Book Spotlight: Fear Itself – Hana Chittenden Maruyama

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“Fear Itself,” a short story by Hana Chittenden Maruyama, illuminates the intergenerational trauma(s) of camp history in Japanese American communities by alternating the memories of an incarcerated twelve-year-old girl with the post-9/11 reflections of her grandchild.

What I liked:

  • I bookmarked this story some months ago and forgot about it until a slow moment at work. When I finally hunted it out (note to self: reorganize bookmarks) and started reading, I got all the way to the end before remembering I had a job to do because THIS AUTHOR GETS IT. I’m not sure if this is what other readers mean when they talk about seeing themselves in a story, or feeling seen by a story, but I connected at a heartfelt level with Maruyama’s work and I highly recommend it to any fellow JA/Nikkei if the camps are part of your family’s history.
  • Reading the first paragraph, I definitely thought the story was historical fiction in the tradition of Weedflower or Farewell to Manzanar, and it was a pleasant “gotcha” when I hit the second paragraph and realized some type of cross-generational dialogue was about to take place. I have nothing against historical fiction, but as someone who often contemplates the different ways historical silence has shaped JA/Nikkei spaces and experiences, as well as how we as individuals and as a community can have these conversations before it’s too late, I’m especially excited whenever I come across a fellow JA/Nikkei writer who appears to be considering similar questions.
  • Maruyama pulls no punches when it comes to articulating the emotional and mental tolls of incarceration on her characters. According to one of her tweets, the story is based on her grandmother’s experiences, which, at least to me, explains the rawness of the emotions on the page. It’s difficult to put this next point into words, but I’d say the personal nature of the narrative also comes through in the Japanese-ness of her character portrayals. Lines spoken by Kiyo and Fudeko as they recall their experiences are straightforward and spare, with no sense of embellishment on behalf of the reader. Any fellow JA/Nikkei who have heard older JA relatives speaking English probably have an idea of what I mean.* In fact, I found myself thinking Maruyama’s style is very similar to my own when I try to write about (or around) the camps in my fiction.
  • A few times in the text, I wondered how Maruyama managed to write exactly what I’ve thought or felt about the camps and JA/Nikkei history any number of times, so I’ve decided to highlight them here. From paragraph four: “[…] a line firmly drawn by all that has gone unsaid.” This line is extremely relatable to my own family history, especially considering I have no memory of ever speaking to those surviving relatives who were formerly incarcerated. From paragraph six: “Instead we read the stories others set loose, and over time those stories have become our own.” Here, I was like, ‘Maruyama, are you WATCHING me?!’ But seriously, this is very much a part of what I’ve been doing with my attempt to read more JA/Nikkei literature over the past few years. I also considered it in relation to Nikkei perspectives on Japanese/homeland culture, specifically regarding Nikkei consumption of anime/manga and Nikkei retellings/recreations of Japanese mythology in books and other media. (I realize this latter bit is probably completely out of context relative to what Maruyama intended, but that’s how my mind works.)
  • Kats! Haha. Bilingual JA/Nikkei who remember being bewildered by this phenomenon when you first witnessed it in your own family, join me for a laugh.
  • Yay Kiyo and his friends for disrupting the pledge! I could see that scene making it into a picture book. I wonder if Maruyama is familiar with the Ken Mochizuki/Dom Lee collaborations.
  • The excerpts from the family’s incarceration records instantly reminded me of the records my dad looked up and sent to me about my grandfather. We also viewed them together after returning from the Manzanar pilgrimage last April. Did Maruyama include them in a nod to JA readers, or for some other reason?
  • Once or twice while reading, I lost track of whose perspective was on the page and had to backtrack a little. This is probably only because I was reading quickly out of excitement, but in retrospect I wonder if Maruyama also intended for there to be blurred lines to some extent. I tend to dislike narrative ambiguity, but in this case I think it works for the story by emphasizing how camp history impacts multiple generations in our community, and how familial bonds might simultaneously intensify and relieve the shared trauma.

What I learned:

  • Were high school students really recruited to build barracks? This is the first I’ve heard of such a thing, but it just reminds me I need to read some long-form nonfiction on the camps themselves, not just fiction, memoirs, and short pieces.
  • Was the Kiyokazu/Seiichi mix-up a common phenomenon during immigration? I was recently talking to my mom about why Japanese media writes even the all-Japanese names of Nikkeijin in katakana (if you guessed Ishiguro, congrats), and of course it was an “oh, duh!” moment when she explained about not knowing the correct kanji or hiragana. I wonder if there’s a JA/Nikkei-written book about the translation and evolution of Japanese names in diaspora spaces, with everything from the katakana thing to people altering/anglicizing their names for various reasons…and how such changes might be viewed in relation to how Nihonjin use katakana and non-Japanese words (especially English) for completely different reasons.

Questions I had:

  • If any Muslims and/or Middle Eastern people read this story, what did they think of the 9/11 reference toward the end? Personally, though I agree the JA community has absolute reason to speak against and oppose any kind of ‘camps’ targeting Muslim communities, I felt the insertion, coming as it did so late in the story, to be slightly gratuitous. I would have preferred if the final lines of the story provided a more definitive tie-in between JA history and the Muslim community’s present/possible future, rather than seemingly cycling back to an introspective moment on the narrator’s part. I almost wonder if the insertion was done at an editor’s request, or perhaps as a last-minute decision by Maruyama without taking the time to more thoroughly integrate it into the larger narrative. At any rate, I hope any Muslim and/or Middle Eastern readers who did read the story were not hurt by it.

Follow-up:

  • Is Maruyama planning to write a longer piece on JA history? I would love to read a novel or novella expanding on the characters and experiences chronicled in “Fear Itself.”
  • Apparently I’m just thinking a lot about silence now, but seeing as the other half of my lineage is Nihonjin/Shin-Nikkei, I wonder if any Japanese writers of any background have produced or considered a book about the silences between Nikkeijin and Nihonjin regarding not only the war,** which would surely be a focal point, but also notions of immigration, departures, diaspora, authenticity, language, etc. I have various books about Nikkei history and experiences on my TBR, but I don’t recall any of them having a particular focus on silence and what it means specifically in the context of being Japanese. Maybe such a book is untenable as a concept – it seems to me, though, that I can’t be the only JA/Nikkei who has ever experienced the many ways Japanese people utilize silence to define community boundaries. If this book doesn’t exist yet, a Japanese writer better jump on it before some non-Japanese person tries to twist it into yet another ‘look how quirky/exotic/fascinating Japanese culture is’ take because fuck that. Instead, I would love to read a collaborative work by Japanese writers of diverse backgrounds, through which process our communities find more inclusive ways of understanding each other’s Japanese-ness.
  • I need to try sukiyaki with daikon oroshi on top!

*It’s not an accent, exactly, but rather a direct, efficient use of words. I didn’t even realize there was a ‘JA English’ (distinct from the English spoken by Shin-Nikkei or Nihonjin) until a white (former) friend made fun of the way I spoke and I figured out it was because I learned English from my dad, who grew up in one of these older JA households.

**I guess another way to think of this hypothetical book is as a logical expansion of Akiko Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat, which I greatly admired for its astute meditations on topics often left unspoken or glossed over in Japanese spaces.

Book Spotlight: The Wish Tree – Kyo Maclear

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Wish Tree, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Chris Turnham, is the story of Charles and Boggan, two friends searching for the wish tree on a snowy day.

What I liked:

  • To be perfectly honest, I assumed Charles was a girl when I first saw the book cover. I purchased the book without ever reading a synopsis and I just assumed it was a story about a little girl. I’m still a bit disappointed it wasn’t, as I think it’s important for girls to be taught they can have outdoor adventures, whereas the premise of this book seems to reinforce the pro-gender-binary notion, “playing outdoors is for boys.” At the same time, the fact I did mistake Charles for a girl also strikes me as a good sign because it suggests boys can have a variety of appearances, which is not really something I saw in USian children’s books as a kid. I’m not sure if this visual ambiguity is deliberate on Turnham’s part – maybe I’m the only reader who thought Charles was a girl? – but I do think the fact of it might mean this book is a good choice for parents whose children choose their own gender identity. Also, it only occurred to me now (I definitely still have work to do in terms of understanding different forms of gender identity) – who says “Charles” needs to be a boy’s name? Why not just a name?
  • The scene where Charles and Boggan join the animals in a forest feast is so joyful and heartwarming! For some reason, I loved feast scenes as a kid, and I still do. I also kept thinking of the Johnny Depp* version of Alice in Wonderland while I was reading – maybe because of the Mad Hatter tea party scene? Anyway, it was an odd mental contrast.
  • Maclear’s writing is spare and graceful. I haven’t read any of her other books (yet), but I’d be interested in finding out if this style is characteristic of her novel-length work.

What I learned:

  • I chose this book because I wanted to read something by a Japanese Canadian author before the new year, but in the end, I’m not sure Maclear’s writing was the major draw. Funnily, I wanted The Fog instead because the illustrator is also Asian and I wasn’t sure of Turnham’s racial/ethnic background, but The Wish Tree was what was on sale at Powell’s that day, so here I am. I wouldn’t say I find Turnham’s art especially to my taste, but I do feel it was appropriate to the story. His compositions are admirable – he’s quite skillful at utilizing trees and snowy mounds to evoke the sights and sounds of a winter forest – and I wonder if he specializes in landscape art.

Questions I had:

  • How did this book come about? My assumption would be Maclear pitched the idea to her agent and the editorial team located an illustrator, but it could be Maclear and Turnham are friends or something. I did a very quick search to try to determine Turnham’s race (no mention on his website or Twitter, and no selfies, but I’m pretty sure he’s white) and noticed he is located in LA, which made me wonder about the book’s conception. As far as I know, Maclear is currently located in Canada.
  • Who is the intended audience of this book? Along with my initial assumption about Charles being a girl, I also half-wondered if he was a white illustrator’s attempt to draw an Asian kid. Judging by the blond sister, Charles is white. I did try to reimagine the characters as Asian for fun, but I have a hard time buying into the idea of parents letting their child dye her hair at such a young age. Still, it’s fun to think of a westernized Asian family having these adventures.
  • If Maclear did in fact pitch the initial concept, did she make any attempt to choose a POC/Asian illustrator? I also wonder if her agent and/or editorial team requested revisions to make the story more white-friendly. When I first saw the cover illustration, with the paper dangling from the branch, I briefly thought of 七夕, though the winter setting would be all wrong.
  • What was the purpose of including Charles’s repetitive humming in the text? I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to recognize the tune. I feel these types of lines could be stumbling blocks for parents trying to read aloud to their kids, but on the flip side, it could be a fun readalong for kids who haven’t quite learned their words yet.

Follow-up:

  • In light of the sparsity of text, I wouldn’t consider The Wish Tree a great example of Maclear’s writing, so I’m looking forward to reading one of her novels next!

*This is not an endorsement of Johnny Depp. Although I would agree he is a talented actor, I think we all know by now that a good actor does not a good human make.