Amy Stanley author longlist interview
Amy Stanley, author of Stranger in the Shogun's City shares with us some fascinating details of Tsuneno's life in 19th century Japan.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
I got the news via email early in the morning Chicago time and it didn’t really register – I went back to sleep. Then I woke up feeling like I’d had a very exciting dream. That’s still what it feels like three weeks later!
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking memoir that is also an elegy for five Black men and boys who grew up with Ward in rural Mississippi, all of whom died far too young. It’s a stunning example of what creatively ambitious, socially engaged writing can do. At the time, I was impressed with this book’s gorgeous prose, but now I think of it as the artistic and intellectual forerunner of the Black Lives Matter movement.
How did you conduct your research?
I did most of my research at the Niigata Prefectural Archives in Niigata City, Japan, but the process was complicated because the letters and other documents I used to tell Tsuneno’s life story were all written in the “destroyed style” of cursive script, which is about as legible as it sounds. I had to use a “destroyed style” dictionary to look up the characters one by one so that I could create the transcriptions. And then I still had to figure out what the letters said, which was difficult because some of them were written in dialect. But it wasn’t all a dreary slog – I also went to visit the places where Tsuneno lived and worked, some of which still exist! So I travelled to Yamagata Prefecture in the north, visited the site of Tsuneno’s village in Niigata, and walked all over Tokyo searching for the remnants of her world.
What were some of the most fascinating details discovered in the archives for Tsuneno and her family?
All the details were fascinating to me – the colours and fabrics of Tsuneno’s kimonos, the foods served at her second wedding, the endless calculations of how many copper coins remained in her limited budget. But my favourite discovery came very late in the process, after I had written a complete draft. I was doing some clean-up work at the archive, calling up documents I might have missed, and I came across the record of Tsuneno’s older brother’s birth. I flipped through, past some blank pages, and found a new entry: “Third month. Twelfth day. Tsuneno’s birth.” I had never known her birthday – I had to pretend to turn around and pretend to look at the dictionaries to avoid crying all over the page.
What are you working on next?
I wish I knew! Schools here have been closed for six months, and I’ve been at home with my children, with very little opportunity to think or read. I’m looking forward to getting back to the archives when I can travel again.
An unknown fact about me:
Like Tsuneno, I love clothes and spend way too much time thinking about what I’m wearing. I once made it through an entire term of Global History I lectures without repeating an outfit (and was both proud and appalled when my students noticed).