Book Spotlight: Careful, Mama Says – Esumi Fujimoto

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“Careful, Mama Says” chronicles the memories and experiences of one Japanese American family as the three surviving daughters clean out their parents’ former home.

I originally read this piece on the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) website.

What I liked:

  • Fujimoto is a fellow Bay Area Nikkei writer! Well, sort of – the short bio on the AAWW website says “Central Valley of California,” but the landmarks in this piece are definitely Bay Area. I haven’t read much Bay Area-based Nikkei fiction outside of camp literature (the camps are mentioned, but I wouldn’t classify this piece as ‘camp literature’ in genre), so I was super excited when I saw references to Santa Clara County, 101, and San Jose. (On a side note, is this form of joy in familiarity of place divisible from the sense of ownership over place which, as it exists in the US, I believe has its roots in settler colonialism? I suppose a discussion about the role of place in the experiences/mentality of those of us who identify as diaspora could also be applied here, but again, not sure if it can be considered separately from [our] complicity in [USian] whiteness.)
  • Triangle-folded plastic bags! I have a feeling a lot of Nikkei households with an Issei/Shin-Issei member do this, but it’s never occurred to me to ask.
  • I recently read Margaret Dilloway’s piece on her childhood household and Marie Kondo and I kept thinking back to it as I read Fujimoto’s work. It seems to me the two pieces would make for an interesting comparative analysis in a Nikkei literature class.
  • Fujimoto’s romanization choices for both Japanese and Japanese-accented English make me wonder if she is second-generation and/or bilingual. She and I might in fact have very similar lived experiences, yet we make somewhat different romanization choices. I’m especially curious about the “Matta ne” because to say it this way in Japanese produces a completely different mood due to the changed inflection. まったね~ versus またね~, what do my fellow bilingual Nikkei readers think?
  • Mikan is one of those small but meaningful connections between 日本人 and 日系 sides of families, at least in my experience. I’m always happy to see them pop up in Nikkei literature.

What I learned:

  • I’m able to infer a lot between the lines of this piece because I have enough cultural touchstones in common with the characters – but this would not be the case for every Nikkei writer. It’s wonderful to become aware of this connection because it really solidifies my awareness of writing within (and in response to) a community of Nikkei writers. At the same time, this situation also highlights the importance of Nikkei writers from diverse backgrounds telling their (our) stories, so that every Nikkei reader and writer can feel this connection to the community.
  • Did most JA families take on English names after returning from camp? I’m not quite sure what is meant by this – I’ve read other instances in camp literature of Nikkei adopting English nicknames, and my mom knows a JA family who shortened their family name because they felt it was too long in English – but did any families perform a legal name change?
  • I’m not sure I’ve heard the term ‘countertranslation’ before, but it got me thinking about what an interesting project it would be for 日本人 and 日系 writers to translate each other’s work. I think everyone involved would gain significant insights into their (pre)conceptions of each other’s experiences and identities. Maybe a project like this has already been done – I wouldn’t be surprised. At any rate, such a project seems to me like an actually useful application and interrogation of the politics of translation.
  • Is this a Nikkei version of a Japanese ghost story? It didn’t occur to me until my second read-through, when I started to connect the title with all the times Mama appears in the story. I don’t find the story particularly scary, per se (though I think it could be made much more frightening if adapted as a short film), but the adaptation of experiences specific to Nikkei in the context of an existing Japanese storytelling tradition is a fascinating possibility.

Questions I had:

  • Does Fujimoto dislike umeboshi? I understand proving a point about intergenerational differences, but I still felt bad for all the wasted umeboshi, even if it’s only in fiction!
  • Any time I see “Mama” in a Japanese-language-related context, I automatically think ママ, but in this case it seems to be the English word. On a tangent, for 日本人 kids who move to the US with their parents, do they gradually switch from ママ to Mama as their language skills adapt?
  • Who is Fujimoto’s intended audience? I just reread the part about “Old Man Tanaka,” and while I don’t find it at all surprising as a portrayal of Japanese notions of fatherhood and masculinity, I would also like to know what prompted Fujimoto to include it.

Follow-up:

  • I’m looking forward to reading more of Fujimoto’s work!

Book Spotlight: They Say Blue – Jillian Tamaki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

They Say Blue, written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, beautifully captures the colors of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

What I liked:

  • This is such a gorgeous book! I always try to select attractive picture books because I think at least half their value rests in the quality of the art, but They Say Blue is definitely in my top ten. Tamaki achieves wonderful effects with her use of color and line, and every page is a treat.
  • Although race is never mentioned in the book, the main character appears to be Asian. I really appreciate the effortless integration of a character of color in a story that is not about race and the fact it was done by an Asian creator.
  • The end page illustration of the braid is lovely! I always thought braids were so pretty to look at as a kid – I still do, though I’ve never figured out why I’m so drawn to them – and Tamaki’s illustration brought back that quirky piece of childhood.
  • According to the end page, the illustrations were created using paint and PhotoShop. The watery, flowing wash of colors on each page had me thinking constantly of 墨絵 while reading. I wonder if Tamaki would ever create a picture book using ink – I think she would do an excellent job. Speaking of ink, I would love to see a Nikkei author/illustrator create a picture book about learning 書道 in Japanese school. Oh…now I’m brainstorming a whole subgenre of picture books centered on Nikkei traditions. Some days I really wish I was a visual artist!

What I learned:

  • They Say Blue reminded me picture books play by different “plot” rules than novels. In some ways, I don’t think text was needed at all – Tamaki’s art is so visually expressive, the reader’s interpretation and response is already happening without any textual guidance. At the same time, I do like the idea of an artist narrating her own work, especially if we compare this situation to a museum exhibit, where in most cases the artist is not on hand to provide commentary. I don’t mean to say artist commentary is always necessary to the audience experience, but I do think it’s interesting for the audience to know what the artist had in mind, and to compare it with their own thoughts.

Questions I had:

  • Is there a Japanese edition of this book? I was mentally translating some of the lines into Japanese while reading and I concluded this story would work very well in Japanese – it really reminds me of some of the books from my childhood. I think I may bring a copy or two on my next visit, since the English is probably simple enough for my cousin’s kids to understand.

Follow-up:

  • I would love, love, love to read more picture books by Jillian Tamaki! I’ll definitely be putting this book on my “Quick Recs by Nikkei Authors” list (one of these days I should write this list down instead of keeping it all in my head) because I think readers of all ages will enjoy it.

Book Spotlight: Ten Thousand Views of Rain – Terry Watada

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Ten Thousand Views of Rain is a three-part book of poetry exploring themes pertinent to Nikkei – particularly Japanese Canadian – history and culture.

What I liked:

  • Watada’s poetry is very readable – though I have a feeling I understood very little of it – and I plan to read more of his work!
  • This is the first book of poetry I’ve tried to discuss for Book Spotlight. I have a very limited knowledge of poetry, so we’ll see how this goes. That said, reading Watada’s poems really inspired me to learn more about Japanese Canadian history and Nikkei poetry.
  • Watada has a gift for creating a symphony of lights, sounds, and images in the mind through his poetry. I always enjoy visual writing, though I get bored with flowery descriptions. Watada’s vivid scenes, sketched in just a few choice words, felt particularly impressive to me as someone who has trouble writing concisely. The poem “Lushlife” is a great example and, oddly, put me in mind of 天空の城ラピュタ.
  • There is really a lot of rain in the first part, as to be expected from the title. After my time in Portland, and having also been in Japan during typhoon season, many of the poems felt extraordinarily familiar, even though Watada references places I have never been. I never expected to think of rain as a medium through which to understand other places and experiences – as the point of familiarity when everything else is unknown.
  • Watada included a poem about Obon! I always enjoy reading other Nikkei perspectives on Obon. I’m not sure I can un-see the puffer fish/提灯 comparison, though. One strange “risk” about reading other Nikkei writers on Nikkei topics familiar to me through personal experience is the possibility of disruption – certain impressions or sounds or words or colors which I associate with particular things may suddenly be jarred loose or turned upside-down by someone else’s impressions of that same thing. In one sense, I think this is a good thing because it prevents me from becoming too complacent, but on the other, it’s not always pleasant to have the veil of nostalgia ripped off a precious childhood memory.

What I learned:

  • I know almost nothing about the Canadian camps, but reading each of the poems in part three, with their individualized dedications, dates, and camp names, was a striking introduction. And the (presumably white) woman who leased land to the government for one of the camps…I never heard of this practice before, but I wonder if similar things happened in the US. Were any camps constructed on First Nations reserves? (As distinct from “First Nations lands” or “indigenous lands” because the entire continent fits this description.)

Questions I had:

  • What is the purpose of setting several of the poems in cities around the world? I interpreted this choice as a reference to the global migrations of Nikkei and other people of color, but I wasn’t really sure why this was pointed out. To showcase the many faces of jazz? Also, is Watada a jazz fan or musician?
  • Why did Watada italicize his Japanese words? Given the nature of poetry, I assume it was his decision, not something imposed by the publisher.
  • The excerpts from Paradise Lost in the poem about the LA race riots – I haven’t read Paradise Lost, but I’m quite curious as to why lines from this white classic are included in a poem about race. I’m not criticizing the inclusion; I just don’t understand it. I haven’t read much about the LA race riots beyond what I’ve seen people discussing online, so it’s entirely possible I’m missing the point, but it did strike me as a discordant note, along with the reference to MLK as an angel. Should a religion predominantly associated with white people play such a prominent role in a poem like this? Was that Watada’s intention – and if so, why?
  • Many people flit in and out of these poems, some named, others merely described by their respective role in a family or community. Are they the ghosts of Watada’s personal life? In spite of the geographical and topical range of the poems, they all struck me as exceedingly personal in terms of perspective.
  • Along the same lines, why do so many of the poems reference Hawaii? Does Watada have family there?
  • How did Watada select the individuals named in part three? Were they simply names he came across while researching the camps, or is there more of a personal connection? Did any of Watada’s family spend time in the camps?

Follow-up:

  • I’d like to know more about Watada’s personal background. The brief biography on the back of the book focuses mostly on his bibliography. What sort of position does he occupy in relation to other Nikkei Canadian writers?

2019 Reading Goals

Below is my 2019 reading goals bingo card. I created the categories based on gaps in representation I noticed from my 2018 reading list and with an eye to my ongoing commitment to reading Nikkei literature. Although my card is far from fully representative, I hope it will push me to continue expanding my understanding of peoples and cultures different from my own.

To my fellow Nikkei readers embarking on 2019 reading challenges of your own, good luck! Let me know if you come across any new Japanese/Nikkei writers, please!

Indigenous writer Asian American activism Novel in verse YA or MG fantasy Black woman scholar
Bilingual book Magical realism Black SFF writer History of music or art Novella (any genre)
Hist fic in Asia First book in a series Novel (any genre) Muslim writer Graphic novel
Memoir by WOC Anthology Nikkei scholar Poetry Middle Eastern writer
African writer Independent press US-Mexico border Disabled POC writer Mystery

 

2018 Reading Goals – Results

Last December, I posted a 2018 reading goals bingo card for myself. The original post can be viewed here. One year later, I am happy to say, I GOT BINGO! Below are my results.

The categories in bold represent books I read in 2018.

Novel in verse Translated work by POC Religion (fiction or nonfiction) Short story anthology Indigenous sovereignty
Holiday or cultural event Settler colonialism Book of poetry Decolonizing academia Book in Spanish
JA activism Reread childhood favorite Novel (any genre) Bilingual book Picture book w POC author and illustrator
YA or MG by POC Nikkei in Japan Historical fiction by Nikkei writer Graphic novel by non-Japanese POC Culinary history
Racism in medicine Sexuality or gender identity South or Southeast Asian writer Romance by POC Memoir by a Black activist

My 2018 bingo books:

  • JA activism – The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration
  • Reread childhood favorite – The Best Bad Thing
  • Novel (any genre) – Seesaw Girl
  • Bilingual book – A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
  • Picture book w POC author and illustrator – The Fog

Other books I read in 2018:

  • Novel in verse – Forest World
  • Indigenous sovereignty – Deer Woman
  • Book of poetry – My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter
  • YA or MG by POC – Hoodoo
  • Historical fiction by Nikkei writer – A Jar of Dreams
  • Graphic novel by non-Japanese POC – MFK
  • South or Southeast Asian writer – Pashmina
  • Memoir by a Black activist – When They Call You a Terrorist

I did not include any Japanese-language books I read this year. I also omitted books which did not fit any of the bingo categories.

Book Spotlight: Dust of Eden – Mariko Nagai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Dust of Eden is the story-in-verse of Mina Tagawa, who is forcibly relocated from her home in Seattle to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho.

What I liked:

  • This book is extremely readable – Nagai has a talent for capturing details and establishing settings with just a few words. I almost wonder if the book’s format makes it a good choice for teaching Japanese students about Nikkei wartime experiences, while also honing reading comprehension skills.
  • Nagai gracefully combines Japanese and English in her poems, though I could do without the in-text translations. At the same time, because the Japanese in the book is so clearly written by a native* speaker, it gave the story a different, almost dreamlike feeling for me, in contrast to other Nikkei-written camp literature. I felt at times as though I was reading a 日本人 reimagining of Nikkei camp experiences, bolstered in part by the fact that Nagai does not appear to have a family connection to the camps. According to the note at the end, her family physician was in a camp.
  • The strong visuals of the story suggest it could be brilliantly adapted as manga or anime, by a dedicated and skilled team of Japanese/Nikkei artists. There are many visual adaptations of what happened at Hiroshima by 日本人 creators – I think it would be fitting to see some of them work with Nikkei creators, especially individuals with family connections to the camps, to create similar adaptations spotlighting this part of JA history. Weedflower would also be a good candidate for this type of adaptation.

What I learned:

  • Gary Kunieda’s story was very interesting to me. I know some Nikkei chose to leave the camps for Japan, but I have not yet read a work dedicated to their experiences. What happened to them when they reached Japan? Did any of them end up fighting for the Japanese army? I would be especially interested in reading a Nikkei-written adaptation, fiction or nonfiction, of a multigenerational story rooted in this part of JA history. Bonus points if the writer is inspired by their own family history!

Questions I had:

  • Why did Nagai decide to write this book? Was she personally interested in learning more about the camps? How does she conceptualize her own Japanese/Nikkei/other identity in relation to the topic of the book? What contribution did she envision making to the existing body of Nikkei-written camp literature?
  • I noticed multiple omitted words in the poems – were they editorial errors? Initially, I wondered if they were intentional, but since most of the book is written from Mina’s POV and she is Japanese American, there is no reason for her English not to be perfectly grammatically correct. I’m a bit disappointed if the omissions are editorial in nature, because the book was just reissued with a new cover and I would hope someone took the time to proofread the content as well.
  • The content of several of the poems was disturbing to me, primarily because I could not discern the purpose of including topics which, while perhaps historically “accurate,” might well be hurtful to certain readers. I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Nick and his friend ask which bathroom they should use. I cannot imagine a Black reader finding this scene particularly amusing. What sort of audience did Nagai envision when she drafted this portion?
  • As Nikkei readers and writers, how do we make sense of the intersections of settler colonialism and cultural attitudes regarding land? This question was often on my mind as I read the (many) sections where Mina ponders the meaning of being American, as well as the depictions of Grandpa and his roses. Grandpa’s personality, echoed and exemplified by his treatment of the land, felt in many ways quintessentially Japanese to me. I can see in him the bridge between Japan and JA gardeners. At the same time, we have lines such as, “We tame the land with our hands,” which is not particularly distinguishable from the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny or a sentence from the Little House series. I wonder if any indigenous/Native readers have read this book and if so, what they thought of this line and others like it. I also wonder about the effect of these lines on a Nikkei reader – what sort of image of being “American” is conveyed here?
  • Continuing from my last thought, what then is the responsibility of contemporary Nikkei writers and creators? What is the value of putting racism, anti-blackness, settler colonialism, etc., on the page unchallenged, especially in fiction, when doing so perpetuates ideas and practices which are harmful to living communities – and by extension, potential readers? Perhaps this is what Cynthia Kadohata wished to accomplish with Weedflower. For reprints or new editions, if writers and/or publishers do not wish to update the original text, they might advocate for an author’s note which explains why certain ideas or topics were included. It is also vital for writers to clearly identify their intended audiences. For example, if I knew a Black reader was preparing to read this book, I would let them know about the bathroom scene.
  • What sources did Nagai utilize when writing this book? I would be interested in taking a look at her bibliography. The suggested reading list at the back of the book seems primarily targeted to young white readers to give them a basic understanding of Nikkei wartime experiences. I’m glad to see some Nikkei-written books on the list, but I wish the ones written by white people could be replaced with additional Nikkei-created sources. For the camps, especially, there is more than enough material by JA/Nikkei to educate young readers, without sending the message (however implicit) that white people should always be involved in the chronicling of nonwhite experiences.

Follow-up:

  • I realize my lengthy comments above may make it seem I’m highly critical of this book, but I did genuinely enjoy reading it. I think it would be a useful example in any intracommunity discussion comparing and contrasting Nikkei-written camp literature.

*I can’t recall if there was dialogue online about utilizing the term “native” to describe people who have spoken a language since birth. I’m not overly fond of the term “mother tongue,” but I need to check back and see if other alternatives were discussed.

Book Spotlight: The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Samurai’s Garden, a young Chinese man named Stephen travels to wartime Japan to recover from tuberculosis and forms an unexpected friendship with his grandfather’s gardener, Matsu, and a beautiful, reclusive woman named Sachi.

What I liked:

  • For readers who prefer atmosphere over plot, I think Tsukiyama does the best job of establishing place and time of any Nikkei writer I’ve read thus far. Being more plot-oriented myself, it took longer for me to understand why the story seemed to move so slowly. Those of my friends who stick obstinately to “literary” works over genre fiction, this book is probably for you.
  • Tsukiyama’s technique of including letters from Stephen’s family and friends within the diary-like format of the book made the entire story feel extremely dreamlike to me, because none of it seemed to be happening in real time. A diary is something that can only be read after it is written, in the same way a letter takes time to reach its destination before the recipient knows its contents. Additionally, Tsukiyama’s use of trains to move her characters back and forth from Tarumi to other parts of Japan further exemplifies the surreal, fantasy-like nature of the story, as if Tarumi is a magical place far removed from the “real” world where the war is occurring. The final image of Stephen beginning to record his experiences on the train reminded me strongly of 千と千尋の神隠し, particularly the beginning and ending scenes when Chihiro uses a tunnel to access the spirit world. I was also struck by how Stephen takes leave of Matsu and Sachi, knowing he will most likely never learn what becomes of them. The haunting, nostalgic ending was one of the most powerful moments in the book for me.

What I learned:

  • Was it common for affluent Chinese families to maintain summer homes in Japan prior to the war? I know Korean laborers lived in Japan during the war, but I’ve never heard of anything like the arrangement Stephen’s family has in Tarumi. It’s a topic worth looking into – I’ll have to keep an eye out for other novels or scholarly works with a more detailed overview.

Questions I had:

  • Who supervised the romanization of Japanese in this book? Someone previously told me they had noticed errors in Tsukiyama’s novels and unfortunately I have to agree. I do hope publishers are more careful these days, as I believe this book was released a number of years ago.
  • Why did Tsukiyama decide to put “samurai” in the title of the book? I wonder if this aspect of the book was a marketing decision, or if she intended to explore the concept of samurai from the start. That said, if the linking of samurai ideals to certain characters was intended to demonstrate how samurai culture has persisted in Japan over time, it seems like an odd topic to juxtapose with Stephen’s constant awareness of Japanese atrocities in China. To me, the book felt like an attempt to illustrate the nuances of Japanese culture with respect to interpersonal interactions and family relationships. Although the story could have been an opportunity to thoroughly explore the gap between Japanese reality and stereotype, I felt it relied a bit too heavily on concepts like samurai and honor, which are already heavily distorted in outsider perceptions of Japan. How did other Nikkei readers feel about the portrayal of Japanese culture in this book?
  • What is the significance of including leprosy in the story? I initially wondered if Yamaguchi was based on a real village, but if so, I like to think there would have been an author’s note somewhere in the book explaining the historical significance of how Japanese people with leprosy were treated during this time. If the experiences of Sachi and the other inhabitants of Yamaguchi are based on those of real people, I feel it would have been a mark of respect to acknowledge this on the page. That said, I also wonder if Tsukiyama originally asked to include a note and the publisher refused. If any Japanese readers with leprosy have read this book, what did they think?

Follow-up:

  • I know Tsukiyama has written a number of other novels and I was thinking it might be interesting to read one of her historical novels on China, for instance, since she is also of Chinese descent.

Book Spotlight: A Place Where Sunflowers Grow – Amy Lee-Tai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, written by Amy Lee-Tai and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, depicts snapshots of life in Topaz, as seen through the eyes of Mari, a young Nikkei girl.

What I liked:

  • I added this book to my TBR as soon as I learned it was bilingual. As someone with relatives inside and outside Japan, I know firsthand how important it is for 日本人 to learn about 日系 experiences, and vice versa. I also think it’s important for these exchanges to begin happening early, which is why it’s so exciting to find bilingual children’s books by Japanese authors.
  • Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations are charming. To me, they also feel as if they were created with true affection for and knowledge of Japanese faces. I appreciate how Hoshino and Lee-Tai both have family connections to the camps, which makes this book stand apart from the recent influx of non-Japanese-written content on the camps. Did Lee-Tai approach Hoshino about doing the illustrations, or was Hoshino hired by the publisher after the manuscript was sold? At any rate, kudos to the person who understood the importance of hiring a Japanese, and especially Nikkei, illustrator for this book.
  • The dominance of yellow in the illustrations was very interesting. As a child, I learned to think of yellow – well, some shades of yellow – as a very おとなしい color, influenced largely in part by the Japanese children’s books my mother read to me. Also, ひまわり is a common motif in Japan, especially for things targeted at children, so my general impression of yellow is more positive than negative. At the same time, in the context of the camps, yellow can be associated with the hot, dry sand, the endless desert, the piercing sunlight, and many other natural elements which made life miserable for incarcerated Nikkei. I would love to know if 日本人 versus 日系 children interpreted the color scheme differently, based on their personal and/or cultural associations with yellow. In my case, I don’t think I would have fully grasped the mental, emotional, and physical toll of being in the camps if I had read this book as a child, because the illustrations do not strike me as particularly unhappy or unpleasant. That said, I also wonder if Hoshino selected her color scheme in order to lighten the mood, since the overall theme of the book is one of hope and resilience in the face of oppression and injustice.
  • I remember giant sunflowers growing in my parents’ yard when I was a child. Reading the author’s note about sunflowers at the end of the book brought the memory back, and I wondered if my grandfather and his family ever saw those sunflowers during their time in Topaz.

What I learned:

  • At one point, Mari’s father is still teaching a class while the rest of his family lines up for dinner. I seem to recall mealtimes were strictly observed in the camps, so I wonder what this meant for camp inmates with overlapping commitments. Did they all have families like Mari’s father does to hold their places in line? Were there so many classes being held that some of them absolutely had to overlap with mealtimes? I realize I’ve read a fair amount on how people felt at being in the camps, but less about daily camp routines and the systems Nikkei created to organize their lives.

Questions I had:

  • Does Lee-Tai read or write Japanese? According to the credits at the end of the book, the translation was done by Marc Akio Lee, with assistance from others. I ask because I felt the closing line in Japanese was more powerful and emotionally resonant than the same line in English, though the overall sentiment seemed essentially identical.
  • Did Hoshino’s initial sketches include any images of the fully-grown sunflowers? The title evokes such a vivid image, I was a little surprised when no corresponding illustration appeared in the book. This is not a criticism of the book, but I would be interested in knowing if other Japanese/Nikkei readers felt the same. Also, the final illustration instantly reminded me of トトロ – was this a deliberate allusion on Hoshino’s part? It seems like a somewhat whimsical comparison to draw, especially in light of the serious subject matter, but I can also see Hoshino wanting to demonstrate how hopeful and triumphant Mari and her companions are after finding ways to make life in camp bearable, in the same way Satsuki and Mei celebrate when they see the shoots in the garden. 夢だけど、夢じゃなかった!

Follow-up:

  • I think I have a book about Chiura Obata and his time in Topaz, which seems like a fitting follow-up to this story.

Book Spotlight: When the Emperor Was Divine – Julie Otsuka

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

When the Emperor Was Divine is told from the perspectives of a Japanese (American) family before, during, and after their incarceration in Topaz.

What I liked:

  • As one of the more “mainstream” JA/Nikkei authors (meaning, non-Japanese readers have mentioned her books to me), Otsuka has been on my TBR for years, and I’m glad to finally read her work.
  • Wow, the final chapter is sharp! I actually read most of the book out loud to myself and I could feel the rage and despair and so many other emotions pulsing beneath the father’s words. If anyone who coordinates JA history activities is reading this post, I highly recommend doing a reading of the final chapter in your group, especially if your audience is primarily non-Japanese people unfamiliar with the impact of the camps. (I was going to write ‘aftermath’ instead of ‘impact,’ but whenever I see the word aftermath I think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the comparison/conflation feels disrespectful.)
  • One aspect of JA/Nikkei history and culture which I feel Otsuka captured extraordinarily well is the origins of assimilation. Of course, JA/Nikkei had already made efforts to assimilate to varying degrees before the war, but the slowed-down, almost frame-by-frame depiction of the children’s thoughts in the second and third chapters provides a searing insight into how, stripped of nearly all traces of their former lives, incarcerated JA/Nikkei gradually found themselves with no option but to assimilate (or should I say anglicize), even if it meant distancing themselves from their familial roots and learning to refer to their 日本人 friends and relatives as ‘the enemy.’ Although I don’t know if Otsuka consciously included this, the children also (continue to) internalize white supremacy, as shown in fleeting glimpses of their thoughts and feelings toward Black and indigenous people. At one point, the boy counts the Black people he sees on the street, in what seems to be an example of returning to ‘normal’ life post-camp, but which also, at least to me, exemplified how non-Black USian POC have adopted longstanding white USian practices of treating Black people as a source of entertainment rather than humans deserving of equal respect.*

What I learned:

  • Did camp residents really salute the Japanese emperor? To what extent was Japanese – reading, writing, speaking – used in the camps? I’ve read many mentions of Japanese language and culture being curtailed outside the camps, before and after incarceration, but I didn’t think much about how it continued to be used inside. What about the Issei with virtually nonexistent English skills who were imprisoned? Did their English improve while they were in camp? How did the Nisei, with their more fluent English, feel about their bilingual elders?
  • What proportion of JA/Nikkei at the time revered the emperor in a way similar to their 日本人 counterparts? I understood the title in a historical sense before actually reading the book, but at the same time, as a JA/Nikkei who grew up hearing about the emperor from my 日本人 relatives without actually feeling any kind of personal connection or allegiance, and being mostly surrounded by JA/Nikkei with similar views, it was difficult to imagine myself into a different, but still Nikkei, mentality in which the emperor holds more significance. It would be interesting to read the wartime reflections of Issei and Nisei on the topic of the emperor, though I haven’t come across any book with such a specific focus. I suspect my best bet is to read the anthologies of camp writings…

Questions I had:

  • Why did Otsuka go with anonymous POVs for her main characters? I wonder if she wanted Japanese/Nikkei readers whose family history includes the camps to imagine their own families experiencing the things she describes, by creating generalized characters and letting readers see through their eyes, rather than very specific characters to be viewed from the outside. Perhaps the characters’ anonymity also emphasizes the scale of Nikkei wartime incarceration. As far as I recall, the book never mentions the total number of JA/Nikkei who were incarcerated during the war, or any other wartime statistic, but I can see how creating a JA/Nikkei ‘everyman’ might cause readers to think more deeply about just how many people had their lives torn apart by being sent to camp. It’s an interesting strategy to consider, particularly in comparison to the opposite technique of using one very specific individual’s story (such as Anne Frank) to illuminate a much broader narrative. Most of the other camp literature I’ve read thus far utilizes the latter technique – I haven’t compared publication dates, but I wonder if Otsuka also chose her POVs in deliberate contrast to the existing literature. Lastly, I’d like to know if Otsuka’s agent or editor encouraged this type of POV, or if it was part of the original draft.
  • Does Otsuka have a personal/familial connection to the camps? I might look this up on her website later, if I remember. Why did she choose to write a novel about the camps? I believe this is her debut and I wonder if the war/camps is one of those topics which helps emerging Nikkei writers get their foot in the door. How many Nikkei writers query with a book unrelated to the war, only to have their agent/editor suggest they might have better luck landing the first deal if they write about the war (or samurai)? That said, most of the JA/Nikkei writers I’ve come across who write historical fiction appear to have a fairly personal connection to their material (myself included, though I write SFF), so I certainly don’t want to suggest anyone is exploiting traumatic narratives for personal gain. It looks like Otsuka’s second novel is also historical fiction, but set in a different period, and I wonder if her background is in history or a related field.
  • How does Otsuka see this work fitting into the existing body of camp literature? I haven’t read everything out there, by any means, but while I was reading her book I had a feeling it would have made more of an impression on me if I wasn’t already fairly knowledgeable about the camps. As it was, I finished the book wondering if anything really set it apart from the other novels I’ve read. To be clear, I am not critiquing Otsuka. The writing was spare and elegant, the choice of POV striking, and I can easily imagine how the book appeals to fans of ‘literary’ fiction. Maybe my genre bias is just getting in the way.

Follow-up:

  • I’ve been told Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is quite good, so expect to see a post about it in the future!

*The dehumanization of slavery (Black people quantified and used as currency), the history of minstrelsy/blackface, and Jim Crow are some of the more prominent examples of racist USian institutions and practices which render this scene much more disturbing than it may initially appear. Yes, this is for anyone who read the post and wanted to say, ‘he’s just playing’ or something similar.

Book Spotlight: Outside Beauty – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Outside Beauty, Shelby and her three sisters struggle to reunite after being sent to live with their respective fathers in the wake of their mother’s accident.

What I liked:

  • Kadohata does an amazing job of capturing the thoughts and feelings of children and tweens. Contemporary MG and YA tend to be the most difficult books for me to get through, since I often get bored before I can finish reading, but in this case, Shelby’s voice and perspective were so entertaining and relatable, I was at the last chapter before I knew it. I am not much like Shelby as a person, but reading from her perspective sent me straight back to my elementary and middle school days. Although I was mostly into fantasy back then, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book regardless, or if I would not have been able to see past the absence of dragons and flashy magic.
  • Jiro was such an interesting character to read. I almost felt like I could picture him more clearly than Shelby, probably because she spends so much time focused on him. I’m not sure how I feel about this contrast…on one hand, it demonstrates how effectively Kadohata situates her reader inside the narrative, but on the other, by the end of the book I still had very little of an external image of Shelby because I had spent the entire story inside her head. That said, I’m not sure Kadohata really intended the reader to have an external image of Shelby, so maybe my reading experience went exactly as planned.
  • To continue on the topic of Jiro…did fellow JA/Nikkei readers literally hear his accent every time they read his dialogue? The words, the small snatches of Japanese interspersed with English, the pauses and omissions in his speech…all of it was true to my experiences of hearing 日本人 speak English. Also, Shelby’s slowly evolving perception of Jiro, from feeling awkward about his ‘otherness’ to gradually understanding more of how and why he is who he is, felt extremely relatable to me as someone with an ever-changing understanding of my various family members’ relationships to Japanese-ness. I’m not sure I would have caught this particular nuance if I had read the book in middle school because I was definitely not thinking so critically about Japanese things as I am now. I wonder how different my experience of reading the book would have been back then – one thing I’ve been thinking about as I read my way through my backlog of JA/Nikkei children’s literature is, to what extent is all of the background knowledge I currently have obscuring my reading of the text? Of course, every reader brings a body of knowledge to what they read, but I’ve been wondering lately if it is possible to ‘overthink’ or ‘overanalyze’ certain works, in the sense that the author might go, ‘chill out and just enjoy, I wanted you to take a break by reading this!’ I realize assigning too much value to authorial intent can be limiting in and of itself, but as far as JA/Nikkei works, I like to at least acknowledge the presence of said intent because I think, for many of us, being Japanese creators means working with intent, to make the best thing you can, to evoke a particular response or range of responses from your target audience. Ehh…trying to explain this in English is not going well. For any fellow Japanese people reading this, I suppose you either get it or you don’t! Let’s move on…

What I learned:

  • Japanese gum manufacturers? In Arkansas? Is that a thing? I have thus far failed to complete my follow-up from Kira-Kira, which was to look into the history of Japanese communities in the southern US. Something tells me this will still be on my TBR the next time I come across this topic in Nikkei fiction, but at some point having to repeatedly acknowledge this particular failure on this blog will goad me into actually looking up the information, so there is that. I’m just glad none of my relatives in Japan have the time or interest in reading this blog, since, as I’m sure some of my fellow JA/Nikkei know, being a failure in Nikkei spaces is one thing, but being a failure as 日系人 in 日本人 spaces is quite another (and in my experience, somewhat worse than the first).

Questions I had:

  • Have any indigenous/Native readers ever approached Kadohata about her use of “powwow” in this book? Since it was published some time ago, I’m not sure if new editions are still being printed, but if so, I think this particular word choice should be updated to something that is not anti-indigenous. (I’m also still curious about indigenous/Native reader responses to Weedflower, but I have not found any verified ownvoices reviews so far. My original post on Weedflower can be read here.)

Follow-up:

  • I actually meant to read The Thing About Luck before I read this book, but clearly that didn’t happen. June will be full of move-related things, so I’m not sure when I’ll next read anything for Book Spotlight…hopefully soon, though!