My guest this week is Karen Hill Anton. She is a black woman married to a white husband, living in a small community in Japan. But Karen would be the first to tell you that none of those descriptions really matter. Karen would tell you that she has traveled the world, and lived in many places, and in the end all we have is our shared humanity.
She wrote a memoir about her travels called The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, where she talks about her lifetime journey from New York City to Japan.
Listen to My Interview with Karen Hill Anton
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts of My Interview with Karen Hill Anton
Howard Lovy: My guest this week is Karen Hill Anton. She’s a black woman, married to a white husband, living in a small community in Japan. But Karen would be the first to tell you that none of these descriptions really matter.
She would tell you that she has traveled the world and lived in many places, and in the end, all we have is our shared humanity. She wrote a memoir about her travels called, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain, where she talks about her lifetime journey from New York City to Japan.
I’m the author of the recently published memoir, The View from Breast Pocket Mountain. I’m American. I’m originally from New York City, but I’ve been living in rural Japan with my American husband and our four children since 1975.
My memoir speaks about the, I would say, the trajectory of my life and how I came to be living where I am.
I grew up in the Washington Heights section of New York City, which is just North of Harlem, and I went to George Washington High School. I guess I was, I don’t know if you would say a typical student, certainly not stellar, but always a reader.
And I wasn’t a writer. I can’t say that I started out thinking I would be a writer. In fact, I wanted to be a dancer and most specifically, a dancer in the Martha Graham dance company, where I studied after high school for several years, until I had the realization that no way was I going to get into the Martha Graham company, I just was not good enough.
Howard Lovy: While dancing wasn’t in Karen’s professional future, she was restless to get out of New York City and see the world.
Karen Hill Anton: When I was 19, I left the United States. I went to Europe for the first time. I went alone. It was my first time in an airplane. I went first to England, and then I hitchhiked all over Europe, you know, the length and breadth of France and Spain, and I went into Morocco and then I was in Denmark for a while and I was in Europe for about a year, and I haven’t been the same since. It changed my life, it just opened up a new world, you know, to see what’s out there. The only thing I knew was the United States. I think I had, in fact, growing up in New York City, the only other states I had been to were New Jersey and Connecticut, but you get out in the world and you see, oh, you know, what you thought you knew, and even at 19 you already think you know a lot, you find out yeah, you know, lots of different ways of doing things, ways of, you know, ways of eating and about food and dress and even what kind of home you have and what interiors you will have and, you know, how people communicate and spend their time, their leisure, and, you know, the hobbies they take up.
It’s just absolutely everything.
Howard Lovy: But what really attracted her to overseas travel was the art and architecture she found abroad. Karen was amazed at everything she saw.
Karen Hill Anton: In my last year of high school, we had a new course introduced into the school called art history. As I say in my book, taking this course was as if the entire curriculum was illuminated. We had the most wonderful teacher, he introduced the world of great art to us, starting with the Venus of Willendorf, and Greek architecture and, you know, the French impressionist, and he just went through all of it. And, of course, we’re right up in New York City. A lot of it, you know, we could see, you know, going to the Metro Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art and he just connected it with us, you know, and you know, here we were, you know, black, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Greek, Irish, you know, from those working class families. But he didn’t make, I would say, any distance between us and the world of great art, it’s almost as if he assumed we would be able to take it in.
And we did, you know, and I would say in my case that I think it was transforming in many ways. But also, once I actually went to Europe, and I went to the British museum, and the Louvre, and the Prado, and all of these places and, you know, it was wonderful and fascinating, but I found I was more fascinated with people, you know, and their lives and how they lived.
It just opened up an entirely new world.
Howard Lovy: Eventually, Karen found her way to Denmark, where she worked as a natural foods cook for a high school. She was abroad in the turbulent year of 1968 and learned about the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy, while she was in Europe.
It wasn’t that she was turning her back on the US, but she had found a home in Europe, even though she was a bit of a novelty as a black woman in Denmark.
Karen Hill Anton: I know in Denmark and Sweden, I could have made a career there just from being black, as a model or as a black, young woman, I was thin, like, maybe I was attractive, but you know, I could have been a dancer, I could have easily made a career there as a model, but after my daughter was born in Denmark, when I returned to the States, I went to live in Vermont. And I lived there for four years, quite happily. I absolutely loved it. Wasn’t crazy about the winters at all, but I really loved it, and I would probably still be there if my husband, well, he was invited to Japan and asked if I would come with him. At the time we weren’t married, but I said, yeah, sure.
Actually, I quit my job. I was working at a college at the time, and I must throw this in that, Louise Glück, who just won the Nobel prize, she was my next door neighbor, who just won the Nobel prize in literature. But yeah, I left the life of Vermont behind and I said, yeah, okay, sure, let’s do it. I’ll go to Japan with you.
Howard Lovy: And it was in Japan where she discovered her writing talent. She began contributing to Japanese newspapers, writing as an American in a foreign culture. Her columns became very popular and, as they say, Karen became big in Japan.
Karen Hill Anton: At one point, the Japan Times, which is Japan’s oldest and largest English newspaper, opened up a section called, Living in Japan, and it was open to the readers of the Japan Times to contribute some, you know, about their experience of living here. They had a 500-word limit. I heard, about this and thought, oh, okay, well, you know, I’ll write something, and I sat down and I wrote something, and when I looked up, it was 2000 words. But being totally unprofessional at the time, I sent it in, which I would never do now. If an editor asks me for 500 words, they won’t get 501, they’ll get 500, and they responded, the managing editor wanted to publish it as a feature article, not just for this small section, and also with photographs. So, that was my initial step into writing for newspapers.
And then some years later when I approached them, because he encouraged me to continue to contribute to the Japan Times, and at the time my children were young and so I wasn’t doing much writing, but when I could, I approached him again, the paper again, with this idea that I’d write a column called, Crossing Cultures. I would say generally about the experience of an American woman, married to an American, raising children in rural Japan and participating in society here at every level.
I just thought it would be something that readers of the group would be interested in and they were very interested. It was a very popular column. Oh, absolutely everything I wrote about, you know, my neighbors and my interactions with them, and the school, and participating in the PTA, and then being vice president of the local children’s association. I wrote a lot about education because, as much as I respect what Japan has done in education, which is, you know, we have almost a hundred percent literacy in Japan, which the United States cannot say, it’s still, you know, I just felt so much of education here was stifling and conformist and, at the time there was school on Saturdays, that’s no longer true. It was a six-day school week.
Howard Lovy: After writing her newspaper column, it was not such a big stretch to write her memoirs. After all, she’s lived a rather unique life.
Karen Hill Anton: Because I’ve had something of an unusual, certainly an unconventional life, you know, not everyone drove with a five-year-old in a Volkswagen bug for as far as Europe through Afghanistan.
I had stories to tell and I felt that I could do it, and I can tell you so far, the reception has been absolutely wonderful.
Howard Lovy: Karen also discovered that her cultural and even physical differences in the end do not matter in her rural village in Japan.
Karen Hill Anton: I learned to pay attention early on and observe, and one of the things that I understood pretty soon, and that is that I was expected to cooperate. You know, living in a small rural community, you have your responsibilities in the community; putting out the garbage or, you know, cutting the weeds or being, you know, the traffick monitor for, you know, when the children go to school, whatever it is, you’re expected to cooperate.
And when you do that, and I’m not going to say people didn’t see me as different, you know, of course they did, there are no foreigners living where I live, but I think they could also see, well, yeah, she looks different, she’s taller than any of us, you know, has longer legs, et cetera, but she’s a member of the community.
Howard Lovy: She is accepted as a member of the community in Japan, which makes her wonder why the same thing cannot happen in the United States, where there has been a recent summer filled with a racial strife.
Karen Hill Anton: I can say that I’ve never felt that I was a black woman living in Japan, I’ve always just felt that, you know, I’m a foreign woman, I’m an American, we’re an American couple, and when we go to the United States, you know, of course, we’re not traveling now because of the pandemic, but I always felt that as soon as we stepped off the plane in Los Angeles or New York or wherever, then we became an interracial couple. What can I say, I don’t care about that, as long as it doesn’t affect me. In general, just observing what’s been going on in the past few months and throughout the summer, from my perspective, I only see it as tragic; to have this great focus on a race, when it’s a concept I don’t even accept. And I felt, you know, that we’ve come so far. I’m not saying that no racism exists or whatever, but leave United States, go around the world because it’s in many places and, oh, it’s extremely frustrating. It’s extremely frustrating, and I see things, you know, where they’ll write whole articles about like, oh, imagine being the only black person in the room, and I go, what the hell? What the hell? I’m 45 years as the only black person for a hundred miles, or whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be a problem. Why make it a problem? I was in the United States, well, I grew up there. I protested against the Vietnam War, against segregation etc. I was at King’s March, you know, so I know what it was like, but I also know the United States has come very far.
Howard Lovy: What Karen hopes readers walk away with after reading her memoir is a sense of shared humanity.
Karen Hill Anton: See, my emphasis on the deep humanity of the connection between all of us, regardless of ethnicity, the different ways we look and which we have absolutely nothing to do about. I was born color and you or my husband were born the other, it’s just like, what do you have to do with that? Absolutely nothing. And all of these things that are dividing people now, many people read my book and see that they’re grateful for the fact of a perspective that not only doesn’t emphasize difference, but highlights, not in a superficial way or, you know, it’s not even like I’m trying to do it, that’s what my experience has been. I’ve lived abroad, I’ve grown up in the United States, I do live in a community of people who don’t look anything like me, but I say that you can make your place. When you’re accepting of other people, they’re accepting of you. That’s my feeling.