A short fiction piece based on actual events is in Eastlit Journal. Hope to hear your comments.
1935 Hawthorne High yearbook
Robert and Grace has been recognized as
AND a revised version of the story will also appear in the November issue of Eastlit Journal
as Robert and the BOMB
Eastlit Journal, Creative Writing, Literature and Art focused on East and South East Asia
Thank you for your interest and support.
Nanako V Mizushima
As a writer, I’m always asking myself whether I should be reading or writing–there’s only so many hours in the day, so many years left before I’m senile, so much electricity left before a magnetic sun storm wipes out civilization as we know it. Do I really have time to read? Shouldn’t I use every spare moment I have to write? To produce something? Reading something, especially a book, seems so indulgent in this age, so mentally fattening. I don’t have time to sit by the fireplace (which is never lit anyway) and curl up with a book. When I do take a break after a busy day, I either look at Facebook or turn on the flatscreen to watch movies or my favorite HBO series because I can multitask (knit, fold laundry, eat) while I absent mindedly watch.
But every once in a while I have the urge to stop consuming junk food, and fast. I turn off the computer and TV, and I pick up a book. And another book. And another book. Interestingly, when I take the time to stop writing, I have the urge to wolf down as many books as possible, in other words–binge reading. Then, to continue in my lovely eating metaphor–I have the urge to write about what I binge read–in other words–vomit out my thoughts in the hopes that a few nuggets of wisdom have remained in my brain that I can share with you.
Over the past few weeks, I read or re-read In Other Words and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Seamstress by Sara Tuval Bernstein, Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, Unforgettable by Scott Simon, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and three books by Alexandra Fuller: Don’t Lets Go the the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Leaving Before the Rains Come. As you may have noticed, these are narrative non-fiction books–“true stories”– except for Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (a collection of short stories.) But even Lahiri’s fiction is firmly rooted in her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. One reason I choose to read these books is for practical purposes–I need to read good non-fiction writing in order to write good non-fiction. But the other reason I’m drawn to these stories is their texture. The vitality, layers of meaning which seem to have grown in the rich soil of true life. For some inexplicable reason, a sentence written by someone who has truly experienced a tragedy, a trauma, a story rings much clearer–feels more visceral–than one written by someone who pulls it out of a hat.
I’ve picked out a few lines from Leaving Before the Rains Come because they are relevant to my own writing. Like me, Fuller is of the immigrant culture (a white girl who grew up in Africa and moved to Wyoming). In this book, Fuller explores her marriage and divorce. She explains her attraction to Charlie, a white American from an old Philadelphia family.
“I suppose in some instinctive way, I believed that Charlie would be the route back to something more solid and enduring. After all, inasmuch as settlers of anywhere could be, he was of this nation; too many generations to count back how long his people had been here. Our children would be able to stand unabashedly unshod upon this soil, they would sense their ancestors, they would feel a belonging.”
Although I write from the perspective of a Nisei, a Japanese-American who lives in predominantly white Colorado, I think that anyone who feels lonely, who longs to belong to a community, can relate to Fuller’s words. Every newcomer tries to connect to others by finding that rock, the solid person who seems to be firmly rooted. But Fuller also writes about the feeling of alienation from, not only other people, but from those who only remain in our heads.
“There is no loneliness quite like the loneliness that comes from living without ancestors, without the constant, lively accompaniment of the dead.”
Perhaps Americans, whose dead are safely locked away in antiseptic morgues and cemeteries, might have a hard time understanding this type of loneliness. Bernstein’s WWII memoir, The Seamstress, based on her childhood in Romania and the grim Ravensbruck concentration camp is littered with lively, colorful characters–some wise, some foolish, some brave– all dead now. Bernstein’s story was dictated by all the ghosts in her mind. In Japanese culture, for example, one never says goodbye to the dead. There’s the tsuya (wake) first, then a funeral, then a kotsuage at the cremation, then ,shonanoka seven days after death, and the shijūkunichi 49 days after death, and another memorial 100 days after death. At the annual Obon festival everyone celebrates the dead by visiting graves, reminiscing, dancing and telling ghost stories. Then as if this wasn’t enough, at home, in between these death gatherings, I’ve seen Japanese offer food to the small urn of ashes before every meal, and share the news of the day –“Look, isn’t this a lovely handbag I got today”– as if the dead were sitting across the living.
In my current writing project, translation (Japanese to English) is an additional challenge to coming up with my own writing. I translated my deceased father’s Japanese letters and used them as an anchor to write my own thoughts. Jumpa Lahiri in In Other Words, described the process of translation beautifully:
“I think that translating is the most profound, most intimate way of reading. A translation is a wonderful, dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers. It entails a doubling, a renewal….It was a way of getting close to different languages, of feeling connected to writers very distant from me in space and time.”
Translation is to writing as crawling is to hiking. It’s a lot slower and messy but one is still working towards the same objective: to connect to a different place and time. To get from one place to another across the landscape of life through words. Words written in another language. One may stumble over the rocks, the individual words, and fall occasionally but those accidents are what add joy and interest to the journey, and satisfaction when reaching the end.
Finally, one more twist to the metaphor I started with–eating. Eating books is not just about digesting the contents, getting through all the pages. I like to think that reading is to writing as tasting is to cooking.Of course, it is possible to cook without tasting, but then how can one develop the nuances, the textures, the complexity of a unforgettable meal? I hope that as the words of these books I read slip through my retina, I took notice of them. I let them sink into my mind. If I occasionally stop to reflect and write about certain passages, maybe their wonderful qualities will remain in my brain, ready–I hope–to be sprinkled into my own writing like subtle seasoning. I know that the question isn’t one of whether I should be reading or writing. One cannot be separated from the other, just as eating cannot be separated from speaking. Without food, one’s voice will soon fade. Reading is life.
“When you’re a middle aged woman with three children, you can’t go off to the base of Mt Everest to find yourself.”
Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight
As Mother’s Day approaches, I thought about how women find their own heroes. We avidly read and watch movies about true survival–Louie Zamperini in “Unbroken”, Aron Ralston in “127 Hours” or frontiersman Hugh Glass in “the Revenant”–because we wonder how we would survive? How would we act in such terrible conditions? But as Alexandra Fuller noted in her interview with Book Circle Online, while these male survival stories are well-known and dramatic, women’s stories are often overlooked. Women think about their children before putting themselves in physical danger or undertaking a challenge. A woman’s inner journey is as important as the mountain climbed. Or if a woman does survive danger, her story is discounted. We need to read women’s survival stories to find our own heroes.
Tei Fujiwara, a mother of three small children, was forced to test her physical, intellectual and emotional strength when she and her family became refugees in North Korea at the end of WWII. Expecting not to survive, she wrote down her story in the hope that her young children would gain strength from this remarkable account after her death. But instead of dying and her story disappearing into the attic, Tei’s memoir was published, became a bestseller in Post-war Japan and has now been translated into English. Tei not only survived, her story inspired an entire generation of war-weary Japanese as they rebuilt their nation into an industrial giant. As of this writing, Tei at 98 years old, is still alive in a senior home in Tokyo, although she suffers from Alzheimers. The paperback version of Tei, a memoir of the end of war and beginning of peace is available for a special sale price of $9 through the Facebook Page.
A writer friend asked me if I had written many short stories. I’ve played around with the form often but only published one. Three years ago I published this short story with the now-defunct Fat City Review. I am a bit chagrined when I read it now but here it is for your reading pleasure.
The old waiter brought Matt a glass of beer.
“Your neighbor’s a gang member. That’s why you got that place so cheap.”
Matt’s heart sank. A gang member. Thugs, drug dealers, killers. Shit. He felt foolish for congratulating himself on his good fortune. Finding a one room apartment so close to campus. Dad was going to have a cow.
In fact, after Matt had signed the lease, he was so happy that he stopped at the Corner Cafe to celebrate. The Café was the first place Matt ate at when he first came to New York City last year. An ordinary place for the locals but exotic for a kid from out West. Worn seats, faded carpet and waiters who didn’t try to become your best friend. Matt shared his good news with the waiter who served him. But the old guy just sighed. Another rube from out of town.
Matt thought, “I’m an idiot”
The old man noticed Matt’s dejection. “Son, don’t worry. Your neighbor is one of the lower guys in the family – Charlie is his name. If you stay out of his way, he probably won’t bother you.”
Probably won’t bother me. Great.
Loyalty to the gang, to the family, big gorillas with knuckles dragging on the floor. That’s what a gang member meant. There’s nothing glorious about them any more now that Matt graduated from college and managed to get into the Masters program in sociology at Columbia. It was more of a continuation of college than a professional school since he still wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. He only knew what he didn’t want to do. He didn’t want to be a businessman. He didn’t want to be a lawyer. Dad was watching him like a hawk even after he moved across the country. If he got into any kind of trouble, Dad would hit the roof. He could just hear him now. “You never did have much common sense. You should have checked with me before you signed the lease.”
Well, they didn’t need to know. It was his own business. Anyway, he was never going to invite family to his place while he was a student. When Matt started looking for his own on place in the Upper West Side, the man in the realtor’s office had discouraged him from looking at this cheap listing but Matt immediately liked the look of the red brick building. No nonsense. Clean and close to the campus. Six small units, two units on each floor. His place was on the top floor. With his own tiny bathroom and kitchen, he’d have a lot more privacy than he did at the graduate dorm. Hearing every cough and fart of the fellow residents got old. And unlike a lot of the one room apartments squeezed between tall buildings, sunlight actually came in through a window in back. There was even a little bit of a view – if he leaned to one side, he could see a corner of Riverside Park, glimmering like a green oasis in a grey desert.
He couldn’t help bragging about his place to his little sister, Sara, when she called. As far as she was concerned, her brother had moved to the moon.
“Mattie. Mattie. It sucks here. Dad and Mom have no one to pester so they’ve started picking on me.”
Matt envied Sara. She could do whatever she wanted without getting criticized every step of the way. “Why are you wasting your time? What are you doing with your life? Have you started thinking about your career? On and on and on.” Getting away from Dad, going as far as he could, was what Matt wanted. Columbia was a label Dad could use to keep up appearances when he bragged to his office. “It’s not Harvard but it’s one of the Ivies,” he could say.
Matt moved in right away. He climbed up the narrow stairs, his footsteps seemed to announce. Here… I…come…up…the….stairs. The hallway, without any carpeting, didn’t help. As he walked by his neighbor’s door, he couldn’t help but tread lightly. Was Charlie looking out of the peephole in his door? Getting a glimpse of the hick who moved in next door?
For the first few days, Matt listened carefully to figure out what his neighbor’s routine was. Even resorting to placing the drinking glass on the wall. No sense in running into him on the way to classes. On his way home, he stopped at the used bookstore across the street and pretended to get engrossed in a bargain book as he peeked sideways at his building, making sure Charlie wasn’t on his way in or out before he dashed up the stairs, leaping over two steps at a time.
But a month later, Matt saw Charlie for the first time. The back of his head as he opened the front door and left. A short dark guy. About 25, wiry, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans which made him indistinguishable from the thousands of other guys on the street. But then he glimpsed the blue tattoo on his neck, snaking out of his T-shirt and up behind his ear. In the movies, a gang member wore flashy sunglasses and gold chains but Matt had never seen a real one. The criminals back home were probably like annoying baby raccoons next to the wolves here in this city. Matt prayed as he stood frozen in the hallway. Oh, don’t look at me. Don’t look at me. When Charlie got all the way down the stairs and the front door slammed shut, Matt discreetly watched him through the window.
By the middle of the semester, avoiding Charlie became such a routine part of his life that Matt forgot about it when he talked with his sister, Sara. She was all excited about the Cosmopolitan Club she joined on campus. She was having a lot of fun meeting all the foreign students. Even as a freshman, she was given the job of Hospitality Coordinator and her first assignment was to take care of the foreign students who had come for the semester.
She said, “Mattie, I have a favor to ask. A Japanese student, Taro, needs a place to stay when he visits New York City over the winter holidays. He’s a really sweet guy. I told him he could stay with you.”
Japanese. Matt remembered the only other Japanese person he knew. The college girl who visited his middle school when he was 15. Noriko. She was fun. She looked so much younger than the other teachers. And she was cute. Noriko showed the kids how to fold origami. Paper birds, people, stars, and even paper butterflies.
Matt fell in love with her but was disappointed when he found out half of the class had secretly fallen in love with her, too. After Noriko went back to Japan, she sent a really nice letter back to the class. Matt was disappointed she didn’t specifically mention him.
“Sure. That’s OK,” he blurted out. Then he remembered about Charlie. Shit, he thought, we’ll just avoid him. No point in getting worried about something that’s not going to happen. He didn’t mention it to Sara.
December brought the brutal weather from across the Atlantic. Icy winds that gathered speed as they blew through the city canyons. The cold in New York City went right through his coat and penetrated his bones. Matt’s feet got soaked in the black, muddy pools of slush in the street. The only way to really warm up was to soak in a hot bath. The little tub in Matt’s apartment was a lot smaller than the one at home but he could still get the hot water up to his chin if he propped his legs up on the wall and lay back. With only the sound of water dripping, Matt heard murmurs from Charlie’s side. Charlie’s door opening and closing. Voices of men. Laughter. Music. Charlie must be having friends over. Gang member friends.
Matt got out, too nervous to relax in the tub. Throwing on a sweatshirt and jeans, he went to grab a cold beer from the tiny fridge. He wiped the sweat off of his face with the hand towel.
Pushing his door open a crack, Matt saw the hallway was wet with the dirty sleet tracked in from the street. Charlie’s door was halfway open and the back of a man’s shoulders and legs were visible. Their conversation a murmur. Then the man stepped back from the door and a flash of a white envelope disappeared into his jacket. The man glanced at Matt as he turned to go down the stairs. A glassy look which didn’t even see him. Matt’s shoulder muscles tightened back into a knot. He shivered. There must be a dozen guys in there now. Their loud laughter drifted through the door in waves. One guy had a hyena laugh. Matt locked the door and turned off his lights. Burying his head under the covers, he drifted off into restless sleep.
Over the next month, a recurring dream Matt had was one of running. Running from building to building as gang members chased him. He had to get to his classes. But he had to dodge knives slicing through the air. Bullets zinging by his head. Ducking into doors as he tried to get to classes on time. Matt blamed the dreams on too many movies.
Taro arrived the first day of winter break. He was just as Sara had described him. Real earnest. Looked like he was fifteen even though he was 25. His jet black hair stuck out in all directions like the feathers on a new chick. Skinny as a rail but dressed decently. His English was a little tricky to understand but his smile was so genuine that it was hard not to like him right away. The city didn’t seem to faze him at all.
Matt planned to show off by taking Taro to the Met, the Guggenheim, and maybe a Broadway show. But Taro yawned as they walked through Matt’s favorite exhibit at the museum – the monuments of ancient Egypt. Taro saw through Matt’s ruse of knowing anything about the city. So Taro negotiated himself into taking charge of the day’s activities through a series of pointing, nods, and half-conversations. With Japanese guidebook in hand, Taro dragged Matt through the labyrinth of public transportation to strange little enclaves in the city. Sunset Park. East Village and Le Petit Senegal. Places Matt had never heard of.
At first, Matt panicked when Taro disappeared into some hole in the wall. That Japanese guy was surprisingly quick. Several times after getting off of the bus or emerging from the subway, Matt found himself spinning around looking for the black tufted head which had gone ahead. Taro’s head would be smoothly bobbing into the sea of people while Matt clumsily swam through the crowd to catch up.
After a third day of chasing Taro through yet another unfamiliar part of the city, Matt suggested they grab a pizza and come back early to the apartment. There was no point in trying to impress his visitor anymore. It was all Matt could do to keep up with this relentless tourist. He was on the verge of nodding off on the sofa when someone knocked on the door. Taro jumped up and opened the door. It was Charlie.
“Hey man. I’m your neighbor.”
Matt froze. It was the first time he had ever heard Charlie’s voice. He sounded oily and slick.
Taro stuck out his hand and cheerily said, “My name is Taro. I come from Japan. Nice to meet you.”
Matt fell over himself as he stumbled over to the front door.
Charlie smiled and slapped Matt’s back. “Hey, neighbor. Aren’t you going to invite me in to meet your foreign friend?” And he walked right in, past Taro and Matt, with a paper bag. Charlie made himself at home on the floor, pulled out a six pack of beer out of the bag and offered one to Taro. Taro smiled, accepted the beer and sat on the floor across the cheap coffee table.
Charlie looked at Matt and nodded toward the sofa. Matt obediently sat himself between the muscled thug and the Japanese guest. Matt thought, Oh, my God.
Charlie leaned in toward Taro.
“Hey, man. I’m Charlie. I love sushi.”
Taro smiled. “I love soul food.”
Charlie laughed, “You’re kiddin, right? Soul food?”
Taro pulled out his camera. “I love hush puppy.” And proceeded to show Charlie a photo of the basket of round fried balls they had earlier in the day in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Taro pointed to them and said, “Be-rii good. Be-rii good.”
Charlie laughed with delight. He looked at Matt. “You showing him this stuff?”
Matt smiled weakly. “No. It wan’t my idea.”
Charlie slapped Taro on the back. “My favorite, too. But you gotta try the homemade kind.”
Taro beamed. A pang of jealousy hit Matt. Taro pulled out a small photo album from his bag and pointed to a shot of a small Japanese food stall. “You try tako-yakee. Be-rii good Japanese food.”
Where did this album come from? Taro had never shown this to Matt. Charlie peered at the photo. A grizzled looking Japanese man was using a stick to poke at round, doughy balls in what looked like a small worn muffin pan.
“Looks like doughnut holes,” he said.
Taro said, “No. No. Not donuts. This is oku ta pasu.”
When Charlie and Matt looked at each other with puzzlement, Taro jumped up and began flailing his arms. He puckered his mouth and opened his eyes wide as he danced in a circle. His arms were waving, Michael Jackson style.
Charlie laughed, “What the hell? What is that supposed to be?”
Matt mumbled, “I think he means octopus.”
Taro said, “Yes! Yes! I love tako-yaki.”
He proceeded to show Charlie and Matt more photos of people eating the small balls with toothpicks. Apparently each ball held a tiny chunk of octopus. They were using paper plates and standing around the food cart. Taro’s other photos were of similar food carts or stands. Some showed Taro smiling and holding up an unrecognizable morsel of something.
Charlie said, “Where’s the sushi?”
Taro explained that sushi was not street food. He ate what was cheap at food stalls and dives. But, obviously, this was the food he loved.
Charlie said, “Well, I’ll be dammed. I thought everyone over there ate sushi.”
Matt’s stomach ached from the effort of keeping still. He wanted to run out the door. But if he left, Charlie might get mad. Would a gang member come after him? And Sara would yell at him, “You did what?! You left Taro with a gang member?” And then of course, Dad would blame him for everything.
So Matt willed himself invisible and slumped into the sofa. Charlie kept asking questions.
“So what’s this stuff? What’s it taste like?”
Taro was delighted at his audience and kept going. Yakitori, kushiyaki, oden, yaki-imo. On and on and on. All Japanese street food of some sort. Finally, after going through dozens of photos and various pantomimes, Charlie got up.
“Gotta get going.” Taro started to get up, too.
Charlie pressed down on Taro’s shoulder, “No. No. Don’t get up. Thanks for telling me about your food.”
Charlie warmly smiled at Taro but then his face went back to the tough mask. He glanced at Matt and jerked his head toward the door. Matt thought, “Oh, shit. Now he’s going to beat me up.” Matt stood up and walked Charlie to the door. There weren’t any tattoos visible this time but he noticed a scar on the back of his neighbor’s head. A fine white line where the hair wasn’t growing. Was that from a knife fight? A bullet? Charlie turned around and stuck out his hand. Matt nervously put out his, the cold sweat in his palm pressing against the warm, sandy skin.
Charlie said, “Hey, man. That was cool. I learned a lot.” He waved back at Taro and Taro smiled.
Matt watched him go back into his apartment. Matt closed the door and turned back to Taro. He probably had no idea how dangerous Charlie was. Matt said,“You probably should stay away from that guy.”
“Why?” said Taro.
Matt mustered up his fatherly tone. “That guy is trouble. He’s with a gang.”
Taro considered the information, then looked at Matt with a steady gaze. “I am burakumin.”
Matt said, “What? What is…burakumin?”
Taro said, “You know samurai?”
“Samurai top class. Burakumin bottom class.”
“But…but everyone is equal in Japan, aren’t they? Japanese are all the same.” As soon as Matt said that, he knew he was wrong.
Taro said, “Burakumin are like…..gang. But in Japan for many, many years. Everybody knows. My father burakumin. My grandfather burakumin.”
Matt didn’t know what to say. Why did he feel like an idiot… again?
A few days later, Taro told Matt, he had plans to visit Long Island on his own so don’t wait up for him. Matt said, “Sure. Fine. Have fun. I’ll probably go out.”
The East Asian Library on campus was closed for the holidays so Matt went to the public library. When Matt asked the older female librarian about burakumin, she snapped, “Look it up yourself, young man.” New Yorkers are so friendly… not. But the information he found only confused him even more. Burakumin weren’t an ethnic group. They weren’t even poor. They were the same Japanese as 99% of the other citizens of Japan. The only difference was their original jobs hundreds of years ago – handlers of leather or the dead. Why would it matter any more? It’s not like India, right?
The bookstore across the street was quiet. Matt wandered through the narrow dusty aisles, picking up familiar titles. Catcher in the Rye. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Naked Lunch. But none of them seemed to lift his depressed mood. He checked the bins near the front of the store one more time. 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. This made him even more depressed. 1,000 Places You Know Nothing About was more like it. It was growing dark and he’d be alone again. Another thrilling night with Conan O’Brien.
Two days later, just when Matt was beginning to worry about Taro, the phone rang. It was an unlisted number.
“Hallo, Matt?” Taro’s voice sounded tinny.
“Hey, Taro. When are you getting back?”
“Matt. I want to tell you…I am not coming back.”
“Taro, I don’t know if that’s a good idea…,” Matt started but Taro paid no attention to the advice.
“Matt-san, you must not stop me. I cannot go back Japan. They will not let me marry Tomoko.”
Even if he had never had that rush himself – that real feeling of throwing everything into one person, that certainty – he recognized it. He could feel the months, maybe the years of agony in Taro’s voice. Would he ever be in love like that? But he had to caution Taro. “It’s not that easy in this country. You should think about it.”
Taro had already thought about it, judging from his quick reply. “Matt-san. Thank you for helping me. I am okay.”
“Taro, what am I supposed to tell Sara when you don’t go back?”
“Tell Sara-san thank you very much.”
One more try. Matt hated himself but couldn’t help it. He could already hear Dad. “Taro. What is your father going to say?” Silence.
“Matt-san, my father knows. This is my life.”
The silence was full of thought. Matt finally spoke. “Okay, Taro. I get it. Good luck to you.”
After a pause Taro said, “Why do American say – good luck? This is not luck. This is my decision.”
The phone call ended. Matt suddenly saw that this man was at a turning point in his life. He was leaving behind hundreds of years of pain and suffering. Leaving behind his father, his society, his country. Everything he knew and loved. Like millions of others before him, he was taking a leap of faith. A leap of faith into an unknown future. Taro had chosen his path.
“The hardest choices in life aren’t between what’s right and what’s wrong but between what’s right and what’s best.”
― Jamie Ford,
Having lived in Seattle for five years, I have only one regret. I wish I had taken the tour of the underground city. Apparently there are remains of old Seattle beneath today’s streets where one can see what life must have been like for the many people who came to seek their fortune in this beautiful coastal city.
Reading this book make up for part of that regret. Ford brought alive the ambiance of one of Seattle’s old neighborhoods which disappeared with WWII, Japantown. The many immigrants from China and Japan formed vibrant communities, not just to survive in the dominant white society, but also to keep their own languages and cultures alive.
I really enjoyed this coming of age story told from the perspective of an elderly Chinese-American man. Through the discovery of dusty personal possessions stored and long forgotten in a shuttered old hotel, the elderly man remembers what happened a lifetime ago-when he fell in love with another exile, a Japanese-American girl who was the only other non-white student in his school.
Apparently, this old hotel really does exist and was restored as it was described in this story. Ford created an entertaining, moving story around this hotel, a story of two young people who form a bond despite the many barriers put up by their families, society and the world at war. This story personalized how American children experienced WWII, the internment of friends and classmates who happened to be Japanese-American, and the difficult, complex relationships between Whites, Chinese and Japanese during those years.
When I lived in Seattle, I often went shopping in the International District. There were tantalizing hints of its history in the funky old buildings and the mish-mash of shops and restaurants. But I was too busy in those days to look beyond the surface. Now I know something about that neighborhood; Japantown, its community, people and businesses which originally thrived in that same area, and why Japantown disappeared.
The LIghthouse Writers Workshop sent me the following email:
Congratulations! Hundreds of writers from all over the country applied for spots in our 2016 juried intensives, and your application for the Advanced Memoir with Alexandra Fuller has been selected for a spot by our jury. Yay for you!
This will be the first time for me to be in a writing intensive with someone of Alexandra Fuller’s caliber. Several years ago I read her book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and I remember being astounded at her vivid descriptions of her parents who left England to settle in Africa, and her heartbreaking childhood in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and in other parts of the world few Americans have seen. She’s a wonderful writer and I’ll be lucky to absorb a small portion of her talent.
So many people are interested in writing that the competition for these writing programs and classes have also intensified. A friend who is a writing instructor at the University of Colorado sent out dozens of query letters to no avail. Literary agents talk about being overwhelmed by hundreds of inquiries from writers. Another writing friend told me that all his applications to MFA (Masters degree for creative writing) programs around the country have been turned down. So what’s the best way to become a writer?
Somewhere I heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master any particular trade—and I think that applies to writing as well. Perhaps I’m being a bit naive but persistence is probably more important than just talent. But of course, it’s not just a matter of putting in the hours. One has got to be willing to share the writing with critical reviewers, be willing to push oneself, and be guided by mentors. Most important of all is the mental attitude. For a long time, I felt writing was in the realm of the Gods. Something that I (who learned English in elementary school) would never be able to master. But as I read many books, heard talks by professional writers and participated in several critique groups, the profession of writer has become real.
For the intensive with Alexandra Fuller, I plan to submit another portion of my current manuscript about my father, an immigrant from Japan. (I already submitted one part as the writing sample in the application to LIghthouse). This manuscript needs a lot of work but it has already caught the attention of two literary agents so my hopes are high as I work on this narrative non-fiction piece.
Almost seventy years ago, Tei Fujiwara wrote a memoir about her harrowing journey home with her three young children. But the story of her story is what every reader needs to know.
Tei’s memoir begins in August 1945 in Manchuria. At that time, Tei and her family fled from the invading Soviets who declared war on Japan a few days after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. After reaching her home in Japan, Tei wrote what she thought would be a last testament to her young children, who wouldn’t remember their journey and who might be comforted by their mother’s words as they faced an unknown future in post-war Japan.
But several miracles took place after she wrote the memoir. Tei survived and her memoir, originally published in Showa Era 24  became a best seller titled Nagareru Hoshiwa Ikiteiru (Shooting Stars are Alive). Over the following decades, millions of Japanese became familiar with her story through forty-six print runs, the movie version, and a television drama. Empress Michiko, wife of the current emperor, urged her people to read Tei’s story.
Why should Westerners read this translation of her story? Tei wrote about men, women and children caught in the middle of the world’s most devastating war and how they coped. The suffering, endurance, and struggles she described reminded the defeated Japanese of their strength, their spirit, and hope in the future. Her sense of humor, compassion and love helped defuse anger and despair. She brought back a basic sense of trust towards former enemies, but also a honest new look at her own countrymen.
In many ways, Tei was a typical Japanese housewife, but she was also extraordinary. The memoir begins with a well-educated but sheltered young wife of a civilian scientist, who is a mother of three young children. Her keen insights in 1945-46—on the Koreans, fellow Japanese men, women and children, as well as the Russian soldiers and the American GIs—give us rare glimpses into a part of the world few Americans know.
Why did I translate Tei’s memoir? My initial reason for translating her book was personal. My parents both grew up and lived in Tokyo during the war. My father was 22 years old and my mother was 13 when the war finally ended after four long years. WW II devastated the lives of millions of Japanese civilians living in Japan as well as in Manchuria and other parts of Asia. Tei’s story resonates deeply with my parents’ generation.
Her memoir and family also influenced my family in unexpected ways. Tei’s younger son, Masahiko, became a mathematician, and came to the University of Colorado as a Visiting Scholar, where my father taught in the physics faculty. My parents enjoyed taking care of any visiting Japanese, and often invited them over to our house to stave off homesickness. I met Masahiko at one of the social gatherings at our home. I was 13 at the time but vividly remember meeting the young professor.
Over the next years, my family visited Tokyo several times. I heard first-hand, stories of how people survived and struggled after the war. The stories of the Fujiwara family as well as those of my own family encouraged me to study in Japan, obtain a
Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and work in international educational exchange over the next several years. This included several years as the Educational Information Officer at the offices of the Fulbright Program (Japan-U.S. Educational Commission) in Tokyo, and as the Japan Correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education newspaper.
The impact of Tei’s story on her own family life is also fascinating. After her memoir became a best-seller, Tei found herself in the public spotlight and dealing with the complexity of life after the war. At the end of this book, I included the afterwords she wrote in two of her later editions of her memoir.
Her husband, a former meteorologist, became an award-winning historical novelist himself, under the pen name, Jiro Nitta. Her children also wrote essays and books. In 2005, Tei’s son Masahiko Fujiwara wrote a book, The Dignity of a Nation, which has sold more than 2 million copies.
For Tei, this memoir was the achievement of a lifetime. She wrote it because she thought she might not live long enough to pass her story on to her children. In an interesting twist of fate, she has lived longer than most of us ever will. As of this writing, she is alive and well, ninety-six years old and living quietly in a senior home in Tokyo. Although Alzheimer’s has taken its toll and she no longer speaks or writes publicly, she still shares weekly meals with her three adult children, and her grandsons.
I feel fortunate to have had the privilege of translating her memoir while she is still alive. Her words are still as fresh as when she wrote them over sixty years ago. Tei’s story has also helped me in my own life as a mother of three children. By coincidence, I also have two boys and the youngest, a girl, about the same spacing in age as Tei’s three children.
When I first read her memoir, I was a full-time mother of three young children, adjusting to life in Colorado after living in Tokyo for two years, and in Jakarta for a year. Although I faced completely different challenges—divorce, financial hardship and starting over—her words encouraged me, inspired me, and gave me perspective.
My mother helped translate this memoir, by reading out loud passages from the book, and explaining what life was like in 1945 Japan. We spent many afternoons reading and discussing Tei’s stories, and we worked together to create the glossary in the back of this book. My mother and many of her Japanese friends say they have read and reread this book. When she introduced this book to me in the midst of all the turmoil in my life, I knew this was more than a casual book recommendation. The emotional impact of this memoir hasn’t diminished, even after sixty years. Often, during our afternoon talks—my mother would stop in the middle of a chapter she was reading to me—because she couldn’t continue. Her voice would break, quaver and die off to a whisper as her eyes filled with tears. Memories of the end of war and the beginning of peace are still very much alive.
Nanako V. Mizushima
As gut wrenching as Tei Fujiwara’s story is, it is sobering to know that the suffering of refugees continues today, seventy years later. As George Clooney noted in the video clip posted by the International Rescue Committee, the huge numbers of refugees is mind numbing and one is tempted to just turn off the news, and focus on one’s own life. We’ve all got enough problems of our own. But when we can hear the story of one family, one person and see the tears of one child, the suffering becomes real. Connecting with such suffering at the individual level is what compels us to take action. Tei Fujiwara had the courage and the strength to write down her experiences as a refugee mother with three young children. Her story was one of suffering and honest reflection, but also of great hope and belief in the goodness of people. Her generation of Japanese civilians, including my mother, recovering from WWII read her story, were encouraged, and still urge the young today in Japan to read her book, to truly understand what war meant for Japan. My mother, who grew up during the war, read Tei’s memoir when she was a young woman before she immigrated to America. When I was a teenager myself, my mother was thrilled to meet Tei Fujiwara’s son, who came to the University of Colorado as a visiting scholar. I also met him but wasn’t really aware of his mother’s story until my mother shared Tei’s Japanese memoir with me years later. Through the friendship between our families, I contacted them and began translating Tei’s memoir a few years ago. After translating her story into English, “Tei, a memoir of the end of war and beginning of peace”, I’m excited to see that readers today are also deeply moved by her story. I believe Tei Fujiwara would want her story to enlighten us in the English-speaking world, to help us understand the refugee’s story, no matter what part of the world they are in.
Amal and George Clooney talk to Syrian families in BerlinToday, on the 5th anniversary of the Syria conflict, we share a message of hope stemming from a recent meeting with George Clooney and Amal Clooney and three Syrian refugee families now safe in Germany. The families shared with the Clooney’s the terror of fleeing war-ravaged Syria and their hopes for a better future. In turn, George also shared his family’s history of flourishing in America after fleeing Ireland, and Amal her family’s history of leaving war-torn Lebanon for the United Kingdom. We’re honored to have organized this meeting. Share this video if you stand #withSyria, IRC, George, and Amal in making #RefugeesWelcome– wherever they are.
Posted by International Rescue Committee on Tuesday, March 15, 2016
After a year of getting feedback from readers, I’ve been happy to hear how readers were moved and impressed by Tei’s remarkable story but very few readers can really evaluate the quality of my translation.
Happily, last October I received a letter from Columbia University after I submitted Tei to the 2015- 2016 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. I didn’t win the translation competition but the judges sent me a very nice letter which I will share below.
Translation, especially from Japanese to English, is a tricky business since the two languages are so very different. I want the translation to be as accurate as possible and at the same time, the English version to be as readable as possible.
I’m grateful the translation judges felt I did a decent job. I hope Tei Fujiwara will be happy to know that English readers are can also appreciate the rich textures and nuances of the story she wrote seventy years ago.