When translating Yokohama Yankee into Japanese, should it be adapted to the sensibilities of the Japanese reader?

August 4, 2013

I’m reading the first few chapters of my book in Japanese translation. It’s an odd experience. Sometimes it feels so on target, I find tears welling up in my eyes as they did when I first wrote many of the passages. Yet other times it feels disconnected. I think this is going to be a long and very challenging process. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to help my Japanese, and my understanding of Japanese.culture.

Many people have asked, for example, whether it was difficult to be so honest in my book. What I think they mean is: “How can you make yourself look so insensitive. My Japanese translator really doesn’t like this. She is sometimes horrified by what I write. In the book, I describe going to a city orientation about how adopted parents should behave, for example, I admit to feeling competitive with the Japanese parents. Although I say that I am embarrassed by these feelings, I nevertheless confess to feeling pleased when the Japanese parents seem so shocked by the idea that they will have to tell their adopted children that they are not the birth parents. Of course, in Japanese they still say “real” parents. So adoptive parents are told they will have to reveal to their children that they are not the  “real” parents. The translator wonders if I should soften the language so as not to put off my readers.

Hmmm. Certainly, the way a Japanese reader looks at my book is going to be very different from the way an American reader looks at it. And sometimes the translator has a point. There is one place, for example, where I say: “I assumed there were so few children available for adoption because of the widespread use of abortion as a means of birth control, a result of policies discouraging the use of birth-control pills.” In retrospect, I realize that I was taking a dig at Japan for discouraging the use of the pill for so long even as there were so many abortions. If you think about it, there is no logical reason why using abortion rather than the pill would result in fewer children put up for adoption. The real issue, as the translator points out, is that the Japanese have a strong aversion to having children they don’t think they can take care out. Isn’t it better to abort a child the “throw them away” as so many parents in China do? If you take that argument to the extreme, you might use it to explains why there was a fair amount of infanticide in early Japan.

So some readers will be offended by my comment. And perhaps I was a little off base in my commentary. An the translator has even found one or two factual inaccuracies.   (It turns out the government did approve a dozen marriages between Japanese and foreigners. The imperials adviser who wrote in his diary that he had helped arrange the first wedding between a Japanese and a foreigner was wrong.)  I will certainly change.all factual inaccuracies.

But how far do you go in making changes to please the local readers. At what point do you start to change the nature of the book–the arc of the narrative.. Some people say a translation isn’t the same book anyway, but that doesn’t feel right. Lots of tough decisions. What do you think?. .   

Asian Review of Books has some nice things to say

August 1, 2013

I love the fact that my book is being enjoyed by both academics and non-academics. Here’s a nice piece in the Asian Review of Books by Ray Moore, Professor of Japanese History and the founder of Asian Studies at Amherst College:

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm

reviewed by Ray Moore

30 June 2013 — Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama after World War II, attended Yokohama International School from nursery through high school, then earned his B.A. in political science and M.A. in Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and studied journalism at Columbia University. He was a business reporter in Seattle before returning to Tokyo as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in 1990. He and his wife adopted two Japanese children, and he began research into his family history using memoirs, letters, interviews and personal recollections.

The result is Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan, a fascinating account of his multinational, biracial family in Japan. Reproducing many of these primary sources, this family history provides insight into the many interactions between Japanese and Americans for 140 years.

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Visiting Japan: A tense six talks in five days during which I voyage into the past and. perhaps, into the future.

July 30, 2013

I’ve always had trouble when it comes to speaking in front of people. So I was terrified enough when my high school, YIS, asked me last fall to be the commencement speaker for the class of 2013. That’s a heavy responsibility. But it’s also a long trip. And since my book was coming out a few months before the June graduation, I decided to tack on some book talks.

Before I knew it I had scheduled six talks in five days. Two of the talks where one-and-a-half hour sessions in Japanese! I hadn’t given a speech in Japanese in 30 years. And never for more than 15 minutes. Now they were asked me to give 45-minute talks. I could feel the tension rising as the day approached.

I wasn’t going to wing these talks. I wrote out my commencement speech and my book speech. And I asked a Japanese friend, Kozy Amemiya, to translate my book speech into Japanese. I planned to read it.But I hadn’t read Japanese aloud since I was in grade school. And my Japanese was very rusty. But it was a challenge I wanted to take on. It was about time I did something to improve my Japanese. But I didn’t have enough time to prepare while working full time, so I had another friend, Yoko, read the speech into a digital tape recorder so I could listen to it and get the rhythm of the talk down.

On the 9-hour trip to Japan, I spent almost the entire time listening to the speech on my digital recorder as I followed the text. There were so many kanji characters I couldn’t read so I had to jot down phonetic notes to help me along. The more I practiced, the more I realized how foolish I had been to agree to speak for 45 minutes in Japanese. I’ve never given an English speech that lasted more than 30 minutes, I suddenly realized.

One benefit: My short book speeches in English now seemed easy. When I stood before three hundred or so students and parents at the Yokohama International School graduation on Saturday morning, I was relaxed. Everyone seemed attentive and that added to my confidence.

But it was hot in the room and the ceremony went on and on. It was steaming hot in the auditorium. For some reason the decision was made not to open the windows. Yet there was no air conditioning, so the school had given out Japanese fans to everyone, and the audience were all fanning themselves as I stood up on the podium.

The talk went well, I thought. I had spent 14 or 15 years at that school so it was an emotional experience. But I knew the audience and that helped me get my message across. Most of them, like me, had spent much of their lives in Yokohama. And like me, many were part Japanese. Mixtures of Japanese and South African, Australian and every flavor of European.One of the graduates was the son of a YIS alumni who I knew. Two of my former high school teachers were there. They gave me high marks for the talk.

The following day, Sunday, I gave my book talk at the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. Here was another place where I had spent much of my youth. As I waited to speak, I looked over at the huge athletic field in the distance. There were two Japanese teams playing soccer. The club was now facing hard times so it was renting the field to any team willing to pay. There was game after game. The field was never idle as it had often been in my day. The lawn bowl green was much as I had remembered it. Everybody in their whites, playing quietly, as if there was all in a silent film. I peeked my head in the bowling alley next door to the room where I was speaking. With just four lanes, the bowling alley seemed tiny. And nobody was playing so it felt empty, almost haunted. In my day it had always been packed, the sounds of bowling pins crashing flooded the room with a constant clatter.And I thought I could hear the distant echo of that sound as I looked down the dark empty alleys.

I knew the  YC&AC audience would be tougher than any audience in the United States, Japan was nothing knew to them. Many of them had lived in Japan for generations. Many of them were part Japanese. Many of them knew my father. I wasn’t sure how they would react. Soon after I finished my talk, one woman stood up feeling clearly a little irritated. “I don’t know why you are carrying all this baggage,” she said. “I’m half-Japanese and I’m proud of it.”  A man got up to say I had been too hard on my father. He said my father had helped him so much when he had been down and out and that I should know what a good man my father had been. I nodded my head. It was true. He had helped many people out. I felt myself feeling smaller.

Then John Hasegawa stood up. I had know him as Johnny Paul. He had been several grades ahead of me at YIS. A bit of a mischief maker, as I recall. His mother had taught my Japanese class. John told the group that he knew exactly where I was coming from. He had been raised as John Paul because his mother knew he would have trouble growing up part-Japanese and had wanted him to have an identity as a foreigner. He later learned that Paul was a made up name. His real name was Hasegawa. Paul had long felt alienated both in Japan and in the U.S. He said my book touched a deep chord in him. And then there were many others who stood up to agree. Afterward, the box of books we had prepared quickly sold out. I felt I had passed some kind of test in front of the toughest audience.

But the next day, Monday, was yet another challenge. This time I was to speak at the Foreign Correspondence Club of Japan. This had been my home on two assignments as foreign correspondent. On my second assignment I had been vice president in charge of working with the club staff, so I knew many of the people who worked there. Only a few foreign correspondents were still there from my day, but I had also invited many Japanese friends to the talk, so there were close to a hundred in the audience. Many of the Japanese in the audience couldn’t understand my talk, but fortunately, before the talk we had a video in Japanese that had been put together by my translator, Yumiko, which gave the basics of my family story..

this talk when relatively well. The biggest challenge turned out to be trying to spend time afterward with all the different Japanese friends I had invited. Normally we met with people separately. We had never met two sets of friends together let alone several dozen. It was awkward. People pushed envelopes in my hand. When I got home, I was throwing away papers when I came across a blank, unopened envelope. When I opened it, I found 10 crisp $50 bills. When I finally figured out who the gift was from, I asked the friend why the gift. They had helped me, not the other way around. “Just a gift in celebration,” the friend said. .

Now I had a day off. On Tuesday, through contacts with a friend, I had the opportunity to meet a descendant of a Japanese shogun. He had read my book and loved it. He said he would mention it to some friends of his at NHK, Japan’s public television station. He looked at me soberly and said: “You know, there are just a few books that I read so thoroughly I take with me to the bathroom to read. This was one of them,”

Wednesday was my first Japanese talk. A professor who was a friend of Yumiko, the Japanese woman who is translating my book, had asked me to speak to her class at Yokohama City University. I figured that since it was a small class, there would be no problem. Still, I practiced several times again, listing to the tap of the speech any time I was sitting on a train.

But when I stood before that small class of no more than 30 students, I froze. The light wasn’t good, and I realized I had printed out the speech in letters that were too small to read easily. I felt like a third grader being asked to stand before the class and read a passage from a book full of difficult words I couldn’t pronounce. I struggled with many of the kanji characters and read much more slowly than I should have. Afterward, the students had few questions, and I found it awkward filling out the time. One young man who had spent most of his life in Canada, stopped by to talk to me afterward. “Why didn’t you just speak in English,” he asked. I was embarrassed.

I had another talk that afternoon in Tokyo. I took a train and subway to the German Institute for Japanese Studies. It is one of several institutes around the world sponsored by the German government. It supports serious research on a variety of current issues in Japan. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to speak in German. I was please that John Campbell was there. He is a well known scholar of Japanese studies and I had read his work in college. There were several German scholars and a few foreign residents who had read the review of my book in the Japan Times earlier in the week. This time there were less than 10 people. It was fun talking to the group. One of the German scholars spoke of how many of the students of her generation used the dictionary written by my grandfather, Robert Schinzinger. “We used to say ‘Where’s my Schinzinger,” she recalled. There was much interest in the adoption system in Japan.

Finally, my last talk was at Rikkyo University, another class of Japanese students. But this time there were more than 80 students. I had practiced some more so this time my reading was a little better, although I was still embarrassingly slow. Fortunately, after the talk we had a vigorous question and answer session. While my talk was formal and a little stilted, now I could speak colloquial Japanese and I felt totally comfortable. The professor told me over drinks later that the Q&A session had been the best part. I promised myself that the next time, even if they asked me to speak 45 minutes, I would do only a short written speech and do the rest in a discussion format, which I enjoyed so much more.

The trip was rewarding, however, An editor from a Japanese publishing house attended my last talk and told me he was interested in publishing my book in Japanese. I met with a Japanese literary agency, Uni Japan, which is now representing me. They have presented proposals to five publishers and are waiting for a reply. So it was a busy week. But in a short time I had passed through several stages of my early life including the school, the athletic club and the press club. The Japanese talks presented me with a new challenge, one I will face again and again if all goes well and my book finally published in Japanese.

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My Commencement Speech to the YIS Class of 2013, My 40th Reunion and the 40th anniversary of YIS as a full high school.

July 21, 2013

Congratulations graduates of the Yokohama International School Class of 2013. Congratulations mothers, fathers, teachers and all the rest of you who have played a role in raising these fine young men and women.

Thank you so much for letting me celebrate this special day with you. What an impressive group you are. You come from Australia, Canada, Denmark, China, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. AND, of course, in every one of you, whether by blood or by culture or both, there is much of Japan, of Yokohama and of YIS. That’s a rich legacy, and as you go out into the world, treasure it for it will serve you well.

Never forget that you attended school and shared friendships in a very special city. Yokohama is a place where two great cultures of the West and East first came together in a major way 150 years ago. And all of you educated as you have been in a  multi-national, multi-ethnic, multicultural school. Those cross-cultural  smarts are part of your DNA. The world needs people like you. Don’t hide that talent. Nurture it. One day, when you least expect it you will find those talents a huge asset.

Yokohama is also synonymous with resilience. It has survived and thrived in the face of as much hardship as perhaps any city in the world. In 1866, soon after it was founded as a western settlement, virtually the whole town was wiped out by fire. In 1923, 90 years ago, a massive earthquake ignited a firestorm that killed 140,000 people in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Most foreigners left Yokohama. They believed nothing was left here for them. The rest went to work to rebuild the city. Among those hardy souls who had the gumption, the guts to build, from those ashes, a new school. Yokohama International School was founded just a year after the earthquake.  What greater symbol of hope can there be after a major disaster than to build a new school.

Just two decades later, Yokohama was once again destroyed, this time by firebombs. Yet Yokohama and YIS rose again. So as you go out into the world you face the hardships you will invariably face, remember Yokohama. Remember how it came back again and again and again.  Whatever sorrow, you must have the courage to face it, embrace it and then go on with life.

Look for the silver lining. In Japan, there is an old saying “with fire comes prosperity.” That’s because fires offer an opportunity to start afresh.

Five years ago I got into a fight with my boss and I was fired for the first time in my life. I was at times furious at other times depressed. But I took the time to renew old contacts and soon found another, better job. More importantly, I took the time to finish a book that was recently published. Getting fired turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.

Like many of you, I spent a lot of time at YIS. In 1959, my first day of school, my father carried me over his shoulder to nursery school while I screamed. I was four years old. I ended up loving it. Nursery and kindergarten were the only grades in which I ever got straight A’s.

I struggle through a lot of school. I remember penmanship class. I was about 8. I sat at an old wooden desk as the teacher explained, yet again, that good penmanship would be key to my future.

I picked up my dip  pen. Seems like the middle ages but we still used a little stick with a steel nib at the end. I dipped the pen into the ink pot on my desk and began to write, watching as bubbles of ink formed on the curls of my ps and qs. After every few sentences, I picked up some blotting paper to soak up the extra ink. As I wrote there was this constant sense of impending disaster. You see, I knew that it was only a matter of time.

I would forget to use the blotting paper and the edge of my sleeve would catch  the bubbles of ink and smear them across the paper If penmanship with the key to the future, I was doomed.

I wish I could whisper in that little kids ear. “Don’t sweat it, in a couple of years they’ll have these really cool new devices called ballpoint pens. Since I also tended to have trouble organizing my thoughts, maybe I would also tell him about the computers that would make it so easy to rewrite things that even someone as scatter brained as I was could actually make a living as a writer. I don’t think I would have believed the future me.

So Lesson #1:  What often seem like insurmountable obstacles can suddenly disappear. Don’t be discouraged. If something interests you, if you care enough about it, you will be astonished by the force you have within you to accomplish what you want.

Let’s jump forward to 1969. I was in 8th grade. I didn’t want to change schools but it looked like I would have little choice. We had no high school at the time. A few teachers including Edward Bernard and Ian Kerr, who are here today, and a group of parents decided, why not create a high school. If you think about it, it was a crazy idea: to build a new high school on some of the most expensive land in Japan.

I expect creating a new school today would require years of study and endless meetings. But YIS just started adding one new grade every year. We were a pathetic lot at first. Nine people in my graduating class. I’m not sure how well we were prepared for college. But we survived. And the school just kept getting better and better.

So lesson two. Great things can come from small steps. The trick is to keep at it. That’s how we can make the world a better place. Start small, with something manageable. But keep at it. I know. Some things seem impossible. Climate scientists are telling us today that we are headed toward inevitable disaster. If we continue our current rate of carbon emissions, in less than a decade we could reach the point of no return. Temperatures rise, deserts spread, ocean levels climb and ocean acidification kills off most of the coral in the world. By 2050 something like a million species will disappear from the earth.

I have to admit it’s a scary prospect. But you know, in 1973 when I graduated from YIS, the Soviet Union and the United States were pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other. We knew that the world could come to an end at some point. It was just a question of time before some idiot pushed the button.

Miracles do happen. The cold war ended without destroying the planet. Of course, unlike with the cold war, when it comes to climate change every one in the planet needs to get involved. It will require every skill from engineering and biology to computer sciences and diplomacy. It will require empathy toward people on the other side of the planet. It will require understanding other cultures.

You see, for all the talk of globalization, we are still a planet at war with itself. We are divided by wealth, by ethnicity, by religion and yes, by national borders. Yet addressing climate change, by its very nature must involve the whole planet.

What great group of people to start taking this on than you here today. You have important cross cultural skills. Combine that with the power of social networking, and you as individuals have powers and possibilities to create change that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

It’s important to help address those issues. But don’t let the fear of the future cloud the present. Indeed don’t let anything whether its your future education, your future mate or your future  children cloud your experience of the present, because, in the end, that’s all there is.

When you are at work, work with all your heart. When he are with friends and your parents talk with them. Listen to them. laugh with them. When you are in the woods, listen to the wind and the birds.In the end, as you well know, the money you earn make keep you comfortable, but it is the people you love that you will treasure.

What make me hopeful is young people like yourselves. You have an awareness of the many cultures around the world that few others have. Combine that with the power of social networks and the great advances in technology, and you as individuals have the power to create change that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

Never forget that you shared very special friendships in a very special city and at a very special school. Living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment, cross-cultural smarts are part of your DNA.

The world needs people like you. Don’t hide that talent. Nurture it. On day, when you least expect it, you will find they are a huge asset to you and to the world.

 

Yokohama Yankee Receives Starred Review on Library Journal

June 17, 2013

A starred review in Library Journal is a recommendation. It’s highly valued because this Journal has a readership of 100,000, mostly librarians.

Here’s the review:

Social Sciences Reviews | June 1, 2013

BY  ON JUNE 6, 2013 LEAVE A COMMENT

OrangeReviewStar Social Sciences Reviews | June 1, 2013 Helm, Leslie. Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan. Chin Music. 2013. 384p. illus. ISBN 9780984457663. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780984457694. AUTOBIOG

This marvelous and handsomely produced memoir is something of a detective story investigating the mysteries of both family and Japan. Starting in the 19th century, five generations of Helms lived, did business, and raised their families in Japan. Born in 1955, the author left the country on hard terms with his father and with Japan when he came to the United States for college. His father, Donald Helm, had served in the U.S. Army in World War II and returned to Japan during the occupation. He had hopes of becoming a scholar, but when he took over the family business in Yokohama, he and his marriage turned sour. Leslie eventually returned to Japan as a correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times, but it was only after his father died, and the younger man adopted two Japanese children, that he delved into his complicated history. He writes frankly and poignantly of coming to terms with his family and with Japan’s confused racial attitudes. VERDICT A lovely, unsettling family story and a vivid traversal of modern Japanese history that will impress the jaded Japan scholar and inspire the curious general reader or memoir fan. Recommended.—Charles Hayford, Evanston, IL

Hachiojiyama

April 6, 2013

This is Hachiojiyama in Honmoku, Yokohama. My great grandfather bought the hill in about 1900 and the people in the area came to be call it Herumu-yama, or Helm hill. My grandfather and several of his siblings had summer places on that hill. My great aunts used to row around the bend to Sankeien, where the family there would serve barley tea. (before it became a park) This picture was taken by my father after the war. In pre-war days there used to be a staircase down to the beach. When I was at the LA Times, our research assistant says her mother recalls how one of the Helm mothers would ring a gong to call the kids up for dinner. I walked on that beach as a young child, but all of that coastline was later filled in and is now sadly lined with oil storage tanks and refineries.3-helmhill-web

Family Stories Don’t Just Entertain; They Help Prepare Us For Life

March 17, 2013

Most family stories include tales of relatives who made great successes of thier lives as well as those who failed miserabily. Yokohama Yankee is no exception. Many members of my family, Including my father, did relatively well financially, but were not necessarily happy in their personal lives. When I share stories with my cousins, we often talk about how many of the members of our parents generation became alcoholics at one time or another. Some overcame those challenges. Some did not.

Families who pass on these stories of tragedy and success are doing a better job of preparing their children for the tough times ahead accourding to an article today in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler Feiler cites a study of four dozen families  that concluded that “The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” The rationale, says Feiler, was that people who knew more of their families had a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, something that crossed several generations.

Feiler quotes management guru Jim Collins arguing that a successful family can be similar to a succcessful business enterprise. Collins recommended that families, like good corporations, should have a mission statement that helps to identify their core values.

I’m not sure I believe all of this. It seems to me that the family that passes on to its children all those family stories would also tend to be the families that were well functioning and spent more time together. Since the kids of families who have their act together probably, on the whole, deal better with adversity, than those that do not, the study of the four dozen families that asked family members how much they knew about their grandparents may have simply been measuring the extent to which a family was cohesive and well-organized rather than the extent to which a child feel’s like he or she is part of some kind of intergenerational enterprise..

Even so, as wrirter, I like this notion that stories are important. But, of course, I tend to think stories are important for the lessons they teach regardless of whether those stories about your own family or about someone else’s family. After all, that’s one reason we read: to learn from the experiences of others.

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Identity and Adoption

March 9, 2013

Nothing forces you to confront your own identity quite as sharply as the decision to adopt a child. At least that was my experience. On meeting my daughter for the first time at a Japanese orphanage, I found myself wondering if I could ever be a good father to a Japanese child when I was so ambivalent about Japan, a country in which I was born and raised. It was that discomfort, combined with the death of my unhappy father that set my on my journey into my family’s long history in Japan. A journey that would force me to explore a dark part of myself I never wanted to confront..

So what did I learn. For one thing, I learned just how difficult it is to talk about issues of race, culture and identity. They are tied up in so many other things, each of which comes with so much baggage..

My father, for example, was also born and raised in Japan. Both his parents were half Japanese. Both were raised in Japan. Growing up, I often heard my father say sharp things about “the Japanese.” At first I thought it was because of all the frustrations he faced dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy as a business person. As I drilled down, however, I learned more about how my father grew up hiding his Japanese heritage first as a high school student, when he was shocked one morning to wake up and read in the local newspaper the headline “Piedmont Helms Japs,”  and later as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Occupation of Japan.

I asked one of my father’s white childhood friends about this issue of identity and she insisted Dad never faced discrimination but always had this “chip on his shoulder about the whole race thing.” What she didn’t realize, I now understand, is that even if we “mixed bloods” seldom face overt discrimination, we often internalize subtle cues. Why did I never admit to myself growing up, that I was part Japanese, for example? Nobody discriminated against me for being part Japanese. After all, I passed as white. I assume it was because I adopted all the insecurities of my father.

When you are raised without a strong sense of who you are, you become extremely sensitive to what people say around you. One great uncle Jim, for example, never forgot it when he was at a sports club in Kobe and overheard someone in the locker room at the sports club say: “Jim’s a good sort. He knows his place.” Doesn’t sound like a horribly racist thing to say, but Jim never got over that remark.

 

 

Yokohama Yankee Arrives From Printer

February 24, 2013

I learned on Friday that the printer had completed printing my book far earlier than expected. A friend emailed me that Amazon had sent him a message saying he would be receiving the book at the end of February,  full month earlier than they had reported earlier. I found it hard to focus at work as I planned to pick up the book at my publishers house later that day. (The advantages of having a local publisher!)

I love the book. The designer, Josh Powell, is also based in Seattle so that allowed us to go back and forth on a lot of the pictures in the book. Just before sending the book to the printers, we added a picture of my son with the American flag in the chapter opener about my family coming home to Seattle. So when I opened up the newly printed book I was tickled to find yeat another picture I hadn’t realized Josh was going to use.

The picture is of me on a boat wearing a silly sun hat. Perhaps I may have been whisting, but I suspect I was just looking dorky, like I often did.The photo may be the Josh’s ironic take on the title “Yokohama Yankee.” But I like the picture because of the counterpoint between this picture and a cute picture of my son, later in the book, with the American flag.eric in america

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Addressing the Body Under the Rug

February 10, 2013

In a wonderful piece in the New York Times today, Alexander Stille, author of the family memoir, “The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace,” makes the point that the writer of a family memoir  “is taking events that belong to several people, appropriating them for himself, and turning them into something that feels alien to those who have lived them.” The writer invariably simplifies some of the secondary characters, he says, portraying them in a way that may seem unfamiliar to the characters themselves.

Stille’s story hits home to me as I wait for my memoir “Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan” to hit the book stores in mid-March. Like Stille, a couple of family members are uncomfortable with what I have written. One uncle, in particular, had been insistent that I send him a copy of the manuscript. When I sent him an early version of the book and didn’t hear from him for eight months, I was surprised and followed up with an email asking him for any comments and corrections. He answered emphatically: “I do NOT have any comments and I do NOT have any corrections.”  So I was taken aback when I received a note a month ago, weeks after it was too late to make any corrections. He said he loved the book, but thought my portrayal of my father and grandfather was harsh.Although it was very late, I told him that if there was anything factually inaccurate, I might still be able to make some minor changes. He told me to leave it as it was..

The interaction with my uncle left me feeling a little uncomfortable. In retrospect, I wish I had been as persistent as Stille was in getting an earlier response from his aunt who, like my uncle, had been clearly reluctant to read the manuscript.

But even if I had tried to respond to my uncle’s concerns, I wonder if he would have been satisfied. Brenda Peterson, the author of the wonderful memoir “I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding rapture here on earth,” told me early in the process of writing my book that I should be prepared to have family members upset with what I wrote. If they don’t like what your write, she said, “Tell them to write their own book.”

Peterson’s point, of course, is that the writer, looking at a person or  event from his or her perspective, is invariably going to portray things in a way that seems unfamiliar to other members of the family. We are all different people with different experiences, so it’s hardly surprising that we look at similar situations in different ways. If you have siblings, I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you have completely different memories of the same event.

In my uncle’s case, our perspectives are particularly different because the man who was my difficult father, was his much-respected older brother. And his strongest memories of my father were of him as a young man before he faced life’s toughest challenges. So he found it impossible to believe my father was the difficult man I depicted in my book

There is another reason my uncle may have found my father unfamiliar. What drove me to write the family memoir in the first place was that my decision to adopt Japanese children had raised tough questions about my identity–about the extent to which I had avoided accepting my Japanese heritage. My memoir, therefore, focused on the way the characters in my family, over five generations, addressed the issue of identity. No doubt my grandfather and father were honest and generous, and I do mention those traits. But the incidences I highlight in my memoir are those that shed light on how my family addressed their lives as outsiders in both the United States and Japan. Looking at my family members, and how they experienced life in Japan across two world wars, through that particular lens, revealed a family some of my relatives may not have been familiar with. That’s not surprising, since for generations my relatives had refused to discuss their Japanese heritage. In my father’s case, it was only very late in life that he admitted to me, for example, that his half-Japanese father beat him when he spoke Japanese at home and that his half-Japanese mother suffered discrimination both in Japan and the United States.

I’ve told my relatives that the book reflects my own particular perspective. Even if they don’t share that perspective, I hope they will enjoy my story of the family’s experiences as they survived a particularly fascinating, sometimes heart-wrenching, century-and-a-half of modern Japanese history.

 

 

 

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