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Centre for Stories

City Retreat Creatives – An Interview with Susan Laura Sullivan

"I think stories broaden our worlds while bringing other people into our unique, personal interpretation of our lives or of the communities around us."

March 13, 2019

In March 2019, the Centre for Stories opened its doors to creatives for an in-house writing retreat. The retreat is designed to allow creatives use of our facilities to write during the day with like-minded people. Sue Sullivan is a traveller, a teacher, and a lover of stories. Get to know Sue below.

A woman smiling at the camera. She is sitting in a comfortable arm chair in front of a large bookshelf.

You live in Japan where you work as a lecturer. How long have you been living in Japan and what do you teach?

I’ve lived in Japan, on and off, for fourteen to sixteen years, with a huge eleven-year break between my first experience of living there and my second. I currently teach English, but have taught comparative culture, and when I get the chance, I incorporate writing into my lessons. In one lesson, I adapted the Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes installation into my classroom. This was all about storytelling.

The Empathy Museum’s concept is that you wear another person’s shoes and listen to a podcast of their story and wander around for ten minutes viscerally experiencing their story. This was impractical for a classroom, so my students took photos of shoes that had taken them on some kind of journey—whether it be physically, emotionally, or otherwise. They then uploaded images related to this journey, and narrated their experience, incorporating elements of story, over the images. The students listened to each others stories, which helped them to learn and understand more about their classmates, and has inspired them to not only continue to improve their communication skills in another language, but to try new experiences.

What was it like moving from Australia to Japan and around the world?

I have moved often in my life, even from suburb to suburb in the Perth metropolitan area, and state to state in Australia. I think it’s time to settle down!

The keenest identity loss or culture shock I have experienced, was when I moved from Perth to Melbourne as a twenty-two year old, soon after I graduated from my Bachelor of Arts: Creative Writing from Curtin University. The next keenest, was my initial move to Japan. I was twenty-three when I first went to Japan. The experience totally made me reassess myself—as did the trip to Melbourne, but in different ways. I went from being firmly ensconced in the hegemony of Perth (except the female part) to the role of a privileged outsider. Japan has changed a lot over the years, but in those days students would tell you they were afraid of blue eyes (they didn’t see them regularly), and you would be pointed at on the street or called out for being foreign. This was a good experience to have, because it was an opportunity to analyse concepts and attitudes that I took for granted and my own unconscious bias.

I met a great many wonderful Japanese people, and also folks from many other countries who were as keen on travel and new experiences. The second time it was like coming home. It was after eleven years, so I still had to adjust, but I was more confident and comfortable in myself, and knew how to adapt to new—and sometimes uncomfortable—situations a whole lot better. I also knew how to better seek out support and connect with people. It helped that I could speak some Japanese by then, though I am shamefully not fluent.

I have lived in Japan, New Zealand, Oman and the United States for varying times across my life. All are different and similar in their own way. Most people will help people wherever you are, and hurt and laugh and respond at a fundamental level to situations in similar ways. In terms of difference, I learnt how to live in a cold climate in Christchurch in New Zealand, I learnt how to live in an extremely hot climate in Oman, and how to drive on the right side of the road—pretty damned fast—so the highway cowboys didn’t tail your car. I loved the art, vibrancy and nature of the United States, and it was an interesting experience to be regarded as an outsider in an English speaking country in ways I don’t experience in Australia, and didn’t experience—much—in New Zealand.

What brings you to the City Retreat at the Centre for Stories?

I’ve followed the Centre for Stories since its inception. I like its apparent policies on diversity and inclusion, and it’s always running interesting events related to storytelling. When I saw an advertisement for a City Retreat at the Centre for Stories, I contacted the Centre fairly quickly, as it seemed a peaceful place to get some writing done, and a great place to connect with like-minded people.

What do stories mean to you?

Stories are representation. Someone who might not have the same experiences as you can possibly understand those experiences through story, and at a deeper level, depending on how they are told. There can be an immediate, emotional connection, good and bad, and also a lingering reflection. I think stories broaden our worlds while bringing other people into our unique, personal interpretation of our lives or of the communities around us. They help us understand ourselves as we tell them also.

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We’re on a mission to create a diverse, inclusive, and cohesive society through the art of storytelling. Join us in supporting emerging artists and sharing powerful stories from across our community.

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