A short fiction piece based on actual events is in Eastlit Journal. Hope to hear your comments.
1935 Hawthorne High yearbook
Robert and Grace has been recognized as
AND a revised version of the story will also appear in the November issue of Eastlit Journal
as Robert and the BOMB
Eastlit Journal, Creative Writing, Literature and Art focused on East and South East Asia
Thank you for your interest and support.
Nanako V Mizushima
As a writer, I’m always asking myself whether I should be reading or writing–there’s only so many hours in the day, so many years left before I’m senile, so much electricity left before a magnetic sun storm wipes out civilization as we know it. Do I really have time to read? Shouldn’t I use every spare moment I have to write? To produce something? Reading something, especially a book, seems so indulgent in this age, so mentally fattening. I don’t have time to sit by the fireplace (which is never lit anyway) and curl up with a book. When I do take a break after a busy day, I either look at Facebook or turn on the flatscreen to watch movies or my favorite HBO series because I can multitask (knit, fold laundry, eat) while I absent mindedly watch.
But every once in a while I have the urge to stop consuming junk food, and fast. I turn off the computer and TV, and I pick up a book. And another book. And another book. Interestingly, when I take the time to stop writing, I have the urge to wolf down as many books as possible, in other words–binge reading. Then, to continue in my lovely eating metaphor–I have the urge to write about what I binge read–in other words–vomit out my thoughts in the hopes that a few nuggets of wisdom have remained in my brain that I can share with you.
Over the past few weeks, I read or re-read In Other Words and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Seamstress by Sara Tuval Bernstein, Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, Unforgettable by Scott Simon, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and three books by Alexandra Fuller: Don’t Lets Go the the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Leaving Before the Rains Come. As you may have noticed, these are narrative non-fiction books–“true stories”– except for Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (a collection of short stories.) But even Lahiri’s fiction is firmly rooted in her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. One reason I choose to read these books is for practical purposes–I need to read good non-fiction writing in order to write good non-fiction. But the other reason I’m drawn to these stories is their texture. The vitality, layers of meaning which seem to have grown in the rich soil of true life. For some inexplicable reason, a sentence written by someone who has truly experienced a tragedy, a trauma, a story rings much clearer–feels more visceral–than one written by someone who pulls it out of a hat.
I’ve picked out a few lines from Leaving Before the Rains Come because they are relevant to my own writing. Like me, Fuller is of the immigrant culture (a white girl who grew up in Africa and moved to Wyoming). In this book, Fuller explores her marriage and divorce. She explains her attraction to Charlie, a white American from an old Philadelphia family.
“I suppose in some instinctive way, I believed that Charlie would be the route back to something more solid and enduring. After all, inasmuch as settlers of anywhere could be, he was of this nation; too many generations to count back how long his people had been here. Our children would be able to stand unabashedly unshod upon this soil, they would sense their ancestors, they would feel a belonging.”
Although I write from the perspective of a Nisei, a Japanese-American who lives in predominantly white Colorado, I think that anyone who feels lonely, who longs to belong to a community, can relate to Fuller’s words. Every newcomer tries to connect to others by finding that rock, the solid person who seems to be firmly rooted. But Fuller also writes about the feeling of alienation from, not only other people, but from those who only remain in our heads.
“There is no loneliness quite like the loneliness that comes from living without ancestors, without the constant, lively accompaniment of the dead.”
Perhaps Americans, whose dead are safely locked away in antiseptic morgues and cemeteries, might have a hard time understanding this type of loneliness. Bernstein’s WWII memoir, The Seamstress, based on her childhood in Romania and the grim Ravensbruck concentration camp is littered with lively, colorful characters–some wise, some foolish, some brave– all dead now. Bernstein’s story was dictated by all the ghosts in her mind. In Japanese culture, for example, one never says goodbye to the dead. There’s the tsuya (wake) first, then a funeral, then a kotsuage at the cremation, then ,shonanoka seven days after death, and the shijūkunichi 49 days after death, and another memorial 100 days after death. At the annual Obon festival everyone celebrates the dead by visiting graves, reminiscing, dancing and telling ghost stories. Then as if this wasn’t enough, at home, in between these death gatherings, I’ve seen Japanese offer food to the small urn of ashes before every meal, and share the news of the day –“Look, isn’t this a lovely handbag I got today”– as if the dead were sitting across the living.
In my current writing project, translation (Japanese to English) is an additional challenge to coming up with my own writing. I translated my deceased father’s Japanese letters and used them as an anchor to write my own thoughts. Jumpa Lahiri in In Other Words, described the process of translation beautifully:
“I think that translating is the most profound, most intimate way of reading. A translation is a wonderful, dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers. It entails a doubling, a renewal….It was a way of getting close to different languages, of feeling connected to writers very distant from me in space and time.”
Translation is to writing as crawling is to hiking. It’s a lot slower and messy but one is still working towards the same objective: to connect to a different place and time. To get from one place to another across the landscape of life through words. Words written in another language. One may stumble over the rocks, the individual words, and fall occasionally but those accidents are what add joy and interest to the journey, and satisfaction when reaching the end.
Finally, one more twist to the metaphor I started with–eating. Eating books is not just about digesting the contents, getting through all the pages. I like to think that reading is to writing as tasting is to cooking.Of course, it is possible to cook without tasting, but then how can one develop the nuances, the textures, the complexity of a unforgettable meal? I hope that as the words of these books I read slip through my retina, I took notice of them. I let them sink into my mind. If I occasionally stop to reflect and write about certain passages, maybe their wonderful qualities will remain in my brain, ready–I hope–to be sprinkled into my own writing like subtle seasoning. I know that the question isn’t one of whether I should be reading or writing. One cannot be separated from the other, just as eating cannot be separated from speaking. Without food, one’s voice will soon fade. Reading is life.
The LIghthouse Writers Workshop sent me the following email:
Congratulations! Hundreds of writers from all over the country applied for spots in our 2016 juried intensives, and your application for the Advanced Memoir with Alexandra Fuller has been selected for a spot by our jury. Yay for you!
This will be the first time for me to be in a writing intensive with someone of Alexandra Fuller’s caliber. Several years ago I read her book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and I remember being astounded at her vivid descriptions of her parents who left England to settle in Africa, and her heartbreaking childhood in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and in other parts of the world few Americans have seen. She’s a wonderful writer and I’ll be lucky to absorb a small portion of her talent.
So many people are interested in writing that the competition for these writing programs and classes have also intensified. A friend who is a writing instructor at the University of Colorado sent out dozens of query letters to no avail. Literary agents talk about being overwhelmed by hundreds of inquiries from writers. Another writing friend told me that all his applications to MFA (Masters degree for creative writing) programs around the country have been turned down. So what’s the best way to become a writer?
Somewhere I heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master any particular trade—and I think that applies to writing as well. Perhaps I’m being a bit naive but persistence is probably more important than just talent. But of course, it’s not just a matter of putting in the hours. One has got to be willing to share the writing with critical reviewers, be willing to push oneself, and be guided by mentors. Most important of all is the mental attitude. For a long time, I felt writing was in the realm of the Gods. Something that I (who learned English in elementary school) would never be able to master. But as I read many books, heard talks by professional writers and participated in several critique groups, the profession of writer has become real.
For the intensive with Alexandra Fuller, I plan to submit another portion of my current manuscript about my father, an immigrant from Japan. (I already submitted one part as the writing sample in the application to LIghthouse). This manuscript needs a lot of work but it has already caught the attention of two literary agents so my hopes are high as I work on this narrative non-fiction piece.
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.
I just finished listening to the audio book of “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer who became famous for her TEDTalk in which she said something like – perhaps we ought to think about, not how do we MAKE people pay for music, but how do we LET people pay for music. That made me think about the new audiobook I made of the Tei book. How do I make it as easy to listen to Tei’s story as it is to listen to music?
Just like music, audiobooks have almost become a required staple of many busy people. Audiobooks are easy to load, listen to while we do all the mundane chores of our lives — driving, washing dishes, writing blogs. In fact, I am listening to an audiobook now as I write this blog. (Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”).
This month, I plan to explore where I can distribute the audiobook version of Tei. I hope to let readers/listeners access the audiobook for free or a low fee. If you have any suggestions, please use the contact form here to share your ideas. Thanks!
I love storytellers but when was the last time you heard one? The next best thing are audio books. You can enjoy stories while driving, doing chores and relaxing at night. A human voice telling a story, conveying emotion through tones and rhythm as well as words. This summer, Tei will be read by the translator, Nanako Mizushima, and produced by Two Tigers Studio in Boulder.