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Float On

“In 1981, the same year Dolly Parton’s feminist hit ‘9 to 5’ reached number one on the charts and Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female justice on the Supreme Court, I became a whore in Tokyo. At the time, it seemed like the natural thing to do.”

With that firecracker of a first line, Belle Brett ’69’s masterful debut novel, Gina in the Floating World (She Writes Press) kicks off. It’s the dizzily fizzy Wizard of Oz-inspired journey of a young woman who travels to Japan for a prestigious banking internship but instead becomes a suburban bar hostess enmeshed in erotic adventure.

“At this stage of my life, I’m proud just to have completed and published a novel,” says Brett, a retired researcher who also blogs about downsizing. “Everything else is gravy, although I wouldn’t mind if it sold well ... or if someone wants the movie rights!”

Your first sentence really hooks the reader. How did you come up with it?

Of course, this sentence wasn’t in my first draft. My novel went through many revisions. The drama ramps up slowly, but I wanted my readers to wonder how this somewhat sheltered young woman would end up as a prostitute in Japan of her own volition, and thus, be propelled to read and find out. I also wanted my protagonist’s decision to be rooted in the awareness that times were changing for women. So, was her unorthodox choice an expression of female empowerment, or was it rooted in older thinking about women’s roles, or both? I’ll let readers judge.


What was it like living in Japan in your 20s, and how did that experience inspire you to write this book?

I loved Japan—the complexity of its culture, the arts, the beautiful parks and temples, its seeming modernity and yet its rootedness in something very unfamiliar. I landed there at the end of a seven-month odyssey across Asia, so by that time I was quite used to being in places that challenged me. But it was my experience as a bar hostess in a Tokyo suburb, a place not unlike “Snack” in my novel, that propelled me to the write the book: this job that went against the tenets of my burgeoning feminist consciousness, the cast of characters I encountered, the seeming contradiction of the behavior of the men in the bar with what I understood to be that society’s rules. Truthfully, it was begging to be written about. I’d started writing fiction about a dozen years before—mostly short fiction and screenplays. In fact, this novel began as a screenplay in a class I was taking at the time, but I novelized it soon after. So, if it has a cinematic flavor, that’s why.


What inspired you to echo The Wizard of Oz in your book and main character’s journey?

The novel didn’t start out as a retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but about draft two or three, I started to see the parallels—the sudden landing in an unfamiliar place with very different customs, characters whose personalities and needs resembled those of the characters in the Oz story, the quest with its many obstacles, the nature of the power that Dorothy has and how she uses it, and of course, the Wizard, who may or may not be a sham. As I revised further, I included additional details and made changes, as simple as calling my protagonist Dorothy and giving her some silver shoes (not ruby as they are in the movie version). The reader doesn’t need that frame to enjoy the book, but it’s another layer for those who are interested.


What is your view of feminism, how has it changed since the 80s setting of the book, and how does your book reflect it?

I became an avowed and involved feminist the year after I graduated from Swarthmore while working in the very male bastion of MIT. At the time, our focus was on equal rights for women, both in the workplace and at home. Concurrently, we valued the new freedom that the sexual revolution offered us. Quite suddenly, marriage and having children no longer felt like inevitable roles. (I didn’t get married until I was almost 42 and didn’t have children.)

By the 1980s, women were branching out into careers that had traditionally been occupied by men—in law, medicine, and business. I was a career counselor in that period, and I noted that many young women were choosing these fields because they were more prestigious and appeared to offer opportunities regardless of whether the choice was right for them. My novel’s protagonist, who professes to want a career in international business, fits this mold. She is aware of the accomplishments of the feminist movement but is less active herself.

Over time, many young women began to reject the feminist label and some of the stereotypes it connotated. They thought that all the battles had been won and that any issues that occurred were individual, not societal. As we look back on it now, there were terrible abuses of power by men of women who were trying to get ahead. We put up with a lot both in the workplace and in dating situations, from sexual harassment to forced sex. I’ve had men apologize to me for what they remember as their own inappropriate behavior years earlier. The behavior of the men in my novel was normative both for the times and for Japan, which was still very paternalistic. I wouldn’t want to comment on what might be acceptable now in Japan in the that kind of setting.

But, now, especially after all that’s come to light with the #MeToo in the last year, I think that women of all ages have a new level of awareness in the US. However, I daresay that most of us who came of age with the movement haven’t waivered in our belief in equality, our desire for justice, and perhaps our skepticism that we still haven’t arrived. I remain an unapologetic feminist.


What are you working on now?

Marketing a book is a very absorbing, time-consuming project, so that has been my focus for a while that includes setting up and preparing for events, writing a blog, and keeping up with social media, among other things. But in my retirement from my paid work, I have also become an artist, having dabbled for years, and I’ve been working on a series of collages inspired by my novel that I hope to exhibit, perhaps accompanied by a reading. On the writing front, I am fascinated by how we continually come of age across the lifespan, and my goal is to write a piece of fiction, not necessarily novel length, about each decade in life. I do have a complete, but as-yet-unpublished novel about midlife friendship. I also maintain a now and again blog called “Slow Downsizing,” which reflects one of the necessary tasks and preoccupations of my age group.


Was there a special professor at Swarthmore who especially inspired you?

I’d love to tell you “yes,” but in all honesty, my Swarthmore experience was more about my social development with my peers than my intellectual development. I studied hard but didn’t take particular advantage of being in a small college and getting to know the professors. I was fortunate to have a stellar Quaker secondary school education, but as an adolescent I was shy and awkward. I remember attending the tea that the College held for us with our parents our first day on campus and looking around, thinking, Oh my God, there are other people like me. What an epiphany!


As a student what were you passionate about?

My greatest passion, which evolved around my junior year, was educational reform. I had learned about the open education movement in Great Britain, where I was born and where my parents retired my senior year, and felt that it offered a better model for children than our more rigid curriculum. I wrote my senior anthropology-sociology thesis on that topic. My goal at the time was to teach teachers. I followed through on part of that goal until I realized that my ideals and the reality of our educational system didn’t mesh. I stayed in education but changed directions within that broad field twice more over the course of my paid career. Interestingly, I don’t recall extracurriculars being that huge when I was at Swarthmore. Some people were involved in athletics, theater, or music, but opportunities in the visual arts were almost nonexistent. I did develop a love for folk dancing at Swarthmore (having been introduced to it through the dance portion of our gym requirement) that continued through my 30s and morphed into an interest in social dancing. Of course, the years I was here, from 1965–69, were turbulent times, even on our bucolic campus. Although I wasn’t an activist to the degree that some of my friends were, what was happening had a profound effect on my understanding of my world.


What do you wish you knew or someone told you back then?

From a personal perspective, I wish I’d understood that getting older wasn’t such a bad thing and that opportunities would keep presenting themselves. I used to read the “Class Notes” and feel I wasn’t living up to the promise of the education I’d received.

Up until my mid-30s, I perpetually lived in the future, planning how I could do this or that. I had so many goals. But somewhere along the way, I stopped comparing myself to others and focused on what I wanted and could do. I also became more present-oriented. Realizing that this was my life and that I better enjoy it was another epiphany and a huge relief. Not having to follow a perfectionist path allowed me to take up my artistic and writing pursuits later in life.

From a larger perspective, I wish I’d known that change isn’t necessarily linear, either for the better or the worse. Don’t assume that any battle is lost or won just based on its current status. It’s change that’s the constant, not its direction. It means you must keep advocating for what you believe in and not give up hope. I’m not a total optimist, but I am a half-full glass kind of person now, and I’m probably happier for that.


Any closing thoughts?

I feel very fortunate to have grown up when I did and attend a college like Swarthmore, which was both a safe haven and a place that encouraged thought, conversation, and action about important issues. It was the ideal mix for someone like me, and I will always hold dear that time of my life.