James Roth grew up in southeastern Alabama during the sixties. His father worked for the Army, investigating helicopter accidents. His mother was a homemaker who had studied voice at Julliard. Because his father's job led him to Heidelberg, Germany, he graduated from high school there. In Germany, he made the mistake of taking up golf, an addiction that has stayed with him to this day. It brings him much satisfaction and much pain, as most addictions do. After graduating from high school, he returned to the U.S. and attended what was then called Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, graduating with a master's in English. A life of skiing, golf, hunting, fly fishing, and riding his motorcycle to Aspen and Telluride were joys. Then along came the reality of having to make a living. He thought his best chance of achieving this was to become a copywriter at an advertising agency. He moved from Colorado to Manhattan, where he attended The School of Visual Arts. To pay the bills, he worked as a bicycle messenger. His plan to become a copywriter didn't work out, though, which he now realizes served him well. He decided to leave the U.S. to teach English in Japan at a private language school, which was the most significant event of his life up to that time. He stayed in Japan for about fifteen years, first living in Akita, then Sendai. During this time, he now and then wrote nonfiction articles about Japanese culture that were published on the now-defunct--but fun to write for websites--flakmag.com and theblacktable.com. When the enrollment at the school he worked for dropped, he reluctantly left Japan. He found a job teaching at Shenzhen University in China and then The Chinese University of Hong Kong/Shenzhen, but he spent most of his free time hiking the mountains of neighboring Hong Kong. After about ten years in China, he became weary of life there and applied to, and was accepted into, the U.S. State Department's English Language Fellow Program. He was assigned to teach at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, then Amman, Jordan, as an EFL fellow.
His parents lived in American-occupied Japan in the months before he was born, so he likes to say he was “Made in Japan.” To his and his mother's lasting regret, he was born in a military hospital in Georgia. He divides his time between the U.S. and Zimbabwe. He is married to a Shona Zimbabwean.
"The Liver Eaters." A literary short story about an Imperial Japanese Army war crime in China. Murderous Ink Press, Off the Record. Forthcoming.
"A Few Photos, Please." A Half Hour to Kill. Flash fiction. A former yakuza, now a PI, is asked by his sister to dig up some dirt on her husband so that she can get a quick divorce. Overtones of incest. August 12, 2022.
"Cultural Revolution." Whisky Blot. A short story without dialogue, in paragraph-length chapters, that tells the story of an independent-minded, attractive Chinese woman who rebels against the restrictions of traditional Chinese culture and finds her own way in the world.
"Bue-haired Girl." Close to the Bone. Flash fiction, prologue to a forthcoming novel, "A Prayer for my Daughter," set in modern Japan. A police detective's runaway daughter ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. 2022.
"The Manga Artist." Fleas on the Dog, Fiction Issue 11. A short story about a manga artist who aspires to be taken seriously as an artist and is suckered by the wrong (or is it the right?) woman. Read it and decide for yourself. 2022.
"On the Run." Mystery Tribune Online. A down-and-out ex-con agrees to be a fishing guide for a man who knows nothing about fishing and becomes involved in something that will send him back to prison. 2022.
"Black Market MPs." Crimeucompia: It's Always Raining in Noir City. Set in post-war Tokyo, a naive MP becomes involved in the black market and the wrong Japanese woman. 2021.
"Any Port in a Storm." Florida Roots Press Anthology, Coming of Age in Florida. A young adult short story about a Chinese girl adoptee who goes sailing with her grandfather; he instills in her self-reliance and confidence. 2022.
"Manta Rays, a Massage Lady, and Love." The Bombay Review. Two backpackers in Indonesia seek fulfillment in their travels in very different ways. 2019.
"A Career Murder." Crimeucompia: Careless Love. A Japanese salaryman fears that his wife will divorce him, making it difficult for him to receive a promotion in the company he is devoted to, but his plans pride in preventing the divorce go awry. 2019.
"The Hat." Short Story. The Alaska Quarterly. A man and his wife visit Japan and he fantasizes about Japanese women. 1994.
Memoirs, Essays, and Nonfiction
"Jacob: a Greendale Garden Boy." Open Journal of Arts and Letters. My experience with Shona culture--Zimbabwe--and a Harare garden boy. (That's what they're called, "garden boys.") Forthcoming.
"Miles Davis, Zen Buddhism, and the Dysfunctional Japanese Family." Shambles: a Literary Journal. My meeting with a Buddhist priest, his wife and son, while cycling in a remote area of Japan. Forthcoming.
"Round Lake." Florida Roots Press. Coming of Age in Florida. Memoir of my mother's memories of growing up in St. Petersburg during the Great Depression.
"My Minute with Mao." Short-Story-Me. Hybrid nonfiction/fiction about a trip I took to Beijing to stay with a Chinese woman, our relationship, and the absurdity of seeing Mao lying in state in his very own mausoleum. August 2022.
"The Wise Owl | Sienna in Gold." Two CNF pieces and podcasts, "You're a Bad Man," set in a market in Dakar, Senegal, and "Mickey Rat," set in Sanya, Hainan Island, China.
"Outside Hoi An." The Wise Owl. Memoir/travel writing about my meeting with an elderly, impoverished woman outside Hoi An, Vietnam.
"Watch Where You Walk." Zoo Anthology. Sweetycat Press. A memoir about the dangers of walking across the Shenzhen University campus. Due for release in October 2022.
"The Gangster from Hell." Litro. Travel writing, set in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia. My experience in a grubby bus station's street food stall with a few men of different sexual and political orientations.
"The Golf Swing." The Body in Motion. Sweetycat Press. An analysis of what Michael Jordan said in an interview with Stephen Curry was the most difficult thing he had ever attempted, golf.
"Zimbabwe's Illegal Gold Miners." A Thin Slice of Anxiety. My visit to an illegal gold mine, which are plentiful in impoverished Zimbabwe. 2019.
"Mr. G. the Diamond Peddler." Ariel Chart. While in a queue to buy petrol, along comes a man who wanted to sell me uncut diamonds. 2019.
"Black Lives Don't Matter in Zimbabwe." Finalist in the Missouri Review's Jeffery E. Smith Editors' Prize for 2020.
"The Pineapple Girl." Verdad. A young Indonesian girl who sells pineapples makes me think about my failures and successes. 2011.
Writing Bio: James was the Japanese correspondent for the, regrettably, now-defunct e-zine flakmag.com. His articles included "MOS Burger: Bettering an American Icon"; "The Sento, Japan's public bathhouses"; "The 100 Yen Shop," Japan's version of the one dollar shop; "Cycling in Japan"; "Japan, land of the Technotoilet"; "The Honda Cub," the 50cc step-through motorcycle that started Honda Motors; and "Dining in Singapore"; the city-state is an epicurean's paradise.
Other nonfiction articles appeared in the Univesity of Oregon's, also now-defunct CNF magazine, Etude, "Red Lights, Big City," about legalized prostitution in Singapore, Hack Writers, "Cock Fighting in Port Barton," a remote beach village on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, and "The Art of Japanese Striptease" in, yes, the now-defunct e-zine The Black Table.
The Opium Addict. Love and murder in Meiji era Yokohama. In 1873 Nelson Van Dorn, a former New York City police detective, sails for Yokohama, Japan, expecting to go into the silk exporting business with his younger brother, whom he plans to meet there. What Nelson learns upon his arrival, however, is that his brother is dead, that he was an opium addict, and that he has left Nelson in debt. In order to pay off this debt, Nelson reluctantly takes on an investigation to find the nephew of Ari Markel, an elderly Jewish man. As Nelson follows leads to track down Mr. Markel's nephew, he learns the secrets of other expatriates, Mr. Markel's motives in hiring him, and the truth about his brother's death.
The Opium Addict
The anchor set, and the Shenandoah swung around in the stiff April wind, her starboard side facing Yokohama. Nelson Van Dorn, standing on deck, grasped the gunnel, bracing himself against the heaving of the ship, as white caps bucked up against the bow. His beaver hat was a warm comfort. From his deerskin duster flowed rivulets of water, and in his thick brown beard the water lay like a dew.
"You ought to go below," the captain said, "until the seas settle down." The captain, standing beside Nelson, was also looking across the white-capped bay at Yokohama. He was Scottish, nearing sixty, walked with a limp, and had a white beard. His face was pale, save for crowns of red on his cheekbones. He had spent most of his life at sea, and his pink, wind-burned face showed it. Tucked into a corner of his mouth was a meerschaum pipe.
"I'll stay," Nelson said.
"Not such an unusual blow for this time of year," the captain said. "It will be unfortunate if a wind like this comes up during hanami."
Nelson turned, expecting the captain to provide an explanation.
"Cherry blossom viewing," the captain said.
Nelson nodded. But he wasn't thinking about cherry blossoms. He was eager to go ashore. Moreover, these waves were mere ripples compared to those the Shenandoah had plunged through on its way around the Cape of Good Hope. It had been a long voyage, more than two months and had begun, unceremoniously, in Brooklyn. The Shenandoah was a steamer, carrying cargo, mostly coal, but also several hundred barrels of that newly discovered resource in Pennsylvania, oil, a necessary commodity for Nippon's industrialization after two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation during the Edo period, which came to an end when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with his fleet of black ships in 1853 and opened the country to foreign trade under the threat of a naval bombardment. The current Meiji emperor had the idea that his country should modernize and catch up with the West, perhaps even surpass it.
Nelson’s younger brother, Warren, had been waiting months for his arrival. Warren, once a harpooner on a whaler, had been to places in the Pacific that Nelson had only read about. On one of their rare meetings in a tavern in Brooklyn, he had convinced Nelson that by going into the business of exporting Japanese silk together they could make a fortune. They had to take advantage of the opportunity before someone else did. Already there was a demand for Japanese wood prints and lacquer-ware, and a demand for silk was sure to follow.
"These seas won't keep the sailors from going ashore," the captain said. "I can assure you of that. Sailors are sailors. Their needs are few and pleasurable ones."
As a former detective in the New York City police department, Nelson knew exactly what the captain meant. They were in need of women, alcohol, and, as the captain had told him, a drug smuggled in from China, opium. Accompanying the drinking there would certainly be fistfights and stabbings, accusations of cheating at gambling halls, and perhaps murders, as sailors fought over the favors of a particularly talented girl.
Nelson was all too familiar with this. He had been the victim of a German sailor who had gone mad in a Canal Street brothel, strangling to death one of the girls. When Nelson and another policeman cornered him in a dark alley, the man had thrown a dagger at Nelson that had stuck in his right kneecap. On cold days like this his knee ached. He feared that one day he would start to limp as the captain did and be forced to use a cane to get around. But he was too proud to surrender to the pain for now, when it came.
"Aye. Japanese women are accommodating," the captain said. He puffed on his meerschaum. "Aye, they are. But they don't cause no trouble. Tis the men that always cause the trouble, they do."
Thinking of his wife, Elizabeth, who had recently died of typhus, Nelson wondered if one day desire would once again take hold of him and he would seek the company of a woman. Elizabeth was still with him in spirit, but for now a future with a woman was less important to him than a silk business.
A spray of water doused the captain's pipe. He knocked out the bowl of tobacco on the gunnel and repacked his pipe with a wad of fresh tobacco that he had bought in Canton, where the Shenandoah had set at anchor for a few days. Turning from the wind, the captain struck a match, to light his pipe; he puffed on it a few times until the tobacco glowed red. He turned back to Nelson and said, "Men are in need of carnal pleasures from time to time. It's not normal to be away from women. It breeds indecent acts. But opium is far worse. I don't approve of it, I don't. It robs a man of his soul."
Continued. . .
"A Prayer for My Daughter," a mystery/literary novel narrated by a Tokyo Metropolitan Police detective, Tomoyuki Kawayama, starts with a prologue that establishes the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. Detective Kawayama goes to investigate the murder of a young woman in a Kabuki-cho love hotel and his investigation leads to his understanding that good intentions lead to the deaths of others. Detective Kawayama, however, during the course of the investigation, becomes closer to his wife.
A Prayer for My Daughter
Due out in 2024
I picked Yuji up at a video arcade next to a sex shop in Kabukicho, just where Nobuyuki had told me he'd be. He often went there after work to catch a Seibu line train to Tachikawa. He had a home there. When Yuji finished playing the game a wide grin spread across his face before he looked up at me. That's how much he'd been concentrating on the game. He hadn't even noticed the cute girl who'd been watching him. To get his attention, I said, "Final Fantasy is my favorite too."
He continued on staring at me the way an otaku does, a bit nervous and unable to speak. The only girls he felt comfortable with were the avatars in video games—you know the ones, unrealistically big breasts, every color hair but black, and willing to jump into bed with whomever asks them—and maybe those bored girls in his company who served tea and could be had for the asking. Poor Yuji. He just didn't know how to get on with the real thing—me.
I was wearing my heart-shaped eyeglasses with the red frame, no lenses, and I'd gotten my lips as shiny a red as the frame of the glasses. I was one of those characters in Final Fantasy that had come to life, just as I'd planned, as Nobuyuki had suggested I do. It didn't come as a surprise to me that I was the one who had to say, "Maybe you'd like go to a hotel? No more Final Fantasy but a real girl."
The love hotel Nobuyuki and I had picked out was the Amour, in that area of Kabukicho where the love hotels are lined up side by side, all with beautiful neon signs that make lovers think they are going to a carnival, and I suppose they were, but one for adults behind closed doors. I'd been in quite a few of the hotels. My life had become that sort of one. But there was always another one that caught my attention. The Amour had been one I'd wanted to visit for quite a while, since way back when I was a high school student. A miniature of the Eiffel Tower was near the entrance, and the facade was made up like a building painters lived in. You know, a bit run down but charming.
Yuji was eager to please me. He booked the expensive Monet room that I wanted. It was like a room in one of those French painter's ateliers and had fake windows that looked down on a street, where there were bistros and sidewalk cafes and street gas lamps. Over it all was a starlit sky. How romantic it was. But it made me feel really lonely, going there on business with Yuji. It would've been nice to have shared the room with someone I cared about a little more, I thought then. But my feelings changed.
On the ceiling over bed was a night sky of more lights flickering that swirled around. What a nice touch it all was, feeling like I was far away from this world of mine, on my way to another. Yuji? Well, he was too nervous to pay any attention to the way the room was decorated. His eyes were on me. That did make me feel good, of course, but so much in life was lost on this pitiful man. I started to feel sorry for him.
I unbuttoned the first two buttons of my frilly blouse to get him started, but even then he didn't know what to do, and so I took his hands and had him undo the other buttons. Then I slipped it off and tossed it over a painter's easel and turned around, for him to undo my bra. His fingers were cold. I shivered.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I . . .”
“Don't think about it,” I told him. “Things will come naturally.”
I stood on my toes and kissed his neck. It was like kissing marble. No response. So I had to put his hands on the waist of my red dress and get him to pull it down. Then he finally caught on and did the same with my panties.
I reached out for his belt but he grabbed my hands. “No,” he said. But even so, I had time to feel that he wasn't going to be too much of a disappointment.
He turned the lights off and undressed. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised about him doing this either, after what Nobuyuki had told me about him. Him going to a love hotel with a girl young enough to be his daughter was a fantasy better than any video game. He'd missed out on life. And so had I, I realized then. But I tried not to think about that, just do what I'd been hired to do. I'd seen Nobuyuki across from the entrance of the Amour, his camera ready, just as we entered the Amour. So I suppose I'd already earned my money. All Nobuyuki had wanted was photos. But I couldn't walk out on Yuji. That would be cruel. He needed to learn something about girls while he was still young enough to enjoy them.
To my surprise, he was good for two rounds. That made me feel proud of myself. After the second round he told me my blue hair was what had turned him into a man. That just showed me how right I'd been about him. He was a child, really. I had been an avatar in a video game. That hurt.
Lying on his back, he said, “I haven't been that strong since my honeymoon in Hawaii.”
Continued. . .
An Excerpt from Chapter One is on
Fresh Words, January 2023.
In the planning/progress stage: a short story collection set in post-WW II East Asia; a detective/literary novel set in contemporary Japan; a historical family drama set in the tea country of Rhodesia; a picaresque adventure story about a young Chinese-American's sailing adventures in southern Florida; a collection of stories set in present-day Zimbabwe about the struggles of women, religious hypocrisy, political corruption, economic collapse, the petty rivalries between people that keep the country near the bottom of economic ratings, but also the resilency of many who face their daily struggles silently and with dignity and persiverence. Perhaps his reach exceeds his grasp.
2contact [dot] j [dot] roth [at] gmail [dot] com