In the end, I went to 7-Eleven. At least it wasn’t McDonalds—where the windows are plastered with pictures of a bun that appears to be filled solely with mayonnaise and three small cocktail shrimp. More on that in the next installment of the gaijin in Japan!HELPLESS
THERE’S A LITTLE GIRL in my head with Shirley Temple curls and freckles playing in a dust-swept road. She is the enemy. She looks about six, even though she shouldn’t be: my mother was not five when she was released from the
internment camp, but no pictures survive from that time so age six is the youngest image I have of my mother, the only image I have from “wartime” was taken after the end of the war. Of course, this little girl—skirt flying, dancing with tumbleweeds—is not my mother, not exactly. She is my first character from my first book.
My mother could not remember the camps, so I invented them for her. That’s how my first novel began. I made them up, pulling from a mixed bag of the photographs that could be taken, from the questions that the man with the yearbook at the internment camp “reunion” had asked, the man who wandered through the community center full of former internees eating home lunches of sushi rice and teriyaki, searching for anyone in the room who was three when he was three in camp, who might have been in a nearby block, who might have been his friend.
I pulled from dreams.
I created the children first—this little boy, the little girl who was his friend—and even while I was doing interviews, gathering the details of how the brick floors in the barracks had to be shellacked to keep the dirt from rising, I must have known I wasn’t dreaming up a “book about the internment.”
Write a potboiler,
a kindly, grandfatherly man had told me in passing, in the halls of one of the elder homes I visited to do my interviews.
That’s what people want to read. The facts are boring.
His advice stuck, though I was never aware of following it. I began to fictionalize, to trace family ties that could never have existed but could still be realized and, more than that, could be made so persuasive
that my mother could fill in her past with them, tucking her adopted life into bed each night without acknowledging its true parentage until it was hers by nurture. I recreated my mother’s memories before she began to lose her own, and now she too cannot remember what is real. I have been left with fragments of my own creation, with fictions, and now that I am in Japan, I’m discovering new creations and new memories of my mother—older, different—of times with her that I never experienced.
Like my mother as America’s sweetheart.
Like my mother standing beside me, gazing at the A-bomb Dome. More a presence than a physical form, since I know she isn’t truly there, but still real enough in my mind and the edge of my sight: a ruffle of my nerve endings as I find myself being pointed toward a thin white crane, stepping out from behind a crumbling wall to pose on one foot before disappearing again in the field of rubble.
WRITING IS UNCHARTED TERRITORY. It is a dream state, stop and start; it is a tangle of words and emotions that may not yield a single page at the end of a day. People ask me:
What is your book about? What do you want to know?
and I always answer, even though I know the answers will change. My first novel was not, in the end, written just because my mother was too young to remember the internment; it was not, as I would often say, merely about family secrets and splintered lives. When I stopped trying to verify the facts and started using them to open my imagination, my story began to circle in on motherhood, and on all the terrible
things a mother and child can do to each other. And in that very unconscious preoccupation, which I would have put a halt to had I become aware of it, the novel was about me.
For as long as I can remember, I never wanted to be a mother. From age twelve, when I was babysitting the neighbors’ children for seventy-five cents an hour and spent the entire day locked out of the house while they ran wild inside it, motherhood was not for me. I was incapable of nurturing anyone younger than I was: I had a mental block—and a real antipathy—against making hats out of paper bags and other projects children supposedly liked to do. I had a recurring nightmare too: of a child who woke in the night wanting peanut butter, screaming for it when it wasn’t in the cupboards, at a time when the stores were closed, when it was impossible to procure; screaming until the only question was whether it would be me or the child who went out the window. Children were greedy by nature; they would not ever, even when I was exhausted, consider my needs. And if this abstraction was based on nightmare and not experience, it felt quite real. As real as the fact that I was also greedy. I wanted my own time, my own money. My own life.
In order to test the possibilities of my own motherhood, I dreamed my way through a novel. I challenged my characters: Were they human? Loveable? Was it possible for them to heal? Under the protection of historical fiction, I explored the bonds and the effects of abandonment—someone else’s choices, someone else’s pain—until I had written my way out of my nightmares of peanut butter and into the
still unconscious hope that love would not require me to be anything other than what I was.
It was only days after I finished that manuscript that I became—accidentally—pregnant with my first child. Yet I still would not be aware of the link between them until it was pointed out to me by a stranger, several months after the novel was published. Even now, such a drastic, unconscious change makes me uneasy. If writing is truth-testing, a way for me to test the worst and see if I can bear it, then what am I testing now? I can feel myself moving again through my unconscious—it’s these odd dreams of my mother, for one; she is appearing quite often, even when I’m awake. If my first novel took me into motherhood, where will this one take me? My mother is part of the vehicle, but not the answer yet.
any writers write to find out who they are, and what they think, and where they fit into the world. That’s what I am doing, but I am doing it by tracing the Japanese Americans. Because, even though I am one, I grew up having no idea about them—as a group, or even as members of my family.
“I have grown up in peace and privilege, with no notion of war.
“So, when you ask me what I am doing here in Hiroshima, I can say I am following the Japanese Americans. I am looking at history through their eyes. World War II, in particular, was very significant for Japanese Americans because they were caught in the middle, and distrusted by both countries. Being “outside” a country, though, also gave them a more objective look at the war. They didn’t have a government to spin out rhetoric and tell them what to think, to terrify them with visions of an enemy nation of fanatics and strange food. I am seeking the memories of a select few who were interned in the American camps and then repatriated to Japan to help me weave some very important missing experiences back into the fabric of our history—for Americans and for Japanese people:
“Namely, what war looks like. What it smells like. What tiny bits of humanity are destroyed in each person, daily, in its great tide.”
—author’s presentation at the YMCA, Hiroshima
THERE IS SOMETHING MUFFLED in the Japan I’ve encountered so far. As the goal of my own apartment remains out of reach, I have moved out of my hotel and into the World Friendship Center, a halfway house for peace pilgrims looking for a quick dip into Japan and its bomb history, with western bathrooms and breakfast. The rooms are clean, and if the location is not the most convenient in the city—ensconced on a tiny street behind the love hotels that line the river—the biggest drawback is the five day limit for staying there, after which point, there is another five day option across the river. After that, I am out of luck. I can stay in a hotel for the duration or do what the other stray foreigners in Hiroshima do: leave.
Do I want to give up, or am I just tired of not knowing, and of not being able to say?
On this, my first morning at the World Friendship Center, I will hear a noise in the part of the building I was told was the kitchen and come downstairs to find a young woman. In this moment, my life will change. I will meet Ami, a girl who looks much younger than I am, though she will turn out to be almost thirty, a volunteer who turns only partially to greet me, her hands busy on the counter with breakfast. I am too new in Japan to notice how casual Ami’s clothes are: a pair of jeans and a frilly, capped-sleeve white top; too unschooled in Japanese beauty to notice that her
hair has been combed into a plain ponytail. There are no lines penciled on this female face, no makeup at all; only a mole on one fresh cheek.
,” I offer.
“Good morning,” Ami says, and there it is: excellent English. For an instant, I allow myself to hope that this might mean true communication, until Ami begins apologizing for the absence of the American couple who run the otherwise empty center, who would surely have canceled their yearly vacation if only they could have divined that I would appear. It’s a speech as convoluted, as Japanese, as any I’ve heard so far, but her demeanor—when do I begin to sense it?—is not quite so deferential. Her back is to me as she assures me they will not fail me again, as they did in the stretch when the phone was not answered. Ami herself will do her best to take care of me, she is focused on her task, which is, of course, my breakfast.
want egg salad for breakfast?
Like, fried eggs on salad?
I imagine saying this, with some hope, though the chopped boiled eggs are arrayed before me, their vaguely green yokes crumbling, along with the mayonnaise and raw onions I have never been able to stomach and can’t imagine eating in the morning.
Ami has turned to place a cup of green tea on the linoleum card table. She smiles. “It’s my favorite. All Americans like it very much.”
Where, oh where is the vending machine with cold coffee in a can when I need it and why did I ever leave the hotel? I want to refuse, but can’t think of what to say as
Ami tosses the salad together and arranges it on lettuce on two plates. Instead, I drink my tea and answer Ami’s casual questions about what I’ve seen so far. Although her way of speaking does seem Japanese, as I have come to understand that term—overly polite, elliptical—her manner is direct, even amused as she notes my lack of progress with the egg salad. She devours her own and then asks, “So, you came here to speak to the
“Yes.” This is what I’ve been telling her for ten minutes.
“And you still haven’t spoken to a single one?”
Ami’s eyes are warmer than the question and something of a shock. I understand at that moment that no Japanese person has looked directly into my eyes since I got here. As I rerun the calls I’ve made, and the fact that no one has agreed to talk to me, Ami pulls my untouched plate towards her and begins to eat.
“There are a lot of them, still, though of course they are dying,” Ami says. The point of this statement is unclear, though it sounds vaguely like an offer. “You’re in luck today, unless you have plans this afternoon? Yamada-san is coming.”
Yamada-san, Ami says, is on the board of directors of the World Friendship Center. At one o’clock he will give his testimony about his atomic bomb experience “for the foreign visitors.”
It will be my first interview, if you can call it that. It’s almost surreal how simple it is, and also how vague. I will hear a real survivor tell his story, and even though I stumbled onto it, still, it is progress. I want to ask Ami about the
others, the “lots of them” she mentioned, but I can’t figure out how to do it without seeming greedy and inept. Ami’s question,
You haven’t spoken to a single one?
still stings; it’s something I would have expected of Brian perhaps, with its latent American sarcasm, but not from a Japanese woman who must surely understand how I cannot push. I find myself indicating that I will be hard at work on my laptop in my room between breakfast and the testimony, though I can’t for a moment imagine sitting alone in my room waiting, and Ami assures me that she too is very busy this morning and will see me at one.
Once Ami leaves, I step out into the streets of this new area of town, making a careful note of my turns so I can find my way back through the tiny houses that all look the same. The sun is beating down on the pavement—Hiroshima is a shockingly concrete and asphalt experience and the
air calls forth more sweat than a sauna. I am looking for coffee and a doughnut, neither of which I will find, trying to hasten the morning. The center of the city, which I’ve already explored, is too far by foot and on the other side of the river—even though I know I still have hours to waste, my heightened pulse assures me I could never make it there and back before the
arrives. I can hear how that sounds, “the
,” but what else to call him? I have no image of him; he is not mine to imagine. I drift down the street, past the love hotels, distinguished by the fact that their garage entrances are fringed like car washes so no one can read the license plates inside, waiting for the moment when I can turn back to the World Friendship Center. My breath is
catching in my chest, just as it does whenever I’m at the top of a roller coaster. It must be excitement, then, though I hate roller coasters. I follow the river, which is low and resembles the runoff from a well-used mop, trying to breathe.
My walk turns out to be longer than I thought it could be in that neighborhood, and when I return, Ami is there as well, arranging individually wrapped cookies on a plate. She greets me without commenting on my absence and waves in the direction of the living room, where people are beginning to assemble. I gather myself, thankful for the notebook I thought to bring outside with me, hovering near Ami until there are several old Japanese women on the sofas, and a family of long-legged Australian teenagers in hot pants and tank tops, and a bag of shrimp chips. It takes me forever to cross the hallway, the living room growing larger with every step, but when Ami seems to have assembled everything there is to serve, I reach the threshold.