Interview with the author of Turning Japaneseand Where the Body Meets Memory
By Alexs Pate
ALEXS PATE: Tell us a little bit about your novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.
DAVID MURA: The protagonist of the novel is a sansei, a third generation Japanese American. Ben Ohara’s life seems at first quite ordinary—married to an Irish Catholic girl he met in college, raising two young sons, living in the suburbs of Chicago, teaching history at a local community college. But as the novel opens, it’s clear Ben is still obsessed with and troubled by his past, particularly his childhood. For one thing he’s a man beset by ghosts—his father was interned during World War II, made a decision to refuse military service, and eventually committed suicide; his brilliant astrophysicist younger brother was a drug addict and occasional gambler who vanished one night in the desert between L.A. and Vegas; his recently deceased mother was someone whose wish to escape the past was as strong as his father’s ties to it. Ben is the last survivor of this troubled clan and he wonders if he may soon join them. After all, for years, he has put off work on an unpromising historical book, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.
Two events cause Ben to realize he must come to terms with his ghosts and he sets off for the West Coast—ostensibly to start doing research again on his book on Japanese suicides, but also to check into the circumstances of his brother Tommy’s disappearance.
Q: You’ve written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. Is there an autobiographical element to the novel?
A: Not on any large or significant levels. For one thing, Ben’s father is very different from mine. Ben’s father was associated with the No-No Boys, Japanese Americans who refused to sign a loyalty oath that the Japanese Americans were given while in the internment camps. This oath was given to both men and women, and in it were two central questions. One asked if people were willing to foreswear allegiance to the Emperor and swear allegiance to the United States. The second asked if they were willing to serve in the armed forces. For complicated reasons, some answered “No” to these questions. After the war, their status as No-No Boy made them outcasts in the Japanese American community. My father was in high school during much of the camps and so didn’t have to face the issue of going into the service; although, given his politics, he would have served (later he was drafted and stationed in Germany during the Korean War).
But if there is no large autobiographical element, there is a portion of the novel which evokes the era of my Chicago childhood, and that is one of the things I liked about writing the book. The novel opens in the present with Ben as an adult, but travels back through his youth in the tough Uptown section of Chicago, where he ran with the other kids in the neighborhood, playing ball, catching insects, stealing from the local candy store, and eventually getting into serious trouble. There are a variety of references to a childhood from the fifties—popular TV shows like Combat and movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man—as well as occasional ethnic signposts, such as his father’s retellings of Japanese folk tales like Momotaro and Issunboshi. Here again, though, the novel strays from my autobiography, since my own parents never talked to me very much about anything concerning Japanese culture.
What I suppose I do share with Ben is a sense that there was a vast silence in my childhood surrounding the past of my nisei parents and the legacy of the internment camps. This is typical of the way many Nisei parents approached their experiences during the war. There was a great desire to forget the past, to forge ahead, to achieve a surface sense of normality.
Q: But Ben’s childhood is hardly normal.
A: Yes, that’s true, and part of that comes from his father’s conflicted feelings surrounding his refusal to serve in the armed forces during WWII. Early on, Ben comes home from school one day to find his father lying on the couch rather than his mother greeting him in the kitchen with milk and cookies. This switch in roles is never overtly explained to Ben. All he knows is his mother is now the one who’s away at work. Later, his father will be absent from time to time, absences which are also never explained. Gradually the reader intuits that there are secrets from the past that trouble Ben’s parents and their marriage, secrets whose meaning the adult Ben is still trying to decipher.
Q: There is, though, one similarity between you and Ben. You both dropped out of grad school.
A: Like Ben, I am a graduate-school dropout. We both have broken the myth of the Asian American nerd who never fails in school. Ben at least gets to the stage of his PhD thesis. I never even got that far. I was kicked out of English graduate school with seven incompletes. Eventually I did come to understand the psychological reasons behind writers’ block and cured myself of it.
Q: Where did the title of the book come from?
A: The title of the book came from my friend, Junot Díaz. He pushed me to make more of the theme of Japanese suicides as a corollary to the book’s focus on the narrator’s father’s suicide. I loved doing the little excerpts from Ben Ohara’s failed book, particularly because it allowed for touches of humor. My favorites are the absurdities of Yukio Mishima’s seppuku, and the Japanese man who leapt from a window and landed on an unfortunate passerby—not a murder-suicide but a suicide-manslaughter. I also thought of these excerpts as similar to the manic scribbles by Bellow’s eponymous academic in Herzog. (I grew up in a Jewish suburb and I view both Bellow and Roth as part of my literary lineage. A line in my memoir Turning Japanese reads: “Besides I knew more Yiddish than Japanese.”)
As Ben works on his book on Japanese suicides he comes more and more to see that he is actually writing about himself and his own family. And given his history, it’s not surprising that he’s obsessed with the subject of suicide.
Q: Part of the novel involves Ben’s search to find out what happened to his brother who disappeared in the desert and who is quite different from Ben. I remember an earlier version of the novel where Ben didn’t have a brother.
A: Yes, in an earlier draft, Ben was an only child. But Tommy provided Ben with someone to talk to about what was happening in the family. Ben’s demeanor is more reserved, more careful than his brother’s. In a way that’s part of his problem; he won’t let himself take risks, he can’t admit to mistakes, he can’t allow himself the possibility of mistakes. Tommy is smarter and more eccentric, and when he grows up, much wilder and quicker to anger. Although he’s a brilliant scientist, he’s not a nerd. He’s got a more troubled history with women as well as with drugs and gambling. One of the things the book investigates is how the two brothers have very different reactions to their parents and their past.
Also through Tommy I came upon two alternative threads running through the book—astrophysics and science fiction. I’m not the first to see that the tropes of science fiction can illuminate the subject of race in ways straight realism cannot. I’m also fascinated by the ways what first appears in science fiction sometimes finds its way into reality. The invisibility cloak mentioned in the book actually comes from an article I came across in Wired. And the paranoid ex-military cabby who talks to Ben and his brother about various secret experiments comes from a cabby I encountered in San Francisco.
Q: Obviously Japanese Americans and Japanese American history play a significant role in your writing, whether in your memoirs, your poetry, or in your work for the stage.
A: In the popular culture, Japanese Americans are generally invisible. If they do appear, they appear either as the victims of the internment during WWII or perhaps as the model minority. My writing has centered on trying to explore a much more complicated picture of both our past and our present. It attempts to show how the historical and political are interwoven with the psychological and personal. It sees Japanese American identity not simply in terms of being bicultural. Instead, part of our Japanese American identities are political. That is, they come out of a history that is specifically American and that wrestles with how individual Americans view themselves and their fellow Americans in terms of race, both in the past and in the present. The internment camps are part of this, but so is the fact that we grew up and live in a culture and society that is still shaped by a racial hierarchy and that places a greater value on the lives of whites than those of people of color.
Q: Is there anything similar or different about your approach to this theme in your novel?
A: Fiction is, to me, a different beast than memoir. The tricky part of the book was to let the history—of the internment camps, of the No-No Boys—inform the book without making it the main subject of the book. I have my own personal political position on the camps and the response of the No-No Boys, but that was not what I was interested in exploring. Instead, I wanted to explore what it was like for Ben and his brother to grow up with a silence surrounding a history which has significantly affected their parents and who they are—that is, what it’s like to grow up feeling the presence of history and yet not be conscious of it, not be told about it. When Ben does grow up, he learns about that history, but he will never know enough to make complete sense of it, no matter what conscious political position he chooses to take.
Q: Recently, a Japanese American soldier, Lt. Ehren Watada refused to be transferred to Iraq because he believed it was an unjust war. What are your feelings about that? Do you see any connections between Watada and Ben’s father?
A: Like many people I believe that the Iraq war was launched on false premises and should never have happened. And I very much support Lt. Watada’s actions. In a way, Lt. Watada is someone who combines both the spirit of certain No-No Boys, Japanese American war resisters, and the 442nd, the famed division of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II in Europe (in the novel, Ben’s uncle Elbert was a member of the 442nd).
Q: There’s a way that our recent history has brought up again many of the issues of the internment camps.
A: Yes, very much so. In State of Exception, the political philosopher Georgio Agamben argues that the “state of exception” or “emergency rule” has now become the norm rather than the exception in terms of the ways democracies are run. Seen in this light, there are more similarities between say Pakistan and the United States than many might want to admit.
Certainly the interment camps and Executive Order 9066 with its suspension of habeas corpus for Japanese Americans can be seen as setting a precedent for the current assault on civil liberties in the name of national security. The government says to us, “Trust us. These measures”—whether phone taps on U.S. citizens or methods of interrogation like waterboarding or the lack of formal charges against the prisoners at Guantanamo—“are necessary.” But if you’re a Japanese American, you remember the internment, and you’re less inclined to accept the government’s word. For instance, it came out years later that the government suppressed FBI reports that indicated the Japanese Americans were not a security threat. That’s one of the reasons that, after 9/11, the Japanese American community was one of the first to speak out against the acts of prejudice towards Arab Americans and against actions by the government that threatened the civil liberties of Arab Americans. What they’re experiencing happened to us.
Readings of Related Interest
ALEXS PATE is an award-winning novelist. Together, he and David Mura created the multimedia performance piece, Secret Colors, about their lives as men of color and Asian American and African American relationships. A film adaptation of this piece, Slowly This, was broadcast on PBS. Alexs Pate’s novels include Finding Makeba, The Multicultiboho Sideshow, West of Rehoboth, Losing Absalom, and the New York Times bestselling novelization Amistad: The Novel. His next book In the Heart of the Beast: The Poetry of Rapwill be published in Fall 2008 by Scarecrow Press. Pate lives in Minnesota. This interview is © 2008 by David Mura and Alexs Pate, and is posted here by permission. Please do not reproduce further without contacting Coffee House Press.