Diplomacy in Seventeen Syllables
Stone Bridge Press, 2006
Reviewed by Seana Graham
A couple of weeks ago, this book came to mind again in the course of an online conversation, and I thought it would be a perfect one to share with readers here at Escape Into Life. The Haiku Apprentice is a memoir by a woman who served as a U.S. diplomat for an extended period in Japan. Although in her work life, Abigail Friedman was focused on such tough topics as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, a chance encounter with a Haiku aficionado whose haiku name was “Traveling Tree Man” lead her on a journey into the vast world of popular Haiku enthusiasts, and eventually found her studying with the haiku master Momoko Kuroda.
As Friedman begins her journey, she confides that she doesn’t think she has “a poetic soul”. What she does have, however, and what makes this such a standout memoir, is a tenacity and purity of dedication that is, well, very Japanese. Despite her demanding diplomatic job in Tokyo and while raising a family there, she regularly finds the time and energy to take a train to Mt. Fuji to meet with a haiku group. As she attempts to discover what the true nature of haiku is, she finds that this quest becomes a way of seeing deeper into the culture of the people she is living among. And, perhaps inevitably, it also becomes a way of seeing more deeply into herself.
“Perhaps all these people had discovered something I was just now learning; that survival in an increasingly complex world requires each of us to tend to our souls, our individuality, more than ever. I needed to nurture my ability to see the world as I saw it, not as others might see it.”
In an interesting interview about the process of writing the book, Friedman reveals that originally she did not see her own story as part of the book. She “had a strong sense that if I didn’t write down what my Japanese haiku friends were telling me, no one in the West would ever know what haiku meant to contemporary Japanese. My haiku master, Momoko Kuroda, speaks no English and has never even visited the US. If I didn’t write down what she was teaching me, who in the West would know about it? So I started writing this book because I felt it was my responsibility to do so.”
It was only at the urging of others that she eventually found what she terms the “courage” to put herself in the book as well. Fortuitously, I think, for her struggles pull us into deeper engagement with the culture ourselves. As Americans, we can only hope that all in our diplomatic corps have such resources of empathy, humility and dedication when in foreign lands, and that Abigail Friedman is not merely a singular shining exception.