This interview was originally published on the Women Authoring Change blog for Hedgebrook, an amazing retreat for women writers. In their own words, “Our mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories shape our culture now and for generations to come. Our core purpose is equality for women’s voices to help achieve a just and peaceful world.” I highly recommend you go to their website and find out more.
Hedgebrook: Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?
Reiko: Sadly, yes. I’m a self-taught writer, so every time I write a book, I have to teach myself to write all over again, and it’s not a quick process. For my first novel, Why She Left Us, I read like crazy and mapped out the books I liked to figure out what a novel was. I dissected them, teaching myself everything from how to end a chapter to how to format dialogue.
When I started my next book, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a memoir, I didn’t realize there were new rules, new expectations, until the first draft was done and it was terrible. And then I had to look at the central question of the memoir, the reason why I was telling the story so that I could use it to create the skeleton… I’ve just finished my next novel, and now I am working on my fourth: a fantasy, possibly for young adults, though that’s not even clear. With, you guessed it, yet another set of rules and assumptions that I need to learn, to play with, and possibly to break.
Complaining aside, perhaps it is truer to say that I will always have to teach myself to write this new book that’s in front of me no matter the genre, because this new book has the potential to be anything and how else could I find out what it needs to be? And as hard as it is to keep shifting (and failing, over and over), I also expect I would be bored if I was repeating myself.
Hedgebrook: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Reiko: Yes, though it’s taken me a while to realize it. When my memoir was still a manuscript, and Amy Scholder at the Feminist Press asked to see it, I did think to myself, “Why would she want my book? I’m just a mom.” Of course, if you are a woman who believes that fathers can take care of children as well as mothers, that mothers should be allowed to travel for work without being vilified, that you are equal and your voice is important too, then you are a feminist. But at the time, I didn’t consider those views as political statements. They were my experience, my reality. I thought it was just common sense.
Hedgebrook: Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?
Reiko: I think all writing is activist when you speak from your heart and from your truth. When what you have to say is urgent to you, and when your exploration of an idea or a form or a vision is consuming. I write about motherhood, gender roles, racism, discrimination, historical trauma and war. These topics emerge, regardless of what I think I am writing; I don’t plan them, and especially, I don’t start with them. I start with people, relationships, situations, inheritance. I often find myself circling around identity, with my characters trying to figure out who they are, what they want for themselves, what they refuse to be, and how their sense of themselves is different than the stereotypes and misperceptions others hold.
Again and again, in my books, you’ll find women stuck in roles that suffocate them. You’ll find lots of racism, individual and global. The internment of Japanese American citizens by their own country is just one example from my own family’s history, which is still relevant today. More relevant than ever in the aftermath of this presidential election. Our history is full of times when we created the label “other” for people who were not like us. Full of times when we changed laws and twisted all logic and reality in order to enforce that separation and to justify our acts of racism and hatred. We assassinate, enslave, perpetrate genocide, imprison, drop bombs on entire cities. This history infuses my books, but I keep my focus on people, and on the human consequences of hating, judging and limiting each other.
Hedgebrook: What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?
Reiko: I hope my readers will experience a new way of seeing the world. Art should be surprising, challenging, exhilarating, and tenderizing. Of all of these, this last is most important to me. Despite my earlier answers, I’m not trying to hit anyone over the head with my “message.” The point is not that war, racism, oppression and misogyny are bad – we know that. To me, the point of reading is to be able to leave your daily life. The world of the book may be wonderful or ridiculous or terribly sad, but that’s how we practice our empathy and stretch our own boundaries. We need empathy now more than ever. And we get it by immersing ourselves inside the character who is suffering, striving, facing down oppression. The character who is just like us after all.
And in a society without enough empathy, a society of fear and separation like the one we live in now, I want to help to give voice to the stories, experiences and people who are not often heard. As a writer, in my subject matter, but also as a teacher, mentor and activist. This is where it begins. We need to hear ourselves, validate our experiences, find allies and community, claim our space. This is the Hedgebrook mission, of course, and I guess my own point here is that society cannot and will not change until the silence is broken. So that’s my mission: to speak the truth I see and help others speak their own.
Hedgebrook: What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader/audience member?
Reiko: Some form of, “Thank you for sharing this story that does not get told.” “Thank you for seeing me, and for reflecting my struggles and my experience.” “Thank you for showing me that I too will survive.” I’ve heard from many women struggling to define their own motherhood who were grateful that they were not alone. From children of internees whose parents would not share their own stories. But also from people whose lives are very different from my characters’ on the surface, but who see themselves in a broken family, an adopted child, a family secret. We are, at heart, the same. That connection is everything.
Where are you writing? Aerogramme’s new list of retreats for 2015 includes Hedgebrook, an oasis for women writers near and dear to my heart: hard to get into (with 1500 applications this year!) but worth reapplying for, since, once you are a Hedgebrook alumna, you have a family for life. I’ll be teaching there for Vortex with the amazing Ruth Ozeki, who just visited Goddard, where I am on the faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing program, on the coldest day in anyone’s memory in Vermont (minus 23). At Goddard, we have just finished an action-packed week of writing, reading, learning, listening, dreaming, and thanks to Ruth, meditating our way into our stories so that we can access the world of our stories with our bodies. The MFA students are still talking about you, Ruth, and voraciously reading their new signed copies of A Tale for the Time Being.
If your writing life is inclined less toward a two year Masters’ program, and more toward a three day weekend retreat (and if you are female!) this year, Hedgebrook’s Vortex is offering small workshops, lectures and panel discussions with a new group of teachers, including Carole DeSanti, Dani Shapiro,Victoria Redel, and Hannah Tinti. What an amazing group of writers for a long weekend! (Full bios and brand new workshop descriptions on the Hedgebrook website here.) It would be lovely to see you there, in one of the most magical places I know.
Thank you, Hedgebrook, for the hollyhocks in my garden, and the Hedgebrook sisters in my email box, and the space to write and rewrite and have a manuscript to send out into the world today. These flowers are for you.
I am blessed with more than one in my life. This one, Hedgebrook, I am privileged to share with so many amazing women writers, including some of the ones you see here: Holly Morris, Hannah Tinti, Monique Truong, Suheir Hammad, Gloria Steinem. I am so grateful to Lisa Halpern’s magic in creating this documentary, which was aired on PBS on the Seattle Channel in May. Thanks and love to Amy Wheeler, Vito Zingarelli and every single person on the amazing staff who make Hedgebrook happen every day. And to Nancy Nordoff, who dreamed it and gifted her vision to us.
Take a look:
(ArtZone Hedgebrook Special, Women Authoring Change)
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” ― Muriel Rukeyser
Storytelling is a radical act. By sharing our own truths, we can heal, reveal, inspire, and challenge: literally recreating the world. In memoir, honesty is everything, but re-living our experiences and turning life into art can be one of the most challenging things we do. This workshop will help you find your central question and use it to find the shape of your manuscript. You will learn to be kind to your characters (including yourself) and also ruthless. You will balance an immersion into your past with the safety of the present. We will talk about placing your personal story in a broader social context.
Join me in one of the world’s most idyllic writing settings, Hedgebrook, the retreat that supports extraordinary work by visionary women. More information here, and on hedgebrook.org.
As I sit in my new office working with my advisees at Goddard, revision is on everyone’s mind. My colleague, Elena Georgiou, says revision is what separates the women from the girls, and years into my third and fourth books, I can claim my full womanhood. Revision is writing, and at its best, it should be fun. After all, our pages are not a clay pot or an oil painting. We can revise to our heart’s content, throw out, get messy, and return to the original if we have proven to ourselves that we really did have it right the first time. There is no harm in revision for writers, only the chance for surprise.
Recently, Ruth Ozeki shared with me her story of the revision, and re-envisioning (not to mention the massive throwing out of pieces), of her new novel A Tale for the Time Being. Her words, which follow, are part of a larger interview I did with Ruth that is published on SheWrites. You can find the full “Five Questions” here.
“I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.
“This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.
“By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.
“That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.”
What a fantastic day in Washington Square Park. So many dancing here, all over the city, all over the world. Thank you to all the beautiful creatures, men and women, dancing for peace, love, equity, joy, freedom.
One of every three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That is ONE BILLION mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends. Yet, most of the world remains silent and indifferent. The time has come to put a stop to the violence, and to the silence that surrounds it.
On February 14th, 2013, one billion women and those who love them are invited to walk out, rise up, dance, and strike to demand an end to violence against women and girls.
ONE BILLION RISING.
Sign up or get more information at: onebillionrising.org. Like: facebook.com/vday. Tweet: @VDAY with the hashtag #1billionrising
I am delighted to be a part of The Next Big Thing, the “authors and the authors who love them” weblog chain in which I answer questions about what I’m working on and get to introduce you to two gifted friends and writers. Ruth Ozeki tagged me for this, and her long-awaited novel, A Tale for the Time Being, is coming out in March. I got a sneak peak at it in close-to-final form, and I can say that, much as I loved her first two books, this novel of tsunamis and Hello Kitty lunch boxes, mysterious diaries and hundred year old Buddhist nuns is her best and worthy of all the accolades it is getting and will get. Buy it.
And buy the books I am recommending below by Sherri L. Smith and Bhanu Kapil (more on them in a minute). There are alternate universes out there that only someone else could dream of and they are waiting for you!
On to the questions.
What is the working title of your book?
I have two books, actually. Shadow Child is an adult, literary novel, the one Ruth mentions in her blog. It’s also the one Sherri helped me with at Hedgebrook without ever reading a word of, and that Bhanu has heard pieces of at Goddard College, where we teach together in the MFA Program for Creative Writing and where we occasionally tromp through the woods. So I guess I should talk about that one. But just so you know, there is another book out there, a fantasy series called The Matrix of Fear, which may come out first…
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When her twin sister is brutally attacked, Hana Swanson is forced home to Hawaii, where she must uncover her dead mother’s secrets (her mother is a Hiroshima survivor), reclaim her own stolen identity, and confront the truth of what happened in a cave in high school where one of the twins was left for dead.
Sounds dark. Okay, it is dark. But mysterious and exciting.
How long did it take you to write it?
Somewhere between four and thirteen years, depending on how you count. And still counting. I started Shadow Child in 2000, when it was just the story of the twins, and had about half a draft when I left for Japan in 2001 to research the character of their mother, Miya, who was to have her own book. My life derailed on that trip, and long story short, I spent the next seven years working on a memoir about Japan. The memoir went through many revisions (from terrible diary to memoir, to fiction, to hybrid, and back to memoir…) and, in the background, Shadow Child became a single novel. In 2010, I went back to it, and I am now trying to braid the stories of each twin and their mother together into a cohesive whole.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
“Who” is my great-aunt, Mary Hamaji. I interviewed her about the Japanese American internment camps for my first novel, Why She Left Us, and she told me about her experience working for the American Occupation in Japan after the war and the effects of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her stories eventually inspired Miya, who survives both the internment and the bombing. And those stories eventually took me to Hiroshima, where I lived for six months.
“What” is Hawaii. I grew up there and, though I have lived in New York now for more years than I admit to, I still find my imagination returning to the Big Island. The town of Hilo offered itself as a setting for the story. Hilo was devastated by two tsunamis, one in 1946 and one in 1960, and is quite close to the active volcano, so the setting is a character in itself. I did a lot of research in Hilo, spent a good deal of time in the Pacific Tsunami Museum, and interviewed a number of people who lived there in the 50’s and 60’s. In the end, though, Shadow Child is set in an unnamed city that isn’t exactly Hilo, mostly because my story is not historical fiction. I didn’t want to inadvertently redefine the very real events that took hundreds of lives in Hilo with my fabrications.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction. Early on, an editor suggested I make it a thriller or a mystery, and I spent months trying… It didn’t work. The whole point of those genres is that everything is neatly wrapped up and revealed in the end, and that has never been my interest.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is always the problem. The book is set in Hawaii, and therefore peopled by a multi-ethnic cast. But Hollywood isn’t filled with Japanese/Caucasian, Japanese, Hawaiian/Polynesian or even many Hapa actors.
For Miya, I would choose Tamlyn Tomita, one of the few Japanese-American female actors in Hollywood. Poor Tamlyn has the honor or dubious distinction of being cast for just about every “Japanese American woman in the WWII internment camp” role in mainstream movies. I can’t help her there, but I would still choose her.
For the twins, Hana and Kei, a young Hapa actress. Maybe Janel Parrish or possibly Kristin Kreuk.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I mentioned my fantasy series, The Matrix of Fear. An entirely different story, different characters, different world, different tone, and yet… Both Matrix and Shadow Child feature a set of twins. In both, a cave functions as a central feature and a place where momentous events happen, and both take place in a tropical island paradise… What’s with all the parallels? I have no idea. But maybe when both books are published, someone will read them and tell me.
And now, for my tags:
Sherri L. Smith. The author of the acclaimed young adult historical novel Flygirl (which made me cry), Lucy the Giant, and others, turns her considerable talents to dystopian fantasy in her new book Orleans, due in March. Kirkus calls it “harrowing and memorable” and promises it will keep readers up long past their bedtimes. I have yet to read the pages, but Sherri and I have talked and talked of this book and its characters…and the sequels! Let there be several. Look for her answers next week here.
Bhanu Kapil. Unicorn, healer, teacher, champion of monsters, experimental writer who travels to the places where her characters die and lies down in the same rectangles of earth, Bhanu’s fifth book, BAN, is out of the incubator and in the hands of a prospective publisher. Light a candle for this book, a novel of race riots in notebook form that has also been inhabited not just in her mind space, but through the body: performed. Look for her answers to these questions here.