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Jeff Talarigo
e-interviewed by Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke
(August, 2004)

The Pearl DiverA 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 Island of Kyushu (Kokura, 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.

These '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.'

Q: 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 Mt. 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 Island of 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.
Find out more about Jeff Talarigo and The Pearl Diver at the Nan A. Talese website.
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