Author Interview: Lynne Kutsukake [in Bloom]
“Enemy aliens” is an all too familiar label, although just who gets thusly labeled seems to change with the political winds. With such an aggravated election year, these two words won’t be disappearing from the media anytime soon.
Beyond our northern border, our Canadian neighbors did something rather remarkable two years ago: on August 22, 2014, churches and cultural centers across Canada unveiled 100 plaques to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Canada’s first internment camps—as a hope-filled reminder that such gross violation of civil rights should never happen again. During World War I, Canadians immigrants – mostly from the Ukraine, but from European countries, as well—were rounded up and imprisoned in 24 camps. From 1914 to 1920, men, women, and children—for no other reason than their ethnic history – behind barbed wire, surrounded by armed guards.
During World War II, the Canadian government – much like the United States – would demonstrate similar racist fear after the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and by February 1942 (February 19th in the U.S., February 24th in Canada), ordered the evacuation and imprisonment of its citizens of Japanese descent. When the war finally ended, Japanese Canadians had two choices: disperse “east of the Rockies” or be deported to Japan. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King declared at the time that he had dealt with the situation “with loving mercy.”
Third-generation Japanese Canadian Lynne Kutsukake explores this tumultuous Canadian history in The Translation of Love, which debuted on U.S. shelves in April. She gathers a remarkable cast from three countries – Japan, Canada, and the U.S. – through which she reveals little-known history, pulls at the heartstrings, questions authority, and tells a spellbinding, magnificent story.
World War II is over, but the struggle to survive remains a daily battle for too many residents of 1947 Tokyo. In a first-year middle school classroom in Tokyo, two girls are assigned to share a desk. The teacher chooses Fumi Tanaka to “look after your new seatmate,” Aya Shimamura, who is Canadian. Aya’s ancestry may be Japanese, but her primary language is English, and she’s spent most of the war years imprisoned in her birth country. For Aya’s father, the war cost him too much—including his wife, their home, his livelihood. Feeling too broken to start over, reeling from the hate all around, he signs the papers to repatriate which “gave the [Canadian] government what it wanted—the ability to deport him.”
Sent “back” to Japan where Aya had never been, Aya becomes the pariah “repat girl,” whose strange Japanese isolates her further. Aya’s English, however, is what motivates Fumi to make of her a desperate request: Fumi’s sister Sumiko, 10 years older, is missing – last seen going to work among the occupying American GIs – and Fumi needs Aya’s help to find her.
Fumi is convinced that General Douglas MacArthur – Tokyo’s most famous post-war resident – can help, as MacArthur is rumored to personally read the thousands of letters he receives from Japanese citizens. Some letters offer gratitude and praise. Others are filled with anger and complaints. Most ask for something impossible. Fumi believes that a letter could make miracles happen – and enlisting Aya’s help in writing the missive finally cements the girls’ growing bond. The letter lands in the hands of Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese American who is part of a pool of U.S. Army personnel charged with translating the Japanese letters into English. Directly and indirectly, the letter will affect the lives of many.
Even after the bullets and bombs have disappeared, post-war Tokyo – caught between being occupied by the enemy and the desperate need to rebuild a shattered country – a battleground of clashing cultures, divided morals, tragic misconceptions. In this conflicted landscape, the need for translation – beyond the word-for-word – couldn’t be more immediate. As a former librarian who studies and translates Japanese literature, Kutsukake, age 64, is an ideal cipher for exploring multiple meanings and misunderstandings between the citizens of two nations attempting to negotiate toward peace.
When did you learn about your family’s experiences during World War II? Were both your parents were interned?
When I was growing up as a child, I knew that my parents had been in what they called “ghost town” camps in the interior of British Columbia. And I knew that they were sent there by force. Nobody really used the word “internment” until I was older – maybe a teenager. People talked about “the camps.” As a small child, I remember being quite confused by the term “camps,” which had a different meaning from the kind of camps that other children were sent to for fun. I think my understanding of what happened to my parents came to me gradually over time. It wasn’t like anyone sat down and gave me a history lesson. It was over time that more and more came out and it was clear that my parents had ended up in eastern Canada because of the war.
How did your parents survive during and after WWII in Canada?
My mother and her family were sent to an internment camp called Slocan. My father and his family went to a different camp called Greenwood. They didn’t meet until they moved to Toronto. Both my mother and my father separately had moved to Toronto during the war in 1943. They always said it was because there was a labor shortage because of the war and that there were jobs here. In my mother’s case, she was able to come east because she had found a job first working in a hospital kitchen and then working as a domestic. In my father’s case, his older brother had been sent to Ontario to work on a farm and then after he moved to Toronto, he found my father a job. I think it must have been very hard being in Toronto during those war years.
What brought your family originally to Canada? Did you grow up with stories shared by the first and second generations of your Japanese Canadian family?
I wish I knew more about the reasons why my grandparents’ generation came to Canada, but I don’t. Just some vague notions of wanting to have a better life, that sort of thing. I didn’t grow up with family stories unfortunately.
Did you weave some of your parents’ experiences into Translation? And since you had little access to your further-back family history, where else did you find inspiration, background, and research for the rest of your novel?
The personal part comes from knowing that my parents and grandparents had been interned. The novel is not autobiographical, but I wanted to evoke the scenes of the camps mostly because I wanted to imagine them myself. I went on a bus tour of the internment camp sites in 2010 – it was totally fortuitous. I knew that I wanted to have a Japanese Canadian character, a young girl, who had been “repatriated” to Japan after the war, but I hadn’t originally intended to have a flashback scene in the internment camp. But after I took the tour and saw the landscape of where the camps were situated, I was very moved, and I knew I wanted to write something that would evoke that landscape, the physical and historical and emotional landscape.
The postwar history, the visceral sense of what it was like in the immediate postwar years, came from reading a lot, especially John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, but other books as well. There is a book by Tatsuo Kage called Uprooted Again: Japanese Canadians Move to Japan after World War II, and it contains personal interviews and stories.
Actually, as I try to think back on where the novel came from, it’s a hard question because so much of the writing came in bits and pieces. I would write and research, research and write, going around in circles.
Since we’re BLOOM-ing, what finally prompted you to put all those “bits and pieces” together? You’re 64 now, and I believe you finally began writing Translation in your sixth decade … is that right?
Yes, I guess I started writing in my 50s, so that’s my sixth decade. I think it’s natural to ask what took so long. For most of my life I was trying to become a translator, not a writer. I first went to Japan when I was 25, as an English teacher. That was when I started studying Japanese; before that I only knew a few words. And then I started studying Japanese literature, and once I could read Japanese literature, I wanted to translate it. My dream was to become a translator. But I couldn’t figure out how to go beyond just translating short pieces for myself, like when I was a grad student. I couldn’t make that next step to getting published, although I kept at it for a long time. Eventually, thankfully, I was able to publish a collection of short stories by Masuda Mizuko, a contemporary woman writer, but by then I was eager to try something else.
By the time I was ready to start writing my own work, I guess I had had a lot of practice translating, and I realized that perhaps all along, the act of translating was an intermediate step to being a writer. When I began writing, I was kind of scared. It seemed like something that would be so hard, too hard for someone like me. So, the way I overcame my fear was to pretend that I was “translating,” to write what I wanted to write but as if I was composing a translation. Translating, without the bother of worrying about someone else’s words. I only had to write for myself. I was writing short stories that were set in Japan, so that leap wasn’t so far. I started taking writing courses at a continuing studies program at the university where I worked as a librarian. Taking courses also gave me the courage to write.
And you’ve retired now from the University of Toronto library?
Yes, I took early retirement from the library in 2007. I started taking writing courses in 2005, kind of in anticipation of this retirement.
You mention you initially knew only a few words of Japanese before going to teach English in Japan. You didn’t become fluent until your 20s. Were your parents fluent? Did they make a conscious decision to not pass the language on to their children?
We never spoke any Japanese in the home. My parents were native speakers of English – they were born in Vancouver – and they were more comfortable in English. But they could speak some Japanese to their own parents. They definitely made a conscious decision not to pass on Japanese after the internment. It was very common among Japanese Canadian families. People were afraid of racist backlash because of the experience of the war, and they also told themselves that as long as they were living in Canada, the only language their children needed was English.
You moved to Japan in 1976 to teach English. Why Japan – certainly the ancestral connection, but did other factors take you there? What was it like to be a foreigner in your ancestral country?
Another fortuitous occurrence. I didn’t have a job at the time and didn’t have any particular prospects. I didn’t have much ambition. A friend who was looking for a teaching job in Toronto was checking the bulletin board at the teacher’s college. He saw a notice advertising a job teaching English at a kindergarten (!) in a suburb just outside of Tokyo. He thought I might be interested in it because it was in Japan. I was skeptical at first. At the time, it hadn’t particularly crossed my mind that I should go to Japan. I was more interested in Europe. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I should try it. I didn’t have anything else to do. And it turned out that that decision really changed my life.
I am sure I would never have learned Japanese if I hadn’t gone to Japan and been forced to learn it in order to survive! Because of the way I look, in Japan people just assumed I spoke Japanese. And when I didn’t, they thought I was deaf or an idiot or something. They also assumed I understood what to do and how to act, but of course I didn’t know any of those cultural cues because I was Canadian. So I had to learn fast.
How often do you go to Japan? Do you feel like less of an outsider now that you can speak/read/translate the language?
Pretty often. I have been fortunate to be able to go back and forth a lot. At first for longer stays for study, etc., for a year or longer. But even now, I try to visit every few years if it’s possible. Knowing the language and having friends makes all the difference between being an outsider and feeling part of the culture.
Have you been able to connect with any extended family in Japan? Perhaps even ‘compared notes’ on the difficult period of U.S. occupation after Japan’s defeat?
I’ve tried to trace roots but haven’t met anyone yet. So unfortunately no.
And we can’t sign off without my asking – what might you be working on now?
I would like to write another novel set in Japan, but it’s only at the stage of thoughts percolating in my head. I also have some short stories that I had always hoped could work as a collection. I may go back to working on them.
So here’s the real test of your commitment then to your next book – I read an article about your writing of Translation, which included pictures of you with an oversized one-eye-inked Daruma doll. [For our readers not familiar with Daruma dolls, they are usually black/white/red traditional Japanese ‘dolls’ which are made with two blank white eyes. When a certain goal is set, one eye is inked; when that goal is achieved, the other eye gets inked, making the doll complete.] And have you inked in that first eye of your next Daruma?
Thank you for asking! Yes, I filled in one eye of my next Daruma shortly after The Translation of Love was ready to go to print, once I knew that the book was completely finished and I would have to let it go. I very much needed to push myself forward onto a new project. The Daruma, with only one eye, is on a shelf in my study (out of sight, so I don’t have to look at him every day!). But I’m conscious of his presence and hoping that I’ll be able to finish something else sometime in the future.
Author interview: “Q&A with Lynne Kutsukake,” Bloom, June 7, 2016
Author photo credit: Edmond Lee