Book Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists 2016-04-11 13-51-36

“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, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

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.

15 of the 10,000 Hours


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.

Refugee Mothers and Children Today


refugees_boy_crying_4601.jpg (460×230) 2016-03-16 10-58-26

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



Is the Translation Good?

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.

TEI Translation


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.



Amanda Palmer and Tei


Amanda palmer - Google Search 2016-01-30 22-47-24

I just finished listening to the audio book of “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer who became famous for her TEDTalk in which she said something like – perhaps we ought to think about, not how do we MAKE people pay for music, but how do we LET people pay for music. That made me think about the new audiobook I made of the Tei book. How do I make it as easy to listen to Tei’s story as it is to listen to music?

Just like music, audiobooks have almost become a required staple of many busy people. Audiobooks are easy to load, listen to while we do all the mundane chores of our lives — driving, washing dishes, writing blogs. In fact, I am listening to an audiobook now as I write this blog. (Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”).

This month, I plan to explore where I can distribute the audiobook version of Tei. I hope to let readers/listeners access the audiobook for free or a low fee. If you have any suggestions, please use the contact form here to share your ideas. Thanks!


TEI Soon to be an Audiobook


I love storytellers but when was the last time you heard one? The next best thing are audio books. You can enjoy stories while driving, doing chores and relaxing at night. A human voice telling  a story, conveying emotion through tones and  rhythm as well as words. This summer, Tei will be read by the translator, Nanako Mizushima, and produced by Two Tigers Studio in Boulder.

Additional Resources


A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II, by Eric Jaffe, Schribner (2014)

The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956 by Andrew E. Barshay, University of California Press (September 2, 2013)

Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma, The Penguin Press. (September 26, 2013)

Under the Black Umbrella, Voices from Colonial Korea 1910 – 1945, by Hildi Kang, Cornell University Press (2001)

YouTube videos

Two film of Tokyo, Japan in the 1930’s.
Manchukuo (Manchuria) 1938

Wikipedia articles.


Some of the Serious Conditions in Japan After World War II