BOOK REVIEW | A Memoir by Karen Hill Anton: The View from Breast Pocket Mountain
In her inspirational memoir, Karen Hill Anton describes how cultures can act as gateways to new human encounters rather than as barriers.
English speakers in Japan will surely know the name Karen Hill Anton.
Anton has lived with her husband and children in an out-of-the-way part of Shizuoka Prefecture since 1975. She was the author of the long-running "Crossing Cultures" column at The Japan Times — which is where I first learned of her long ago.
Karen Hill Anton has written for other Japan-based publications as well. Over the decades, she has established herself as a voice of wisdom, honesty, and gracefulness. Many foreigners who live in Japan, or want to, have come to rely on Anton's words as a source of sound advice. (Many Japanese people, too, read Anton for her insights into the human condition.)
Not Entirely about Japan
I was excited to learn of the publication of Anton's memoir, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain (Senyume Press, 2020). Based on the title — Anton and her family long resided in an old farmhouse on Futokoroyama ("Breast Pocket Mountain") in Shizuoka — I assumed the memoir would be about the author's life in Japan.
As I started reading The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, however, I realized I had pegged Karen Hill Anton into far too narrow a hole. Anton's memoir starts, logically enough, with her own childhood. Not in Japan. In New York City.
With rich, but entirely unpretentious, prose sketches, Anton recalls her pre-Japan life. Her strong, loving father, her ailing mother, her first brushes with literature, and her gradual awakening to the big world outside her Harlem tenement complex, Washington Heights.
From there, Anton tells readers about her adventures in travel, including long stints in Denmark, life in rural Vermont, and topsy-turvy days and nights in San Francisco. It is not until Chapter 14 (page 135) that Anton steps out of an airplane at Haneda Airport, beginning a new life in Japan.
A Writerly Memoir
Reading through The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, the first half of which is not about Japan, I realized I had far too narrowly pegged Karen Hill Anton in yet another way. I always associated her with Japan, but of course there was more to her life than her adopted country.
But also, I gained renewed respect for Anton as a writer as I nestled into the pages of her latest book. I have long admired Karen Hill Anton as a newspaper columnist. But The View from Breast Pocket Mountain is not journalism. It should be seen as a literary effort.
What Anton is doing in The View from Breast Pocket Mountain is much more than simply recalling things that happened in the past. She is building up a work of art.
Anton does this by providing glimpses of Japan before she gets here. She is interested in a macrobiotic diet, for example. Michio Kushi, who helped introduce macrobiotic eating in the United States, taught the man who would become Anton's husband (Billy) about the benefits of macrobiotics.
A Work of Art
Long before coming to Japan, or even thinking about it, Anton read books on Zen Buddhism, such as Paul Reps' compilation Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
And, it is so that Billy can study at a dojo in Japan that Anton and her young daughter Nanao travel together to the country that will become their lifelong home. Most of the trip is by car — a leaky Volkswagen — across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We track the trio across Afghanistan and Iran, but Japan is always faintly on the horizon.
As the reader follows Anton's memoir, he or she also follows her slowly growing entanglement with Japan. All of this makes for one of the finest memoirs I can remember reading.
I recommend the award-winning The View from Breast Pocket Mountain to anyone with an interest in Japan. Or, failing that, to anyone who enjoys good writing, who likes books that like one back by repaying interest with reading joy.
A Well-Lived Life
The second half of The View from Breast Pocket Mountain is about Japan. (Mostly — there is a tragic American interlude that tinges the second half with some sorrow.)
Here, readers will discover Anton learning about herself and her new world with the same sense of adventure that sent her on her travels at a young age.
Anton learns calligraphy, eventually achieving an extraordinary level of skill in the art. She raises children and sends them to Japanese schools. She teaches dance (a lifelong passion). And she thrives.
Anton does it all by making connections on a human level. There are cultural and linguistic obstacles to navigate. But Anton knows herself well enough to know that people are people and there are always new friends to be made.
"I've looked for what is good in people, and I've always found it," Anton says.
This seems to me to be the secret to her well-lived life.
"I would stand out in Japan, always," Anton writes from a place of maturity as a cross-cultural adventurer. "But I could also fit in."
Japan in New Lights
I encourage those reading this to buy a copy of The View from Breast Pocket Mountain and start reading it right away. JAPAN Forward enthusiasts will undoubtedly learn much from Karen Hill Anton about Japan, about how this country looks through the eyes of someone from very far away.
Someone who, in the end, came to appreciate Japan as home in a world alive with different cultures.
That cultures can act as gateways to human encounters is due entirely to people like Karen Hill Anton. Anton embraced the good in people in Japan, and so many in Japan, and around the world, embraced her back.
About the Book
Title: The View From Breast Pocket Mountain
Subtitle: A Memoir
Author: Karen Hill Anton
Publisher: Senyume Press (2020)
Format: Available in paperback ($18.5 USD) and eBook format ($4.98 USD).
To learn more, go to the author's website. The book is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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