(September 24th, 2018)
“I read Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s recently released novel, Shadow Child, in preparation for a panel I moderated at Chicago’s thirty-fourth annual Printers Row Lit Fest (PRLF). Shadow Child is a captivating mystery that centers around Lillie—a Japanese woman, American born—who comes of age during World War II and lands repeatedly between deadly rocks and hard places. Through the narrative of Lillie and her daughters, Hana and Kei, Rizzuto explores the scars, shadows, and hauntings of war, internment camps, natural disasters, racism, and other injustices.
“Shadow Child is brilliantly written, resonates eerily with current events, and left me with questions beyond the ones I had time for at the PRLF, so I was thrilled when Rizzuto agreed to interview and entertained more questions. I was equally delighted when, on a recent visit to New York, Rizzuto welcomed me, at the last minute, into her home where I got to gawk at the cavalcade of books and sculptures that lined her walls, feed on her homemade granola and yogurt, and spend several hours lost in conversation with her about fatal diseases, ecstatic dancing, and everything between.
“We tackled the ways in which Shadow Child examines trauma, identity, and monsters:”
For our full conversation, click here to go to The Rumpus. A teaser?
“Shadow Child has lots of monsters, hauntings, ghosts. But that is not where the real peril comes from. My monsters are the guilt and sorrow kind. They rise out of despair, helplessness. They are a manifestation of “dis-ease”; and they are invisible. Hidden.
“I have often said, even in this conversation, that we create our own reality. So it follows that we also create our own monsters. Sometimes, they are inside us, in the acts, or feelings or impulses that we don’t want to admit to. They are born out of our decisions, and how we choose to deal with things beyond our control. They remind us that the past is not easy to erase and ignore. They are also—just as trauma is in this story—inheritable.
“There is one moment—I’ll try not to make this a spoiler—when one of the characters realizes that the monsters can be wielded, controlled; that she can choose to evoke this notion of the monster and it is quite a powerful thing, though of course, it doesn’t go as planned. Very little in this novel goes as planned.”
“When I was growing up, I knew very little about Hiroshima, and what I did know was typical of what many Americans knew: that the bomb was a marvelous weapon that saved lives and ended the war. When I was about 30, however, I interviewed my great aunt who had been in Hiroshima with the American Occupation and had seen the destruction first hand. She told me about her experiences as a translator for American doctors who were trying to convince grieving mothers to give up the bodies of their stillborn babies for scientific study. She told me about the disfigured Hiroshima Maidens whose injuries took over 30 surgeries to fix. She told me about the massive American cover-up. She was so angry. I confess, it was too much for me. I couldn’t hear what she was saying then. It was years before I could finally get my head around it enough to see if it was true.”
This is an excerpt from my essay, Once Upon A Time in Hiroshima, featured on Medium. In it, I reflect on the different stories we tell ourselves, and the different realities we create. In this cultural moment, there is nothing more important that understanding what truth is, and what cause and consequence are, and in finding the courage to see clearly what we have suffered and wrought. As the current top highlight on this essay underscores, “We can’t learn from our mistakes if we were never told we made any.”
One of the things I love about Medium is that readers highlight passages that are meaningful to them. Feel free to stop by Medium, read the whole essay, and tell me what you think. Meanwhile, here is the passage that resonates most with me:
“The truth is, we are ordinary. Not super-powered. We are human, and fragile. We make mistakes and we break. Our government may indeed have the ability to bring about unprecedented suffering, but the suffering will fall on humans just like these little boys. Just like my own. Because the one super power we don’t have is the invulnerability to keep the fallout from coming back to strike us.”
As a writer, and a woman, and a human, I’ve thought a lot about trauma. And in this cultural moment of #metoo, gaslighting, nationalism, disenfranchisement, and violence against just about every kind of human that is not a replica of those in power, and also our planet and other living things, I have grappled with the question of how writing can help us heal that, for the writer and the reader. Electric Literature published my thoughts on this, which begin:
“I started writing my second novel in the aftermath of violence. In a more-common-than-you-think incident — one that is often used for titillation or as the opening scene of some revenge movie involving a father or a husband with a gun — a friend of mine was raped. I was haunted by the details: the red binders of mugshots my friend searched through at the police station; the bizarrely stubborn fingerprint dust smeared all over her walls. I was haunted by what happened to her but also what had happened to me, because of course I also have my own versions of this story, which I have never told.
“It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s more that I don’t know how. For me, as a fiction writer, narrative has a purpose: it’s how we humans create meaning. It’s where our lessons are. Our maps. But my stories have no beginning, no ending. No cause and consequence. No comeuppance.
“They happened. I escaped.”
To read the rest, click on this link, which will send you to Electric Literature: How Writing Fiction Helps Me Give Shape to the Chaos of Trauma
Last week I finished my first pass page proofs for Shadow Child, my new novel coming out in May. I started it in the year 2000.
Holding those pages in my hands, with their elegant design and their printing marks, I was amazed at how much effort has gone into the creation of this book, effort from people at the publishing house with whom I have become deeply connected and others I have never met. After almost two decades, my book has a face – the jacket I have attached here is brand new and just posted by Grand Central – and it’s a face that, as gorgeous and perfect as it is, is also one I could never have dreamed of. The birth of this book is much like the birth of a child, in that you imagine what your child will look like, but the person who was created in some magical and mysterious way from your DNA is both instantly recognizable and utterly unfamiliar.
It is taking a publishing village to get Shadow Child out into the world. At Goddard, when we write, we might imagine that we are done once the final draft is ready to send out into the world. This is not true. The draft that will be published, which had already been read in various stages by friends, writer friends, agents and editors, was so thoroughly…engaged with…by my brilliant editor that on some pages there were so many comments I literally had to take a deep breath, close the document and come back to it a different day.
As wonderful as my pre-publishing experience has been, we hit a snafu the other day when I turned in my acknowledgements and was told that they had only saved three extra pages for them, never expecting that I might need…eight.
I couldn’t cut the names of the people I interviewed, around fifty, even if my story changed and I didn’t use the material, and even if some of them have already passed on. I couldn’t cut the people who helped. I held onto the list of books that served as resources and inspiration because my novel is partly historical and the reader might want to know what really happened. Some of the decisions I made about how to use that history, what to identify, where to let go of fact in my quest for a greater truth – I felt that context was essential to include. And more than all of that, I could not cut my community.
Over two decades, the community around this book is vast, and I know that, as much as I tried to list my many supporters, by name and affiliation, there are perhaps an equal number of people who have not been named. This is because my brain is old, but also because the people who made a difference are not always the ones who read the whole manuscript or gave me feedback. They are my friends, my colleagues, the people I spent time with. They are my students who, in asking questions about their own work, sparked an answer to a problem I was having in my book for me. They are fellow travelers, Pele’s Fire writers who create an electric buzz of brainstorming around them wherever they go; listeners who insist that the passage I read cannot be cut, even if I have to reshape the novel to keep it there, or who remember a scene from six years before; friends whose comments on a piece of art we saw together, or a movie, crystalized an idea in my brain. We don’t always know where our ideas come from, or how they shift and change. There is a time when it is just us, and our muse. But there is a far longer time when we are writers in the world, and the others around us are collaborators and inspiration whether they know it or not.
I offered to drop my bio to accommodate the acknowledgements. They refused. They offered to compromise the internal design. I refused. We were able to move a few things around, and I got ruthless with my sentence structure to gain some pages, and so far, it looks like the acknowledgements are going to fit. They won’t be as long as a book two decades in the making requires, with apologies to anyone whose name I have forgotten.
My advice to you who are still writing? Jot down those names, make a note of the passing conversations. Seek out your community and cherish it. Never forget you are a writer in the world.