hard one…because every character I remember reading experiences so much suffering! Does anyone have any suggestions?

6. If you could have anything you wanted for your next meal, what would it be?

I think I would choose this Burmese noodle dish that I last ate when I was a kid. We were friends with a Burmese family and I remember liking them so much; they were incredibly kind and gentle people. Every time we visited the parents would serve us this delicious creamy noodle that tasted like coconut. A few years later I learned that the father had died of a brain tumor and somehow we never saw them again.

7. What prompted you to start your blog? How did you come up with your blog title?

I used to write when I was younger but stopped as an adult. When Fred got to school age I decided to write again and blogging seemed like a good way to start. I could have simply written in a journal but I did want an audience and a community. I started and stopped several blogs before settling on “Only You.” Initially I was going to blog about my experiences mothering an only child, until I realized the idea was unsustainable…because, I realized, parenting to me was not about a number. But the name stuck because “only you” could mean my son, or my readers, or myself and, often, all three.

8. Are you an animal person? Which kind?

No. I always worry that this makes me sound like an unkind person but I’m really not an animal person. I appreciate and respect animals (a lot, in fact) but I am awkward around them the way some people are awkward around babies and children.

9. Are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Why?

I am transitioning into a country mouse. I lived in major cities for most of my life, including Tokyo for many years. But I think that extended period in Tokyo really kind of traumatized me as much as it had enriched me. I lived through years of midnight train rides home from work, packed bone-crunching commutes, elbow-to-elbow shopping, and miles and miles of concrete. I now live minutes from nature trails and a lake and all I have to do to be surrounded by green is step out onto our deck. I couldn’t live anywhere else. Cities and countrysides have their own places on each person’s timeline.

10. Do you have a book that you take with you everywhere you go?

No…I just take whatever I am reading at the moment but I am almost always with a book.

11. Are you a multiple book reader, or do you prefer to read one at a time?

I always start multiple books but I am realizing lately that I get so scattered and am unable to finish them. So I guess I am moving back to single-book reading.

…………..

I’d like to pass on the award and set of questions below to my friend Rudri who writes a wonderful blog over at Being Rudri. She is a writer and reader who blogs about her journey identifying small moments of joy and overcoming challenges in order to find peace and contentment. Her blog feels like a sanctuary to me and I sometimes like to start my mornings by catching up on her posts with a cup of coffee. Here are my questions for her (and anyone else who might be interested in answering!):

1. Which author’s voice is most compelling to you?

2. Where and how do you get your books – amazon, independent bookstores, library, etc.?

3. Where and when do you read? How long or how often do you read?

4. What genres interest you most? Why?

5. Do you gravitate toward or shy away from difficult and heavy themes, like death, violence, trauma, difficult moral decisions, etc.?

6. Knowing what you know now, what book would you recommend to your 20-something-year-old self? to your 30-something-year-old self?

7. What reading rituals, habits, lessons, etc. have you shared with or taught your child?

8. Is your husband a reader? Does that matter to you?

9. Have you ever belonged to a book club? If so, what was that experience like?

10. What are you most excited to read from your TBR pile this summer?

11. Do you own and collect books, or do you prefer not to have them pile up in your home?

To readers: How would you answer some of these questions? I’m curious!

An Evening with Khaled Hosseini

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I was lucky enough to get a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s recent book tour for the paperback launch of And the Mountains Echoed. I first read Khaled (I’ll take the liberty of calling him by his first name ;-)) when The Kite Runner took all the bestseller lists by storm, and it’s one of the few “hot” books that, for me, lived up to the hype. I had not read any Afghan writers nor had I read about Afghan culture before The Kite Runner and so like for many readers, I am guessing, it was an eye-opening experience to be introduced to the human faces of a country that has otherwise been portrayed so severely in the media.

Khaled did a 60 minute Q&A with the designated interviewer and with the audience. He talked about And the Mountains Echoed, a story about the ramifications of one Afghan family’s decision to sell their youngest child to another family, and he also talked about his writing process and a little about Afghanistan. Like at Junot Díaz’s talk, I struggled a bit with the note taking, this time because (1) my pen ran out of ink and (2) I accidentally deleted my notes a few minutes after I started taking them on my phone. (A post about author talk attendance do’s and don’t’s is forthcoming…) Anyway, I did my best to recoup what I heard. Here is a sampling of his quotes (paraphrased to the best of my memory) from the evening:

On the Sophie’s Choice-esque theme of And the Mountains Echoed:

Those things that are very difficult to imagine are the things I’m drawn to write.

On how to find your story:

I had an impulse in the past to write something educational, moral…to get on a soapbox, but the writing always suffered. I learned that if I feel the characters, feel their pain, their wants and needs, I will find the point in the story. Whenever I tried to build a story around a point, it always became stilted. It always flattens me when I write with an agenda.

When asked how he writes so beautifully, especially when English is not even his first language (he didn’t speak any English until he came to the States at 15!):

There’s been a voice inside my head since I was a boy – I don’t mean that I have a psychological illness [audience laughs] – and over the years I have developed a cadence that I have felt comfortable with . . . I have had this inner language with me for a long time . . . when I was younger and we would all sit around telling stories, the room would get quiet when it got to my turn…it was very powerful [laughs].

On how he could write so well from the perspectives of women characters in his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns:

I don’t think that I have any more insight into a woman’s mind than [interviewer] or any man in this audience [audience laughs]…in the beginning I would try to find out what they [the women characters] thought, but I learned to let them come to me, to let them tell me what they feel.

On The Kite Runner:

The Kite Runner was a grenade, it was divisive…some Afghans didn’t like that I aired our dirty laundry, and said that I was selling out to make money.

He said that support among Afghan readers was about 50/50, with the older, more conservative and religious generation more upset about his work. The younger and more urban Afghan people have been very supportive.

On his work with The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which he started to provide economic, educational, and healthcare assistance to Afghan refugees:

We often forget the human story in war. Refugees live in a suspended existence. It is my job to bring to light the human story within the narrative.

I thought he was just wonderful. I was actually surprised, and then not when I thought about it, to see him initially looking a little nervous and fidgety up on stage. It’s so easy to assume that anyone this successful and intelligent would be comfortable in the lime light. He warmed up quickly as the talk went on, and I found him soft-spoken, humble, and extremely thoughtful and articulate. He showed no airs about him, and expressed gratitude that his books were being read.

After the talk was over I got in line to get my books signed. I didn’t try to craft anything special this time, especially as I observed that he was being pretty efficient in the process (there was a good sized crowd and the independent bookstore sponsoring the event was trying to move people along). I simply thanked him for coming and he smiled and replied, “Thank you.” He was quiet during the signings but spoke if readers initiated.

I was inspired after the talk to begin And the Mountains Echoed and so far it is fantastic. It’s my highlight at the end of the day to read it and I can see why everyone used to get quiet when it was Khaled’s turn as a boy to tell stories.

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