Jeff Talarigo: The Pearl Diver (Nan A. Talese, 2004)
Interviewed by Tara L. Masih (2007)
Tara L. Masih: When I read this novel after its release in 2004, I did a Web search to discover more about Jeff Talarigo, and found about two pages worth of hits. By 2006, as I prepared for this interview, the search turned up over 15,000 hits, in many languages. Talarigo is now winner of the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Award from the
Academy of Arts and Letters (for “fiction work of considerable literary achievement
”) and was on the
New York Public Library’s list of Best Books for the Teen Age. The book’s many glowing reviews use words such as “luminous,” “exquisite,” “hypnotic.” The story of Miss Fuji, a young pearl diver who contracts leprosy in 1948
Japan and is exiled to the
Nagashima, has been translated into three other languages and has obviously struck a universal chord.
Talarigo, a former journalist, turned to fiction after living in a Palestinian refugee camp. His writings portray the disenfranchised, the outcasts we choose to overlook, and encompass everything that is human—the triumph in simple connections we make with people, despite the damage we can do to each other, and the triumph of survival in a world that is both hostile and renewing. Humankind’s history is played out as if it were the relentless tide of the ocean itself, which has its own role in framing and defining this empathic story.TM:
You capture so much of what the ocean is like below its surface—its temperature, light, sounds (the echo of divers’ picks). Did you do any diving yourself to prepare?JT: I did a lot of research and tried recreating the whole environment. I have never been scuba diving—actually, I can barely swim—however, back in 2000, I went to Maui and snorkeled for the first time and I loved it. Of course, the marine life was tremendous, but what really left me in awe was that this immense body of water was also so fragile. Only when I saw the ocean “up close,” when I was able to glide above and touch the coral, did I understand this.
When you began writing, were you aware of the irony that would lend itself to the story by creating a patient who was capable of escaping the island at any time, by swimming away?JT: As I was doing research for the novel, I read or heard that a pearl diver was one of the patients at Nagashima Leprosarium. The first time I stayed at Nagashima, in the summer of 2001, I asked many of the patients if they knew of a pearl diver, and no one had. Still, I kept a pearl diver as the main character in the novel because I liked the image of this woman, who is so close to her home island (five or six miles from Nagashima), but she can never return. TM:
At one point, the fishermen of Nagashima are accused by the locals of contaminating the waters of the
Inland Sea. How was this being done? JT: The locals, in their ignorance about the disease and their prejudice against the patients, accused the fishermen at Nagashima of contaminating the inland sea with leprosy. This banning of fishing by the patients actually did happen back in the 1940s into the 1960s. From the time that Nagashima opened in 1931, until well into the 1950s, the island was, for the most part, self-sufficient. The patients did everything from building their own living areas to gardening, all the time dealing with this terrible disease they had been inflicted with.
What is the state of pearl diving and fishing in that area today? I believe pearls are now farmed ...JT: Nonexistent. As you say, pearls are now farmed, and as I talk about late in the novel, when Miss Fuji leaves Nagashima, pearl diving has become this huge tourist industry in Japan where they even have this ridiculous “Pearl Diver Beauty Contest” every summer.
Did living on the
Kyushu lend any insight into the island life of Nagashima?JT: The island of Kyushu is quite large, bigger than the state of Maryland, so this led to no real insight into island life. Nagashima, however, is about a mile long and less than half a mile wide and it wasn’t until I went there and walked the island and saw the trees and the view of the inland sea from the patients’ shoreline and the harbor and the original buildings that are still there, only after this did I know that I could write a novel on this place and these people. Some writers do not need to physically see a place to write about it, but not me; thus my time spent in Gaza and along the North Korea-China border, in pursuit of settings for my novels. TM:
To Miss Fuji, the sea is like a second skin. It’s your second novel—correct?—that will be set along the
River on the North Korea-China border. Is it a coincidence that water will once again be the conduit for your story? JT: And my third novel, which I am working on now as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, is on the Palestinians, and much of this novel takes place in Gaza, which, of course, is along the Mediterranean Sea. In all these places where my novels take place—Nagashima, Gaza, the North Korea-China border region—I have been struck by how much natural beauty there is amidst all this horror. An example of this is Beach Camp in the Gaza Strip, which abuts the Mediterranean. I used to stand along this wonderful swath of beach looking out on the sea, but just behind me, fifty yards away, is this wretched refugee camp of over 70,000 people. I had similar experiences at Nagashima and along the Tumen River in China.
I experienced the same thing at the Taj Mahal. I think you capture this so well, the yin and yang of human experience. So, near the novel’s end, we are in the ’90s, and Miss Fuji, as you mentioned, is forced to witness the commercialism and exploitation of her ancient profession. What do you believe has happened in our modern society to the relationship between humans and the ocean?JT: Before moving to New York City this past July, I lived in Japan for nearly fifteen years and I was always saddened, by how, from afar, Mount Fuji or Beppu Bay on the island of Kyushu are magnificent, but as you draw closer to them, the destruction by humans becomes apparent; garbage, filthy water, etc. A few years ago, my son and I were at a campground along the Inland Sea in Japan, a really nice place, but there was this strip of beach and along it was a sofa, old tires, plastic bags. A woman was standing next to me, looking out onto the inland sea, and she said how beautiful it was, but I kept on seeing the garbage on the beach, while she was able to ignore it. I think that people have the tendency to ignore the damage we are doing to the oceans . . . and they focus on the beauty. This is fine, to focus on the good and not the bad, but I think that in order to take better care of these places, to preserve them, we need, at times, to pay more attention to the garbage on the beach.
Talarigo’s second novel is about the plight of North Koreans who have escaped their country by crossing the
China. The story is narrated by a Chinese ginseng hunter and a North Korean prostitute whom he befriends. The Ginseng Hunter
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) is scheduled to be released in April 2008.Tara L. Masih
). Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines, and she has two flash fiction chapbooks published by The Feral Press. Her poem “Paumanok Today” appeared in the Autumnal 2006 issue of Sea Stories.
e-interviewed by Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke (August, 2004)
former journalist, Jeff Talarigo wrote and published works of short fiction while living in a Palestinian refugee camp in the 1990's. Jeff now teaches English and resides on the
Japan) with his wife Aya and son Sam. His debut novel, The Pearl Diver
, is written with elegance and grace. It tells the story of a Japanese pearl diver who is stricken with Hansen's disease, commonly known as leprosy.T
hese ' artifacts
', included by the author in his novel, particularly struck me. Japanese Empress Sadako's tanka says ' When you are lonely and have nothing to do, / Let this song be your friend, / In place of I who hardly come to you.
' From the 6th century B.C.,
China, when Pai Miu, a disciple of Confucius, dies of what is believed to be leprosy: ' Pai Miu is sick. The Master went to see him and, holding his hand through the window, exclaimed, "Fate kills him. For such a man to have such a disease!"
' And we learn about ' ancient folk medicines for leprosy ... garlic with marjoram; mustard with red clay; wine sediment; fat of the porpoise.
How long was The Pearl Diver
in your thoughts before you actually sat down to compose? What was the timeframe from beginning to publication?A: I first heard about this story back in the spring of 2001 and almost immediately knew I would write a novel on leprosy in Japan. From research to the finished manuscript, which was bought by my publisher, Nan A. Talese, took about eighteen months.Q:
What was your motivation for choosing leprosy and the art of pearl diving for your first novel?A: My motivation was the story. Somewhere in my research I read that there was a pearl diver who was a patient at Nagashima, the setting for the novel. But, when I went there and asked many of the patients about this pearl diver, no one knew of her. I still don't know if there was a pearl diver who was at one of the leprosariums in Japan or not, but I liked the mingling of this ancient art and ancient disease.Q:
Did your own experience with a refugee camp create a particular sympathy with (and prompt you to write about) society's outcasts?A: Going to the Gaza Strip for the first time in 1990, and then again in 1993, are six months that's totally changed my outlook on life. How so many of these people are misunderstood, how there are two sides to every story, how so little is known about the Palestinians in Gaza who have been in refugee camps for the past fifty-five years. At times, while living in Japan, I can feel some of this sense of being an outsider, but when I went to Nagashima the patients never made me feel this way.Q:
Acknowledgements in The Pearl Diver
credit your visit to the Nagashima Leprosarium, assistance from patients, and visits to other establishments. Are any characters in the story models
of patients you met, for example in personalities, histories, or progression of the disease?A: All of the patients I had the honor of meeting served as models for my characters. Different traits, physical features, personal histories, slices of all of these I took and fused into my characters. One patient I have befriended, Mr. Tanigawa, is a tanka poet and probably the most amazing person I have ever met. He inspired me throughout the writing of The Pearl Diver, and he inspires me now.Q:
I was especially touched by the exchange between ' Miss Fuji
' and her uncle when he visits her at Nagashima, and of their reminiscence of their climb to
Fuji when she was a little girl. Are any of your exchanges of dialog in the novel based on research, e.g. case studies, records at Leprosariums?A: The dialog in the novel was created by me, the scene of ' Miss Fuji' and her uncle is entirely mine. However, the small sections, which are attributed – poems written by the Empress and patients, various medical texts, etc. – were taken directly from medical journals, case studies and Leprosarium records.Q:
The artifacts described in The Pearl Diver
instill a special connection to the reader. Are these artifacts researched or fiction, and why did you insert them in the story?A: The artifacts, for the most part, are fiction and the main reason I inserted them into the story was to try and keep the book as simple as possible, make each section a poem of sorts, like Japanese tanka (31 syllables) or haiku (17 syllables), which I admire greatly.Q:
Your writing style is eloquently poetic. Were you inspired by any other authors? Which authors and/or books do you particularly enjoy reading?A: Thank you. I have never taken a fiction or creative writing class, but have learned a great deal by reading wonderful writers such as; J.M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, John Edgar Wideman, Colum McCann, John Berger, Aharon Appelfeld, Oe Kenzaburo, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck and several poets; Yusef Komunyakaa, Marina Tsvetayeva and Mahmoud Darwish.Q:
What drew you to writing as a career?A: I have worn many hats; journalist, wood shop worker, waiter, English teacher, on and on, and of all the work I have done I always really enjoyed writing. My frustration with the way things are heading in journalism turned me in the direction of fiction back in the early 90's. There is nothing more satisfying than creating something from that blank sheet of paper.Q:
How did you end up living in
Japan, and in particular on the
Kyushu?A: I befriended a couple of Australians while in Jerusalem and they were teaching English in the city of Kokura and they coaxed me to come and work there, so I did. This was back in late 1990 and teaching in Japan afforded me the time to work, almost every day, on the craft of writing and that is the main reason I have remained here. The city of Kokura, by the way, was the targeted city for the second atomic bomb and the planes circled Kokura three times, but it was cloudy and they ended up going to Nagasaki.Q:
The novel jacket mentions that you are working on a second book. Can you share with us anything about it?A: Last September I went to the China-North Korea border and walked about eight-ten miles each day along the Tumen River researching my new novel, which is on the North Korean refugees who are crossing into China. Again, it is the story which I am drawn to and how it is happening right at this moment and the world is essentially ignoring it. Two of the main characters in this book are a nine-year-old North Korean girl and a Chinese ginseng hunter. I am writing this new novel entirely by hand, entering, into the computer, what I have written every couple weeks.Q:
Is there anything else that you would like to add, e.g. about your life, writing, and teaching English in
Japan?A: As a writer, when I am choosing a topic for a novel or story, I try to find something that I know very little about, a topic which challenges me to do my best work, allows me grow as a writer and as a person.