Thursday, July 30, 2020



By Sarah Z. Sleeper

Running Wild Press     2020

244 pages     

Here is a brief summary of Gaijin by Sarah Z. Sleeper.

The Japanese word gaijin means "unwelcome foreigner." It's not profanity, but is sometimes a slur directed at non-Japanese people in Japan.

Lucy is a budding journalist at Northwestern University and she's obsessed with an exotic new student, Owen Ota, who becomes her romantic interest and her sensei. When he disappears without explanation, she's devastated and sets out to find him. On her three-month quest across Japan and Okinawa, she finds only snippets of the elegant culture Owen had described. Instead she faces anti-U.S. protests, menacing street thugs and sexist treatment, and she winds up at the base of Mt. Fuji, in the terrifying Suicide Forest. Will she ever find Owen? Will she be driven back to the U.S.? Gaijin is a coming-of-age story about a woman who solves a heartbreaking mystery that has altered the trajectory of her life.

 When we think of Japan, we often think of grace and beauty, and Sleeper has represented that culture in a very poetic way. Gaijin is a coming of age story, perfectly appropriate for the adult reader as well as the young adult audience. Lucy is naïve as she sets out to Japan to find Owen, whom she considers to be her true love. She muses, “I clung to the notion that my dreams of the person and the place would match the reality.” As she begins her journey, she concedes, “I didn’t put it together then, the folly of searching for someone who didn’t want to be found, moving to a country I didn’t understand.” It is all a romantic dream. Luckily she has found a job and some fellow employees to aid her in her search—including Owen’s brother Hisashi.

 She discovers things about Owen that she wishes she had not known, including the idea that he might have committed suicide in the Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji. It is sometimes called the “suicide forest” because thousands of Japanese people go there to commit suicide every year. Luckily, he is still alive, but to tell more would be to spoil the plot. I first read about the suicide forest in the book The Three by Sarah Lotz.

The reader comes to a deeper understanding of the difference between realism and idealism when reading Gaijin. The plot is slender, but it enhances our understanding of a young woman who has a dream that she is unable to fulfill. Many of us have dreams that are unrealistic, and we come to admire how Lucy grows toward a more realistic understanding of herself as well as her understanding of Owen.

Gaijin is author Sarah Sleeper’s first novel after a career as a journalist. Here is her website. Like many writers, art imitates life, and she worked at a magazine in Okinawa, much like Lucy in the book. She says that she based her novel on the four years she spent in Japan, and on the challenges she faced in that country, including racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

 This is a lovely little book, a quick but satisfying read.





1 comment:

Sarah Z. Sleeper said...

Hi Miriam! I just wanted to thank you so much for your nice and thoughtful review of my novel. I truly appreciate the time and effort you offer for the benefit of readers and authors.

All the best,
Sarah Z. Sleeper