Janet Pocorobba at Harvard Book Store
Harvard Book Store welcomes Lesley University associate professor of creative writing JANET POCOROBBA for a discussion of her debut memoir, The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me.
About The Fourth String
The word sensei in Japanese literally means “one who came before,” but that’s not what Janet Pocorobba’s teacher wanted to be called. She used her first name, Western-style. She wore a velour Beatles cap and leather jacket, and she taught foreigners, in English, the three-stringed shamisen, an instrument that fell out of tune as soon as you started to play it. Vexed by the music and Sensei’s mission to upend an elite musical system, Pocorobba, on the cusp of thirty, gives up her return ticket home to become a lifelong student of her teacher. She is eventually featured in Japan Cosmo as one of the most accomplished gaijin, “outside people,” to play the instrument.
Part memoir, part biography of her Sensei, The Fourth String looks back on the initial few years of that apprenticeship, one that Janet’s own female English students advised her was “wife training,” steeped in obedience, loyalty, and duty. Even with her maverick teacher, Janet is challenged by group hierarchies, obscure traditions, and the tricky spaces of silence in Japanese life.
Anmoku ryokai, Sensei says to explain: “We have to understand without saying.” By the time Janet finds out this life might not be for her, she is more at home in the music than the Japanese will allow. For anyone who has had a special teacher, or has lost themselves in another world, Janet Pocorobba asks questions about culture, learning, tradition, and self.
“Moving and provocative, The Fourth String charts a profound journey into the heart of another culture. What does it mean to teach and be taught? What does it mean to transform and be transformed? Are teacher and student finally, above all, comrades? This memoir—part biography, part autobiography, part portrait of an alchemy—is as transmuting as its subject, and a joy to read.” —Gish Jen, author of The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap
"An insightful and deeply generous book written by a woman as open to surprises within herself as she is to the revelations she discovers about her temporarily adoptive country of Japan. Janet Pocorobba is by turns curious, funny, sensitive, and always, always brave." —Pamela Petro, travel writer and author of Travels in an Old Tongue, The Slow Breath of Stone, and Sitting Up With the Dead
"The Fourth String is a piercingly insightful memoir of a young woman's search for herself by diving into the demanding traditional art form of the shamisen in a country renowned for keeping outsiders at arms' length." —Liza Dalby, author of Geisha, Kimono, Tale of Murasaki