Guest Chick: Elizabeth Wilkerson

We are thrilled to welcome Elizabeth Wilkerson, author of Tokyo Firewall–and she’s offering a wonderful giveaway! Read on for more…

Poisoning my dinner party guests wasn’t my intention…

I moved to Tokyo in the late ‘80s to study butoh dance. I didn’t speak Japanese, but I figured I could learn the language by osmosis just by being in the flow of everyday life. I was wrong. Not only could I not speak Japanese, but I couldn’t read it, either. I was illiterate.

Tokyo, like a lot of cosmopolitan cities, makes global travel comfortable for foreign visitors. Directions are posted in English, you can see recognizable shops. All the trappings of home while on the other side of the planet. You might even think you’re still in Kansas.

But if you scratch the veneer in Tokyo—and the veneer is washi paper thin—you’re no longer looking at signs with Roman letters; you’re confronted by Japanese kanji characters. And you realize that you’re on your own. And you’re illiterate.

What’s the station your train just arrived at? What’s on the menu of the restaurant you’re standing in front of? You could order a meal the way I used to, by pointing to whatever the person sitting next to me was eating. “I’ll have what she’s having.” My version of “When Harry Met Sally.”

I managed to sidestep my literacy problem by staying in areas of Tokyo that were easy for foreigners to navigate. Emboldened by my sense of cultural acclimation (translation: I’d learned to walk on the left side of the sidewalk to avoid getting trampled, and not to try to open a taxi door) the dinner party bug bit me.

I love throwing dinner parties. When I was a kid, my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Mumbai (Bombay at the time) named Homai. She shared a recipe for chicken curry which became the foundation of my failsafe dinner party menu. Add a tossed salad with a simple Dijon vinaigrette and I was ready to entertain. Easy peasy, no stress. And my dinner guests always enjoyed the meal.

Off I went to the nearby multipurpose store that sold food—not to be confused with an American-style grocery store—to get my dinner party fixins. Chicken, tomatoes, vegetable oil, vinegar, lettuce, onions. Foolproof.

Back at my apartment, I prepped the chicken and gathered the oil and vinegar for my salad dressing. Easy peasy. Until I poured my salad oil in the mixing bowl. The oil—bubbly and floral-scented—turned out to be dishwashing liquid. Uh. Oh. WWMD? (What would Martha do?)

Not to be daunted by a failed vinaigrette, I figured I’d whip up a salad and sprinkle on some vinegar. After chopping my tomatoes, I tore off a lettuce leaf only to discover that I hadn’t bought a head of lettuce—I’d bought cabbage. The produce in Tokyo is slightly different, but different enough. And I couldn’t read the store display. Because I was illiterate.

Japan’s literacy rate is 99.9%. Everybody can read. To graduate from high school, Japanese students have to know 2136 Japanese characters. And it takes every year of school from first grade through high school to learn them all.

In the States, one out of seven adults is functionally illiterate. As a reader and writer, I’m heartbroken imagining what it must be like not being able to enjoy books. Not to mention the barriers, vulnerabilities, and dangers of illiteracy.

Have you ever been someplace where you were plunged into illiteracy? Perhaps a foreign country or even a local neighborhood where the storefront signage was in a language you couldn’t read?

What did you feel? Off-balance? A sense of adventure? Embarrassment? Did you ask someone for help, make a best guess, or retreat to the known? I like to step back and observe how I react in new situations. The inner journey that mirrors the outer journey which is travel.

Please share your experiences in the comments below! One commenter will receive a signed copy of my book along with a bottle of Shichimi Togarashi from Yagenbori who’s been blending spices in Tokyo’s Asakusa district for 400 years. 

My thriller Tokyo Firewall is set in the ‘90s, a time of dial-up modems and floppy disks. Alison Crane, a lonely American lawyer suffering from culture shock in Japan, tiptoes onto the brand new digital frontier looking for friendship only to find trouble when a twisted sexual predator targets her. As her stalker’s attacks intensify, Alison must parlay her legal smarts and budding computer skills to stand her ground, or she’ll lose her only sources of freedom. And maybe her life…

Tokyo Firewall on Amazon:

Check out the book trailer:

Homai’s Curry Chicken

1 fryer chicken, cut up
2 large onions, diced
Butter or ghee
3 to 4 tomatoes, sectioned
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon red pepper
3 bunches of parsley, chopped
1 cup shredded coconut, optional

Simmer chicken in one cup of water with salt and pepper for about 20 minutes.
Sauté onion in butter.
Add chicken and other ingredients with about ½ cup of water, reserving 1/2 of the parsley and 1/2 of the coconut.
Simmer for about 20 minutes until chicken is done.
Add the rest of the parsley and coconut.
Serve with rice or poori.

Elizabeth Wilkerson was one of Silicon Valley’s first cyber lawyers.

She lived in Tokyo where she practiced securities law, studied butoh dance, and founded a company to present African-American culture to Japanese audiences.

A native of Cleveland, she graduated from Harvard and holds JD and MBA degrees from Stanford.

Get in touch at

48 thoughts on “Guest Chick: Elizabeth Wilkerson

  1. I used to be very shy, but I’ve learned to ask for help when I am in a confusing situation. I remember trying out my French in Paris and being told, “Just speak English,” and then going to Italy and being encouraged to speak and learn Italian (which I did!) I don’t know how I’d do in Japan, but I can say “hello,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” in Japanese. What is butch dance?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi, Celia! “Just speak English.” Ouch! But it must feel great speaking Italian. I wish I could.

    Butoh dance is an avant-garde, expressionistic style of dance theatre from Japan. The first time I saw it was when I was dancing in New York. Sankai Juku was touring the US after being named Japan’s cultural contribution to the Olympics in LA. They rocked my world. Here’s a snippet:

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Becky, the dinner party was a success, no thanks to me. One dinner party guest looked at my cabbage and my Dijon mustard and asked if I had a banana. I did. 🤷🏽‍♀️🤔 He went to the kitchen and came back with some sautéed concoction that everyone loved. (Years years later, I married him!)

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Exactly what I was thinking, Becky! I bet this book is amazing with suspense if I can get this caught up over a dinner party in a blog post. Great story.

        Love how this post draws the parallel between being in a foreign land and advocacy for literacy. We have people who feel like strangers in their own home. Being sensitive to our friends and neighbors who are struggling is a good first step. But also see if your local library, school district, or university has volunteer opportunities! Being part of our literacy support system has changed my life and I’m sure it will yours too.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m going to contact the local library, Etta, and see what kind of volunteer opportunities they have for adult literacy programs. Hearing your enthusiasm makes me want to actually do something I’ve thought about for a while. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. What a scary experience, Lisa! Trapped in a maze while experiencing a panic attack, and none of the people around can help you. What comes to mind is the title of Harlan Ellison’s story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” I haven’t read the short story, but the title has always terrified me.


  3. I took a semester of Japanese before going there for two weeks and, although I was able to have very simple conversations with people, I still felt pretty darn illiterate, because the kanji is so completely foreign. I thought that Bill Murray movie, Lost In Translation, did a fabulous job portraying the experience of an American feeling completely lost in the Japanese culture.

    Thanks so much for visiting today, Elizabeth. Your book sounds terrific!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Leslie! I envy you that you studied Japanese before going there. I encourage friends who are traveling to Japan to take even a weekend to learn some of the basic language. I think it enhances the experience. And about the movie Lost in Translation, I’m not a fan. No doubt, it’s beautifully shot with talented actors, but it didn’t grab me the way it seems to have grabbed virtually everyone else. I’m still trying to figure out the disconnect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a slow movie, to be sure, but I just thought it captured so well the feelings of confusion, alienation, loneliness and, well, disconnect. And the backdrop of Tokyo, which is already so confusing to most Westerners, was perfect to set the tone.


  4. I’ve traveled to foreign countries a little, so I get the idea of being illiterate you are talking about. It is extremely scary. I don’t think we realize how much we count on our abilities to read on a daily basis when we are at home.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I haven’t done much foreign travel, so I can only imagine how you felt trying to get around without knowing the native language. The closest I’ve come to feeling illiterate is probably reading technical manuals. Some of those might as well have been written in Japanese!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. In the mid-’90s my husband had an unaccompanied year long tour in South Korea for the Air Force. I visited him for a couple of weeks. What a shock. We had lived in Spain for four years, and while it wasn’t easy to understand everything around you, you could sound it out, guess, and put things together. No so with Korea. Illiterate is exactly the way to describe it. The Air Force base was familiar and just like home – go out the front gate and it’s all different and no way you can guess. As for being comfortable, not so much. At that time and in that location American women weren’t all that popular on their own, but I did enjoy the beautiful sights and shopping and interaction with local folks.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. My husband was stationed in Korea, 1978 – 1979. It was an “unaccompanied” tour, but I joined him. We were at Camp Humphreys, an hour south of Seoul. We lived off-post, in a small apartment. Our landlady was also our maid and cook. (The good life!) I learned enough Korean to go to the market without my small dictionary (a red letter day for me), and could chat with our maid. Watching TV helped too. (“Columbo” speaking Korean was funny, but also helpful.) The first Korean word I learned was “su-bok”, or watermelon, as it was brutally hot when I first arrived. On the whole, I loved the time we spent there. The people were lovely. The food was wonderful. Good times.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. When I travel I LOVE turning on the TV. When my kids were young they watched the cartoon show “Arthur” and I watched an episode in Irish when I was in Ireland. And we were recently in eastern Europe and I saw “Friends” in Hungarian. Really interesting. I’d love to see Columbo in Korean!


  8. Someone cooking Korean food for you in Korea. What a life, Mary! And watching TV is a great way to learn conversational language. What’s your favorite Korean dish? I love kimchi, but my husband and I have to both eat it at the same time to cancel out the garlic!


    1. I never had a bad meal. Kimchi, in all its variations was (and is) a favorite. The soup is what I especially remember. All were delicious, but she made one with a green similar to Swiss chard that was fantastic. And the vegetables were wonderful, I fell in love with bean sprout salad. And the tiny dried fish that were silvery – a small piece of laver, a small scoop of rice, then three or four of those fish, pop into your mouth, and do it again!


  9. Fascinating stories, Elizabeth–and your book sounds truly amazing! I did have a fun time in the Gaeltacht region of Ireland (even after taking Gaelic classes, where I’d learned to say helpful things like, “The priest is in the chapel.”). But long ago I had a panic attack after becoming completely disoriented while driving through a very conservative religious neighborhood in Brooklyn. Because of their cultural traditions, they could not respond in any way to a clueless idiot asking directions on the Sabbath. I began to feel as if I’d been trapped in a movie 20 minutes from my own apartment, in which I didn’t actually exist. Eventually, after I turned down the wrong streets over and over, a very elderly man took pity on me, and silently directed me out with hand gestures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should add, I’m afraid that story I just posted didn’t have anything to do with the important subject of literacy–I just meant that I felt helpless by not being able to communicate.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Lisa, what a nightmarish, surreal experience— having a panic attack while being lost in a maze amidst people but they can’t help you. It reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Actually, I’ve never read the story, but the title is terrifying.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I just looked it up, Elizabeth! The story is post-apocalyptic sci-fi–and it seems very disturbing, lol.


      1. Love it! Must have been the same textbook. (Actually, it was more like a little booklet, with illustrations.)


  10. Elizabeth, loved hearing about your Tokyo experience — thanks for sharing and for visiting with the Chicks today! Homai’s Curry Chicken sounds delish and I have all the ingredients on hand, so I’m thinking: dinner!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re in for a treat, Vickie. Homai’s recipe is delicious and very forgiving. Please consider making poori to go along. They’re fun to watch puff up!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I also was thrilled to see a curry with these basic ingredients. Can’t wait to try it. Thanks, Elizabeth! (And I love poori, yum.)


    1. Thanks much, Ellen! I hope you try the curry recipe. When Homai made it, she served it with poori. I’ll have to dig through my files to see if I have that recipe.

      And earlier in the day on Chicks, Celia was asking me about butoh. It’s an avant-garde Japanese dance form, highly expressionistic, and rejecting the formal structures of Western dance technique, especially ballet. Here’s a link to one of my favorite photo dance companies, Sankai Juku:
      When I saw them perform in New York, I was the last one to leave the theater. I was sobbing tears the performance was so beautiful. 😭😭😭 Have you ever seen art so utterly beautiful that all you can do is cry?

      Liked by 2 people

  11. When I was first married we took a trip along the Gulf Coast and I had a really hard time understanding the people with a southern accent. When we went into a restaurant in Mobile, Alabama the hostess greeted us and I can remember looking at her with a blank look on my face. Luckily my husband had no trouble understanding her.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve had the same disorienting experience, Diane. I’ve struggled to have conversations with people speaking English. 🤷🏽‍♀️ They say that most “conversation” happens on a level other than the word spoken. I believe that.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Thank you so much for visiting us today, Elizabeth! What a thoughtful post. And thank you for sharing your recipe. 🙂

    Your first book is so suspensefu–great readl! Are you working on another right now?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for having me here with the Chicks. So much thought-provoking conversation, I’m still digesting it all. And to answer your question – – yes! I’m working on a standalone plus a series.

      Please stay in touch through my website or Instagram @elizwilkerson or tweet LizzWilk.

      If anyone makes Homai’s curry chicken recipe, I’d love to hear from them.

      Happy summer!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Please come back soon, Elizabeth! I’ll let you know how the curry turns out. Disclaimer: I have the least culinary talent of all the Chicks.


  13. I’ve never been anywhere I couldn’t read, since I’ve only been outside the US twice: to Canada as a child and only barely into Mexico when I honeymooned in San Diego. I can imagine it must be a helpless feeling, though. Your book sounds great—ty for the giveaway. Legallyblonde1961 at yahoo dot com


  14. Thanks for your kind words, KaraLeigh. If you don’t have international travel planned, there are always books with exotic locations. No passport needed!


    1. I know what you mean, Donamae. Sometimes I don’t even refer to the directions and I just “let the force be with me!”


  15. And the random number generator has picked the winner of the giveaway – – MARY EMAN! 💥👏🏽🎉📚💃🏾 Congratulations, MARY! 💥🎉 I’ll be in touch about getting your prize to you. And thanks everyone for visiting with me here on Chicks!


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