Click on the link to hear me narrate a 5-minute short story based on one of my relatives.
Mom, a Japanese immigrant from Tokyo, was thirteen when WWII finally ended. Her home was burned down in March 1945, “the most destructive single air attack in human history” and her mother died in the mass starvation that followed Japan’s surrender. Not surprisingly Mom couldn’t talk about her experiences.
But she shared a Japanese woman’s war memoir with me that seemed to speak for her. When I was a teenager, Mom introduced me to a visiting math professor. This professor’s mother was Tei Fujiwara. When I was older and could appreciate the significance of this memoir, I decided to translate it and write it in English. Since my Japanese listening skills were much better than my reading skills, I asked Mom to read it out loud for me. But it was hard. Many times I had to stop the tape recorder because Mom would break down in tears.
Recently, with help from my friend Jay Rubin (translator of Haruki Murakami’s work), I edited and rewrote the entire book. Going through the book word by word reminded me how poignant and rare this story is. Women don’t have the opportunity to share their experience of war and its aftermath.
On the morning news I hear about Venezuelans desperately crawling through the razor wire on the Mexican border. Or see images of hollow-eyed Ukrainians fleeing from their homes. Worst of all was the photo of a toddler washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Reading and writing Tei’s memoir again reminded me how Tei’s story continues today. Ironically, reading her story gives me hope in the face of such tragedies.
Thanks, Mom for sharing this story with me. (She passed away during the pandemic.) I hope you will also take the time to read or listen to Tei’s story.
Tei, a memoir of the end of war and beginning of peace. Print, e-book and audiobook editions available through Amazon, Kindle and Audible.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Write me here or on a book store website.
I try to post something interesting, fun or scary every week. Lately, I’m trying audio posts.
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.
Analyzing “IN A TUB” by Amy Hempel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOELko4DumU
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.
2016 Boulder, Colorado
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.”
* * *
“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.
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.