Chuck Palahniuk’s writing workshop in Portland 2022 summer.
The group workshopped my piece on the car accident, a chapter that comes early in my novel. It is my attempt to recreate the moment teenage Grace’s life changes. Among the comments I received, I noted the following: people didn’t like the fact that I put the critical information in dialogue. As Chuck often says, “Go on the body” meaning – provide that information in the form of physical experience. Show Grace hearing the sound of her pelvis breaking inside her own body, rather than having the doctor tell us. Chuck also said I resolved too much in this story. He said, “Never use dialogue to further the plot!” He also said, “Milk the tension.”
At first, I didn’t quite understand what Chuck meant but I read the Amy Hempel story he recommended – The Harvest. Oh Wow. Hempel’s short story is fantastic. Her story is also about a teenage girl in a car accident but told in the first person POV. Her line: “I knew there was pain in the room — I just didn’t know whose pain it was.” is wonderful. It shows the disorientation of the girl who is severely injured. Hempel skillfully layers in so much in this short story — the teenage girl’s “man of the week”, her lawyer defining “marriageablility” and the connection between trauma and telling stories. Interestingly all issues that I want to include in my novel.
After reading that fantastic story, I decided I needed to learn more about Amy Hempel. In this video clip I found, Leaf by Leaf does a wonderful job of not only analyzing one of Hempel’s flash fiction stories, but also explaining a concept that has eluded me thus far – minimalism. There’s a nice shout out in here to Chuck’s book Consider This.
I’ll probably try to listen to more of Leaf by Leaf’s analysis of stories to get another perspective on how stories are put together. I also wanted to get Hempel’s own take on writing stories. This is a good short video: Hempel explains in A Conversation on Writing With Amy Hempel
Hempel explains in A Conversation on Writing With Amy Hempel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXOR9gxbX1c that she’s interested in how a story is told, rather than the story itself. She wants to know how the writer’s mind works. A story should allow the reader to experience what a particular character does to try to deal with a specific predicament. Hempel does a wonderful job of making each word, each sentence pack so much emotional and psychological baggage.
And she starts each story with a great title. A carefully crafted title that can have multiple meansings. In the case of The Harvest, that title implies what the narrator gleans from this experience. The fruits of toiling and planting. But it also hints at what often happens after a car accident. The harvesting of organs. And that concept also appears in my novel, although in a very different context. I’d love to be able to give readers that same joy of going on a treasure hunt. Hearing the echo of a word, an object, an idea throughout a story or book.
All these revelations have given me much food for thought. So I’ve been considering how to weave all these ideas into my writing. Wish me luck.
Mom was so annoyed with my efforts to write her and Dad’s love story, she said, “Watashi ni hanashita. He spoke to me. Robert Oppenheimer spoke to me. In 1964.”
That got my attention. I looked up from Dad’s letters splayed across her kitchen table, took off my glasses and stared at her. She was eighty-two years old. Mom’s eyes were still clear and skin smooth. She kept the same erect posture she always had. Only her grey hair and a few age spots betrayed her age. Without Dad around anymore, Mom was the only one who held the keys to the past. Her English had deteriorated over the last decade but my Japanese was good enough to know she wasn’t babbling. Yet. I had my doubts. I was in the middle of translating Dad’s essay about how he met Mom in 1955 Tokyo. “Nani? What?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
Normally, Mom and I never talked about Dad’s profession as a theoretical physicist. Dad first came to this country in 1952 when he was 29 years old as a research associate at a physics lab at Duke University. Mom was a high school graduate, nine years younger than Dad, who joined Dad three years later when he started working as a professor at the university. They didn’t seem to have much in common other than their Japaneseness. They were a mystery to me. How did a physicist and a bank clerk end up together? Why did they come to America? My parents, especially Dad, told me nothing. Nothing about his past. Nothing about why he came to America in the first place.
Mom also said nothing about why she married Dad. I learned not to ask too many questions. I loved my parents but this shroud of secrecy kept me wondering. As long as I didn’t know about my parents’ beginning in America, I felt unmoored. Like a life raft subject to the currents of a vast ocean. If I didn’t know where I came from, I had no clue where I was headed.
So I was thrilled when Mom found hundreds of Dad’s letters, journals and diaries, a year after he died at the age of 91. While he was alive, Mom did not dare snoop in his office so she had no idea what he kept in there. We found Dad made carbon copies of all his letters from when he first arrived in America! Many file boxes filled with Japanese and English correspondence to scientist colleagues in Japan and in the States. But I found one box labeled “Yoko” Mom’s name. I hit the jackpot! I would finally find out how my parents met and married. The thirty-two year old physicist, Masa, back in Tokyo after three years in America, was introduced to the pretty woman nine years his junior by a friend. Dad’s meticulous account of his blind date with Mom opened the door to a side of him I never knew.
I translated Dad’s account of their first date, “Sometime in the middle of the movie, without really thinking about it, I found my hand on top of Yoko’s hand. Completely natural for me to do on a “date”. In this situation, some women get angry, some start breathing fast with excitement, and some respond with affection. Yoko was the last type. She put her other hand on top of our hands and leaned closer to me. Her body brushed against my arm and I felt the swelling of her breast. What an intimate expression. Out of all the women I remembered, Yoko was the most composed and unhesitant in her response.
Here was some evidence of the romance I wanted to find. Dad hinted at relationships with other women during his first years in America. This was exciting and scandalous. A Japanese physicist dating American women in the early 1950s. Then something goes wrong and instead he falls in love with a beautiful Japanese woman. Mom. So like any good American daughter, I decided to piece together their Love Story. A story to give meaning to my existence.
But Mom was not cooperating. She wasn’t amused by Dad’s letters which detailed his affection for her. She said, “Zenzen oboeteinnai. I don’t remember any of this nonsense.”
I excused her lack of enthusiasm. Sixty years is a long time to be married to one person. Mom’s burned out after taking care of Dad for the last several years. He had several mini strokes but she kept him at home until he died.
So either Dad was lying in these letters or Mom had gone senile. I desperately wanted to believe in Dad’s version. Even though he was an enigma my entire life, I hoped that these letters would spark insight into a meaningful past life. I was a failure in my own marriages so I needed Mom and Dad’s story of their sixty year marriage to prove my worth. See? I come from a good family with solid values.
Of course, Mom and Dad were nothing like Lucy and Ricardo in the “I Love Lucy” TV show I used to watch. They never kissed, held hands or even yelled at each other. Dad was a tenured professor his entire career. Mom was a dedicated homemaker. They weren’t warm or emotional but they took parenting seriously. Every summer, Dad took us on long driving trips through Arches National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and took us camping and skiing. Mom used her Betty Crocker cookbook, made sack lunches for me and gave me Ding Dongs for snack after school.
I can laugh now about their American parenting skills. For my first Halloween party at school, they dressed me as an Arab sheik complete with fake beard, a head dress and white sheets for a robe. For my tenth birthday, Dad gave me a microscope along with a dead frog ready for dissection. Throughout my early years, Mom told me stories of her traumatic childhood in Tokyo. She told me about eating cabbage soup and roasted crickets, and stepping over dead bodies on the street. For whatever reason, I chose to be perplexed rather than horrified by these childhood experiences. I believed they loved each other and me the only way they knew how.
I suppose that like a lot of the American children of immigrants, I learned to accept the fact that life inside my home was different from life outside. I had gotten so used to their strange ways that when Mom gave me my fifteenth birthday card with the inscription “I love you” scribbled inside, I was shocked. They had never said those words before. I suspected the card was their effort to follow American customs. That was around the time I began wondering why Dad and Mom never shared their “coming to America story.”
During Dad’s last years, the two of them withdrew into their own Japanese island. Mom became the caretaker. Dad grew feeble and became even harder to understand. The mini strokes affected his already limited language skills. I was running out of time so I asked him, “Why did you leave Japan and come to America?”
Surprisingly he started to tell me a few things. Dad’s uncle, Dr. Ishii, came to America in 1920. I thought I was the first Nisei (American born) in the family but no, there were Dad’s American cousins who grew up in California. Why the hell didn’t Dad tell me about them? My childhood as the eldest daughter of Japanese immigrants in Boulder Colorado was terribly lonely. One of Dad’s cousins, Grace was an Honor Roll student at Stockton High. Grace’s photo in her high school year book reminded me of mine. Her brother Robert became a doctor like his uncle. I looked him up and learned he was a pathologist a few years older than Dad. But why had Dad kept them all secret? Apparently Dr. Robert Ishii was famous for a report on the atom bomb. I found it under his Japanese name, Eisei Ishikawa. I ordered the book on Amazon. It was about radiation burns and poisoning. The grainy black and white photos of the bomb victims were horrifying. One was of a blackened corpse of a child raising his/her arm to shield the eyes against the burning rays of the bomb. The plump cheeks and slender body showed the child must have been maybe a second grader. The images were so repulsive I stuck the book in the back of the closet to forget them.
So Mom’s mention of Robert Oppenheimer immediately reminded me of those horrible photos I threw away. No. No. This is not the story I wanted. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the atom bomb and WWII. Many years ago, I had done my obligatory tourist visit to Hiroshima Peace Park when I was an exchange student in Kobe. That was an uncomfortable experience that reminded me how different I was from my fellow American students. Were my classmates’ relatives involved in killing my Japanese relatives? Back then, I distracted myself from that awful topic by immersing myself in Japanese art and language. But there was no escaping this situation. I felt like I discovered my bed had been the site of a brutal rape and murder.
I gently tried to doubt Mom’s claim. “Are you sure it wasn’t Frank Oppenheimer, the younger brother?” He also taught physics. I knew Dad had worked with Professor Frank Oppenheimer at one point.
My mother said, “Chigau. No. It was Robert, the older brother.” She was adamant but she wasn’t going to plead to have me believe her. She sipped the genmai cha that had grown cold. The nutty tea mixed with rice I like more than the Celestial Seasonings teas that crowd her cupboard. We were both careful to avoid caffeine because of our insomnia.
Is that possible? Robert Oppenheimer, speaking to Mom? In this house? 1964. I was seven years old then. Mom’s details, the chirashi zushi she prepared for the party, the Oppenheimer brothers invited as the guests of honor, the taller Oppenheimer discreetly asking her for a private conversation, her leading him to the unfinished addition in our house and my own vague memories of serving hors d’oeuvres to the guests – convinced me it did happen.
Mom said, “Kare watashi ni ayamatta. He apologized to me.”
Chills ran up my spine. We were sitting in the same place Oppenheimer asked my mother for forgiveness for his most famous creation – the atom bomb. I immediately thought of the terrible injuries documented by Dad’s cousin, Dr Ishii. Had Dad kept his American relatives secret from Mom? Had Mom kept Oppenheimer’s apology secret from Dad? I didn’t bother to ask Mom if she actually accepted Oppenheimer’s apology. How does one forgive a man for the deaths of 80,000 Japanese men, women and children and the possibility of our own total annihilation? The fact that she had kept this anecdote secret until now was shocking enough.
Suddenly the love story I was trying to write shrunk to insignificance. Which is probably what Mom wanted to do. She wanted to knock me off my feet. Kudaranai. Stupid American daughter. Why are you so interested in creating a love story? Listen to the ghosts instead of your own dreams.
Mom’s secret and all those ghosts came creeping back into my life three years later after Mom passed away and the pandemic forced me to isolate in my Seattle condo. Armed with Mom’s Oppenheimer anecdote, Dad’s cousin’s atomic bomb report, internet research and my dread, I began piecing together a story. But with so many gaps and only my imagination to flesh out the details, I realized I had to write this story as fiction. I decided to name it Paper Ghost because that was what it feels like to write this story. Mom, Dad and his cousins’ ghosts all looking over my shoulder saying, “Hora. Chanto kakinasai. You had better write it well.”
In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, the Pulitzer Prize winning and best selling novelist Jane Smiley described the types of novels and their desired objectives. What I had hoped to write was what Smiley described as Romance. I wanted to uncover and enjoy the love and connection between Mom and Dad, and hence myself. Who doesn’t want to be part of a great Romance? After all, it’s even written into our Constitution – “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Isn’t that what we do? Pursue Happiness. But instead, the Yūrei forced me to write what Smiley calls the Epic. Smiley notes, “The goal of this form was to solidify a warrior nation’s sense of its own identity and the battle prowess of its warriors. The epic is essentially tragic, since as Krishna remarks to Arjuna at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, there is no avoiding either death or killing in this world. The reader’s pleasure in the epic comes from a sharpened sense of what makes up a particular national character.”
The United States is obviously one of the planet’s warrior nations, along with Russia and the other nations who enjoy the privilege of attacking and invading less powerful countries. But this Epic isn’t about celebrating battle prowess. I realized that the warriors in this novel aren’t soldiers or the military. The warriors are doctors like Dad’s cousin Robert, physicists like Dad and Honor Roll students like Grace or me. People who start off their lives wanting to better the world, to help people and live the American Dream. Just like Dad, I wanted to do well in school and contribute to society. Like Dad did, I love art, literature and music. While he chose to be a physicist, immigrate here and raise his family, I chose to marry, raise children and do what I thought was honorable work in international education. And I looked for love. But now I’m writing this novel and learning an uncomfortable truth. Regardless of whether the characters in my novel chose to be a scientist, an artist, or fall in love, I’m chagrined to find that for all of their good intentions, they are all part of a messy Epic, rather than a lovely Romance or a delightful Tale. But an Epic where, as the cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The Folklife Festival was finally back after two years of the forced pandemic hiatus. An email from Fresh Ground Stories Storytelling Group mentioned a “Liars Contest” on the Armory stage. I’ve never been in a story telling contest but since the Seattle Center is only a twenty minute walk away, I thought, Why not? Here’s a chance to test out one of my short stories. My Japanese American story.
Despite the cool drizzle, I was happy to get out of my isolation. The unfamiliar number of people walking around the Seattle Center made me nervous and I kept a hand on my mask. Exposing my face as an Asian American woman had certain implications during the pandemic. Recent events in Texas and Buffalo made every place feel dangerous. The Armory’s huge main room has a food court and a stage in the corner. Maybe a hundred folding chairs had been set up in front of the stage. The contest had started by the time I got there. I ended up in one of the few empty seats near the edge of the crowd.
The moderator knew most of the story tellers he introduced on stage. Were they all from the same group? It only occurred to me later that a “Liars Contest” might be a tradition familiar to a certain ethnic group – white, Mid-west, rural? From the meetup group I joined last year, I knew Fresh Ground Stories was the Seattle version of the Moth. I joined their Zoom meeting hoping to learn tips which might help in my writing. But I didn’t volunteer to speak. I only observed a few story tellers through the distant lens of my computer. Being in the Armory with lots of people was a completely different experience. Then when the moderator sat down in a chair very close to me, I saw my chance and asked him to add my name “Nana” to his paper list. No last name. No incriminating evidence.
Because I didn’t know anyone here, there was nothing to lose. If I made a fool of myself, no one would know. I listened carefully to the dozen or so storytellers as they went up on the stage one by one. My favorite was the My First Fish tale told by an older woman. The woman looked like she could have been the school librarian at my elementary school in Boulder. She starts off with a sympathetic hero – herself as a young girl left behind by the men who go fishing. The irritated grandmother then takes the girl fishing. When the girl catches a big fish, the storyteller added drama and delight by having the fish leap out of reach. The grandmother’s fantastic skills, a lopsided mountain goat, and a bear all played parts in the chase for the fish. Her story reminded me of my childhood growing up in Colorado. The elements of surprise and suspense kept me hooked.
Finally, the moderator looks at his list and calls out, “Nana?” and I stand up. Everyone looked at me with curiosity as I walk to the stage and stand in front of the mike which the moderator adjusted down to my short height. What’s this older Japanese American woman going to say?
I looked down on the men, women and kids still wet from the rain, and confessed this was my first time at a story telling contest. I knew my fear would be small compared to everything else. The events of the past two years tired us all out. Shootings, homelessness, and of course, our old friend Corona forced us to struggle between the need to and the fear of connecting with others. Getting together with friends isn’t to be taken for granted anymore. I reached back to the Before Time and said, “I miss going to the Maneki for a drink. You know, that tiny bar in the old restaurant in the ID.” A few nodded their heads in recognition. The Maneki is an old Japanese American restaurant that survived the internment of the Japanese Americans during WWII.
I chose a folktale as the base for my story because I believe there’s a reason folktales survive. But I added details to the story to ground it in Seattle. The hero in my story is a young man, Lee, who regularly gets drunk, chats, then falls asleep in the Maneki bar before he goes off to work the night shift at the Uwajimaya supermarket. As if I were one of the regulars at the Maneki bar and witnessed all the fantastic things that happened, I told the story. In my story, one of the other regulars gets annoyed by the young drunk and spits a Rainier cherry pit that lands on top of the sleeping man’s head. A week later a tree sprouts on Lee’s head. The tree grows fruit. The tree is chopped off. Then mushrooms grow on the tree stump.
The moderator’s whistle blew cutting my story short right when the lumberjack chops the tree stump out of the hero’s head. Had the audience heard enough of the story to give me feedback? I couldn’t tell. I’m not good at reading audience reactions. But as I walked back to my seat, one young man said to me, “I want to hear the rest of your story.” I was taken aback. I didn’t want to interrupt the rest of the story telling contest so I just smiled my thanks at him and sat down. I felt grateful for that young man’s interest. At least one person liked the story. Then one more story teller followed and the moderator gave prizes, including one to the woman with the fish story, but nothing for me. Everyone clapped and the event was over. Time to go home.
Then I got a big surprise. A woman came up to me and said, “Tell the rest of your story.”
More people came and stood around me, “Yes, tell us the rest of the story.”
So around ten people waited for me to tell the rest of the story. I should have stood up so they could hear me better, but I was so busy collecting my thoughts I remained seated in my folding chair. I told the rest of the story to this small group crowded around me. When I finished, they commented. “That was a good story. I liked it being set in Seattle.”
“I liked the tree growing on top of the kid’s head.”
“I liked how the pandemic played a part.”
I was stunned. These strangers went to the trouble of coming up to me after the event was over and asked me to tell the rest of my story. Then they patiently stood around me and listened. Someone asked me for a card but I had none. Someone else told me about another story telling group. I felt overwhelmed by this social contact that had been absent for so long. Walking through the rain back home, my heart was full. My idea worked. I heard a Japanese folktale that resonated, then rewrote it in English, then told the story as if I was a witness to this fantastic string of events happening in the here and now.
That experience was a wonderful reward for all those lonely hours of writing during the pandemic. Not having any idea if what I was thinking and doing would be of any interest to other people. Writing stories is like talking to yourself. Background noise of doubt, insecurities, and self-criticism fill my head as I write. Writers groups, especially the ones on Zoom, only give feedback that’s focused on writerly stuff like POV, tension, and plot. Or maybe it’s the Zoom experience itself that I found off putting. Zoom meetings were better than nothing but I felt so distant from the others. Even before the pandemic, I was not a very outgoing person. I don’t think I would have dared stand in front of a crowd back then. Did the social starvation make me into a performer?
Those people at the Folklife festival gave me a gift. It wasn’t just the speaking from the stage part. It was after the contest. By coming up to me and asking me to tell the rest of my story, they validated all my efforts of the past two years. I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and so I tried translating and rewriting them in English for American readers. Even when I myself didn’t understand all the elements of a story, I hoped people would get something out of it. I chose this particular story about the tree that grows on a drunk’s head for Folklife because I set it in Seattle. What could possibly be the moral of this story? For whatever reason, the story survived hundreds of years of retelling, translation from Japanese to English and my Seattle spin on it. The energy I got from those people gathered around my folding chair at the Armory was palatable. Sharing stories is a necessity, as crucial as food and water, to our survival.
I was late to Chuck Palahniuk’s May 23 story reading session in Portland. After arriving from Seattle earlier that day, I felt like a fish out of water. Yes, I felt like a tired idiom in search of a story. How to get to the pub Chuck mentioned in his online Plot Spoiler group? After witnessing a homeless man stick a needle in his own arm on the street, and a woman get in a fight with herself on the bus, I decided I needed a car. But the Lyft ap wasn’t working. Finally got an Uber but where is the darn car? Consequently I was a nervous wreck by the time I arrived at the pub where we were supposed to read out loud. I planned to read part of the novel I started since the pandemic began. My first novel at an age when I should be at the end of a career, not the beginning. A novel about war, death and the atomic bomb, when my life experiences consisted of raising three kids and teaching at Front Range Community College. Chapter One was what needed feedback. Hundreds of pages written and rewritten but Chapter One is the one that kept eluding me. I wanted readers to understand why this monster of a novel haunted me. Three generations of a Japanese immigrant family before, during and after WWII. Why should the reader care?
Months earlier, I stumbled across a writing book titled “Consider This” and liked it, although I didn’t know the author with the unpronounceable last name. I’m more of an Amy Tan fan. When I learned he wrote the novel which the Fight Club movie was based on, I was curious. I normally didn’t read that kind of stuff but my first novel was forcing me to write about things I didn’t know and didn’t want to know. Violence and gore. I even had to write a fight scene set in the American concentration camp Manzanar. Chuck’s comment that his book “Fight Club” was the young male equivalent of Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” intrigued me. I can learn something from this guy. So that was how I ended up signing up to read in front of Chuck.
In the Uber drive to the reading session, I checked my bag. Damn. Of course I forgot the story back in my room. No time to go back and get it. As I tried to sneak into the pub, I thought God. The place is packed – maybe a hundred people the same age as my kids. They’ve already listened to some readers. Good. It’s too late to put my name in the hat. But I didn’t come all the way down here from Seattle to just listen.
Sure enough, Chuck had me write my name and add it to a hat. A few minutes later it was called out. I gulped, stood up, faced the crowd of shining, expectant faces. Most likely as judgemental as my two millennial sons and millennial daughter. I said, I forgot to bring my story. The audience gasped. The rest is a blur.
My subconscious did a wonderful job. By giving me no time to panic and no paper to read, my naked soul was thrust out into the world. There’s a difference between reading a carefully crafted piece of work, and telling a story from the gut. The paper couldn’t shield me. The scaffolding of words couldn’t support me. I couldn’t go on auto pilot. The story had to stand on its own wobbly little legs. I forced myself to look people in the eye. I am telling you what I know.
I blurted out what I remembered of Chapter One, then sat down in a daze. People clapped. Thank God there was a reaction. Crickets chirping would have the worst possible reaction. Even hissing and booing is better than that. Then Chuck said something to the effect of – we’re not just listening to stories, we are being called to witness. Witness? Really? They believed me! They understood what I was trying to say!
Reading my written words out loud from a piece of paper (or an I-phone) would have been a different experience. I don’t know if I could have pulled it off. For better or worse, I ended up doing an impromptu speech. But I did come away with some thoughts for my next reading. (Dee Goto asked me to read one of my short stories for the next Stories at the Panama Hotel.)
Use a story written in first person. (I’m going to have to rewrite that short story for the Panama Hotel.)
Look people in the eye. For me, that means I have to memorize and practice what I’m going to say.
Let the story go. Dee had read ten of my stories for the Omoide group, and when I asked her which one she thought I should read out loud for the Stories at the Panama, she chose the scatological one. The most embarrassing one. Cringe. But if that’s the one that resonated with her, that’s the one that’ll go. My self dignity won’t stand in the way.
The night before the reading in Portland, I read the discussion thread in Chuck’s Plot Spoiler. A guy named Roy wrote: I first heard the phrase “kill the people” (meaning ‘good luck and slay the audience’) from Thelma Ritter in “All About Eve.”
Isn’t that what we all hope to do? To reach into the soul of another person and devastate them in some way? To destroy some cherished illusion they had about the world? I want to write stories I love but they have to mean something to the readers, too. Writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Great pandemic pastimes. Consequently, it’s pretty safe. But at some point, the story (and I) have to be tested out in the cold, cruel virus-ridden world. Standing up in front of people to tell a story is the quickest way to kill or be killed.
Several months ago, I joined the Rain City Symphony Orchestra. I hadn’t played cello for over 40 years! And even when I did play, I was definitely no Yo-Yo Ma. But I knew doing this almost impossible challenge would help me get my mind off my burned out, sick of the pandemic, “what am I doing trying to write a novel at my age” despair. The reason I knew this was because of my Japanese immigrant mother.
All during my childhood, Mama nagged me every day to practice my cello.
“Renshu shinasai,” she said.
As a teenager, I finally snapped back at her, “Do it yourself!”
And she did. As a middle-aged housewife with limited English, Mama started private lessons on the viola. She practiced diligently. I can still hear her struggle with the viola. She joined the Timberline community orchestra where she was the only foreigner.
She practiced daily for the next forty years. She practiced despite breaking her arm. She practiced after Dad died. She practiced until she had a stroke in 2018 when she was 86.
As I struggle every day now to remember the scales, the fingering, the bowing and the million other details of playing cello, I keep Mama in my mind — her determination to play a string instrument and connect with others. Despite her age, her language handicap, and her isolation, she managed to do her best. The essence of Gambaru. I’m hoping to learn to play a lovely orchestral piece by Samuel Coleridge- Taylor without mistakes. But that’s not likely. The June performance is coming up soon. So I’ll just practice every day, or as much as I can, until then. Anyway, the performance is not the important part — it’s the daily efforts which challenge me and bring me joy.
Amy Tan described her mother muse as “lihai”. Even before I knew it meant “terrible, formidable and devastating” – I was aware my own complicated maternal relationship. In the case of my mother, she was ten years old in Tokyo when WWII began. In hindsight, I believe my mother suffered from PTSD shaped by the trauma, violence and death she encountered during her formative years. Like Tan, I also remember the moment I decided to no longer fight or resist my mother. It was in 2000 when i moved back to Boulder to live near my childhood home. And when my mother realized I was listening, she began to share her wartime trauma with me. But I was in my fifties when I was finally mature enough to listen without judgement or fear.
Amy Tan’s drawing of birds is an example of how writing requires heightened sensitivity. In order to write well, I need to pay attention to the world. Not only what my mother was saying, but also what is she did NOT say. Just as Tan notices the fine lines of a feather that would normally be invisible, I must learn to listen to the whispers of the dead. So I began playing the cello again after a 50 year break. Listening to and playing fine music, note by note helps attune my writing.
Tan’s example of how she used the clues from her grandmother’s photograph to write the novel Valley of Amazement was a wonderful insight into the mind of a writer. She used those details to grow story. I also used a 1934 high school graduation photo of my long lost relative Grace to piece together the day that year when she lost both parents and her future as a mother in a terrible car accident.
In writing Grace’s story, I also tried to follow Tan’s goal of finding the emotional truth behind the factual truth. Using fragments from my father’s letters (Grace’s cousin) who immigrated to the US in 1952, a conversation with Grace’s brother who was trapped in Japan during the war, and online research – I tried to recreate her emotions while she was incarcerated in Manzanar.
Tan’s comments about her husband Lou made me aware of the sacrifices a writer must make. While women praise Lou for being such a thoughtful, supportive husband I wonder if they realize how many sacrifices Tan made to deserve such a partner? Her decision to not have children allowed her to devote her energies to writing. She is willing to work long hours alone to create great stories. I am too selfish to have a “Lou”. I wanted it all. Three children to raise myself at home, interesting work with other people, travel, and now writing only about things I am interested in. So it’s no wonder I’m so unsuccessful in my writing career and single.
Amy Tan made a huge impression on me when her Joy Luck Club novel first appeared in 1989. She inspired me to consider my Japanese American family story worthy of telling.
Nanako Mizushima (Pen name Nanako Water) has just been published in a new Wising Up Press anthology, Flip Sides. The anthology is edited by Heather Tosteson and Charles D. Brockett.
Nanako notes that the title “Be Worthy of Your Heritage” of her short story set in 1987 Ghana, is the motto of an exclusive New England prep school. The story is told from the point of view of a Japanese-American woman, Nao. Her husband Lane, a white PhD student and her father-in-law, a prominent surgeon, are both graduates from this prep school. When Lane was a student in the early 1970’s, he learns his ancestor made the family fortune as a slave ship captain.
Description of the Anthology: Spot cleaning wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t have beliefs and ideals—or if they didn’t need to be continuously reconciled with the exigencies of raw life. This evocative and thought-provoking collection from thirty-seven authors of poetry, essay, and short fiction allows us to explore many dimensions of these tensions—from our participation in systemic harms to the most intimate of ones, from dramatic instances to quiet, almost unnoticeable ones. They are organized by the dilemmas they explore: race; nationality and culture; class and community; family dynamics; and faith. This anthology was originally, and rather playfully, conceived as two. Truth, Fair Play & Other Myths We Choose to Live By was a response to an increasingly cynical worldview that disavowed our best intentions. The other, Spot Cleaning Our Dirty Laundry, responded to an increasingly righteous reactivity in all of us that refuses to take responsibility for the harm we ourselves can cause. Then we realized they were flip sides of the same coin. We invite readers into a more intimate, not always comfortable, engagement with those two interlocked dynamics.
READ MORE: http://www.universaltable.org/libraryanthologiesaf/flipsides.htmlPURCHASE: http://www.universaltable.org/bookstore.html [after July 1, 2021 also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other internet booksellers] Universal Table/Wising Up Press is an organization dedicated to exploring the complex challenges and lasting rewards of living up close and personal with pluralism in social, family, religious, and civic life, or, more simply, Finding the “We” in “Them,” the “Us” in “You.” Wising Up anthologies use literature by contemporary writers to approach various dimensions of pluralism because of the power of narrative to help us identify safely with others who may at first seem, by appearance or circumstances or culture, very different from us. The anthologies serve as an invitation to stand in that richer relation—empathic, musing, open to new meaning—with ourselves and with our neighbors.
FLIP SIDES Heather Tosteson and Charles D. Brockett, editorsWising Up Press, P.O. Box 2122, Decatur, GA 30031-2122ISBN: 978-1-7324514-9-0LC Number: 2021938070274 pp.; ill.List Price: $20.00 Distribution Arrangements: Lightning Source/IngramPublication date: July 1, 2021
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.
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.