Tag Archives: War

Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

Dust of EdenPlease correct me if I’m wrong here: The Japanese American imprisonment has been the focus of many, many titles for audiences of all ages, via fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, plays, graphic titles, picture books, and more, but I believe Mariko Nagai‘s Dust of Eden is the first novel in verse on the subject. Again, please enlighten me otherwise …

Mina Masako Tagawa, 13, lives in Seattle with her journalist father, her homemaker mother, her rose breeder grandfather, and her track star older brother Nick. Her cat is named Basho, her best friend is Jamie. Until December 7, 1941, Mina is an ordinary American girl, and then suddenly she is reduced to a “Jap“: “We are not Americans, the eyes tell us. / We do not belong, the mouths curl up. / We are the enemy aliens, the Japs.”

Mina and her family are among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent taken from their homes and imprisoned during World War II. First Mina’s father is arrested without cause. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, the family is given a week to gather their belongings. They are initially “evacuated” to the horse stalls of Camp Harmony in Puyallup, 30 miles south of Seattle, until they are shuttled away by cattle train to the remote dust fields of Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. “We held our breath for three / years. We did not have anything to call / our own …”

Those three years bring separation, isolation, devastation. Jamie is Mina’s one constant on the outside. One teacher renames the students with “American names. / So we can be more American, / she says.  So we will be less / the enemy alien”; a more thoughtful teacher returns the children’s identities. Father is released, only to watch Nick demonstrate his loyalty to the government that imprisoned him by offering his very life.

Nagai captures a family in flux, caught in someone else’s blame, struggling to stay together, fighting to understand. Perhaps because Nagai herself is Japanese-born and currently Tokyo-domiciled, her final “Epilogue” – a letter sent by Nick from the other side of the world – is especially compelling. While nothing is particularly new here, Nagai’s crystalline phrases, stanzas, lines that barely cover 120 pages prove gorgeously resonating.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Author Interview: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanAlmost two years after  Vaddey Ratner made her New York Times bestselling debut with In the Shadow of the Banyan – her fictionalized account of her survival, as a young child, of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took most of her family along with some two million others – her bookish peregrinations continue. I caught up with Ratner during a few days in her suburban Washington, DC, home – just back from her Norwegian book launch in Oslo and heading out to another speaking engagement in Arizona. In between the frenzy of family duties and repacking her suitcase, she graciously answered questions with acuity and alacrity … and alas, not without tears from us both.

Although you arrived in the United States at age 11 not speaking English, you graduated high school as valedictorian and then summa cum laude from Cornell. What was your career after college? In other words, what did you do before you published your first book after age 40?
I never had what you’d call a “career” before the publication of In the Shadow of the Banyan, before I became an author. I was always writing, albeit in anonymity, and in that sense, I guess I’ve always been a writer. In the years right after Cornell, probably the only job worth mentioning was a short stint at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, where I answered the phone and membership inquiries. So in short, I went from being an over-achiever to lying low, under the radar, wanting desperately to write and yet fearing what that meant – a leap back into my traumatic past, the nightmare and complicated history.

Where did that inspiration and drive to be “always writing” originate?
Language itself, that alchemy of illusion and allusion. My ineradicable fascination with storytelling, its magical power to transform and elucidate and even mystify.

I suppose it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer as soon as I became aware of the written language, aware of the existence of books and the universes they contain – in other words, as soon as I learned to read and write, when I was around four or five years old. This was in Khmer, my native tongue. As a small child, I lived and breathed stories, searched for meanings in new words, in the tales I was told and the ones I overheard.

How and when did you decide to write Banyan? And after decades of experience far-removed from Cambodia, was the process of recovering your memories difficult? How did you prepare yourself to relive such horrors in order to write this book?
When I was living in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009, the realization came to me that the story I wanted to tell was larger than me, than my own life. With Banyan, I wanted to pay homage to our humanity that part of us that not only survives but triumphs. I saw this everywhere in Cambodia. I still see it every time I return. Despite living in the shadow of genocide, people there possess a lightness of spirit that’s absolutely inspiring.

There is no way to really prepare oneself to write this kind of book. The tragedy and atrocity were not imagined nightmares but real ordeals I lived through. So to write it, I had to relive it. Every loss I endured as a child, I endured again and again each time I sat down to write. It was a heartbreaking story to tell because I not only had to invoke the past – a country’s violent history – but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeals—our private tragedies. I mourned every memory I exhumed.

From the perspective of writing as a craft, it was an excruciating first project to take on. I had no formal training as a writer and had not published a single line to be able to confidently call myself a writer by virtue of experience. Still, I knew this was the story I had to write before I could even think about another. No matter how long it would take me, I thought, I would discipline myself to this one endeavor. After all, I’d survived those horrific events, when many in my family had not, so it was the least I could do – devote my life to remembering them. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Vaddey Ratner,” Bloom, March 5, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Author Profile: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan“To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan

While the Vietnam War ended for the United States with the April 1975 military withdrawal, death and destruction continued, moving into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. With the evacuation of U.S. troops, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants to remote areas. In an attempt to create a more equitable society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of those who were perceived to have power, particularly the wealthy and educated. To destabilize any remaining social structures, they fractured family units. Those who managed to survive were sent to labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his heinous regime claimed almost two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Vaddey Ratner and her mother survived. No one else in their immediately family lived. Ratner was just five in 1975. Six years later, in 1981, mother and daughter arrived in the U.S. as refugees. Just over three decades later, in August 2012, Vaddey would publish In the Shadow of the Banyan, her fictionalized account of her young life, her missing family, and how she miraculously stayed alive while too many others did not.

In the transcript of a speech that Ratner’s Simon & Schuster editor, Trish Todd, gave at BEA’s 2012 “Editors Buzz Panel” [to watch fast forward to 28:36 for Todd/Banyan], she confesses to initially believing that Banyan “was not a natural fit for me” when Ratner’s agent first pitched Todd the novel. Intending to “honor [the agent’s] submission with a nice rejection and begin my vacation,” Todd – a 30-year veteran of publishing – finished the manuscript without pause (barely moving!) and realized that she “had just read what could be the most important book [she] would ever publish.” She cancelled her vacation and planned how to win the “very big auction” to buy this first novel of a new, untested writer. The rest, as they say…

The laudatory responses quickly followed. Readers made Banyan a New York Times bestseller. Critics agreed. Banyan was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and appeared on eight 2012 best books lists, including Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews. The populist bibles O Magazine and People raved and recommended. The highbrows too applauded and nominated, naming it a 2013 PEN/Hemingway finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award. Ratner made the media rounds: NPR’s “Morning Edition,” USA Today, and The Washington Post, to name a few. She spoke around the world, at the PEN/Faulkner gala, the United Nations Association, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and more.

Unlike Todd, I took over two years to finally reach the last page of Banyan. Not even the prospect of meeting Ratner in livetime, thanks to a mutual writer friend who insisted I join them for dinner, could get me to finish reading Banyan! Thankfully, the mutual friend’s new book took precedence as dinner conservation. Not until this Bloom deadline loomed could I force myself to actually reach book’s end. Why the frozen hesitation? Because I simply couldn’t let the book go: holding on to the promise of unread chapters was more comforting than racing to the conclusion. I needed only a fraction of the 300 pages to realize that as wrenching and terrifying as the story is, Banyan would surely be one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I would read in years. I wasn’t wrong. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “‘To transform suffering into art’: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan,” Bloom, March 3, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Confession first: I took almost two years to finish this debut novel. Not until an interview deadline loomed (stay tuned!) could I force myself to keep turning the pages until I reached the end. Because I just couldn’t let the book go. As wrenching and terrifying as the story is – the survival of a young child through the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that took most of her family along with some two million others – In the Shadow of the Banyan is surely one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I’ve read in years.

Based on her own family tragedy, Vaddey Ratner‘s novel is a love letter in honor of the poet prince father she lost. Ratner’s fictionalized counterpart is Raami, the oldest daughter of a Cambodian prince who, with his privileged western education and reverence for his ancient culture, found his personal balance in beauty, knowledge, but most especially humanity. These are the unassailable traits that he imbues in his young daughter, but they are also the very elements of his royal background that take him too soon to an unknown grave. Under Khmer Rouge control, the family members disappear – murder, suicide, illness claim their shattered souls – until Raami is left only with her bewildered mother who somehow finds the steely strength to save them both.

In the book trailer available on her website, Ratner hauntingly bears witness: “[Banyan] isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy … I thought it was something much more universal, much more indicative of the human experience: our endeavor to stay alive, our very desire for life.” The book proves to be that remarkable, living gift, providing undeniable testimony that only humanity trumps deprivation, injustice, horror, and even the greatest tragedies.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, color by Greg Salsedo, translated by Alexis Siegel

HiddenPreorder this title now and you can stop reading here … you won’t, you can’t, you will not be disappointed.

Oh, fine. If you’re still with me, let me tell you about Elsa, a little girl who just can’t seem to fall asleep. She tiptoes out of her room and finds her grandmother wide awake. Noticing her sadness, Elsa reassures her grandmother, “You know, when I have a nightmare, I tell Mommy about it and that makes me feel better. You want to tell me?” Hesitant at first, her grandmother begins, “It was a long time ago. Grandma was still a little girl …”

Dounia Cohen, long before she was Elsa’s grandmother, “didn’t care who had won or lost” the war: In spite of France’s defeat by Germany in 1940, “My daddy had come home alive, and that was all the victory I needed.” Returning home unusually early one day, he suggests,”Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs.” Her mother sews the required yellow star onto Dounia’s coat: “Being a sheriff … is more of a boy’s job,” Dounia thinks. “But I don’t mind,” as she looks at her proud reflection in the mirror.

By the next morning, that Star of David has marked young Dounia not with privilege, but made her a target of abuse. “What had I done,” she asks in bewilderment. As a young Jewish child in occupied Paris, Dounia is shunned, isolated, hated without reason. When her parents are violently taken away from their own home, she is sheltered by Mrs. Péricard, the downstairs neighbor. Fearful of the returning police, Mr. Péricard devises a plan to help Dounia escape to safety; in the process, he gravely risks his own safety.

Dounia becomes Simone Pierret, a Catholic child who arrives on Germain’s farm with her “Mama” – Mrs. Péricard who has also given up her Paris life to care for the young girl. The war continues, but Dounia’s new identity – and the unlimited kindness of strangers – keeps her safe until reunion, at least in part, becomes possible …

Like Lola Rein‘s The Hidden Girl and Maryann Macdonald‘s more recent Odette’s SecretsHidden represents not only the 84% of Jewish children in France who escaped the Holocaust – the highest rate of survival for children in Europe – but also the 11,400 French children who were murdered during WWII. While Hidden bears witness to tragic history, the ultimate message is one of hope and redemption, that humanity can and will be effectively used against racism and hatred. Narratively and graphically, the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”). While some nightmares never quite fade, here’s hope that triumphant resolve will have longer staying power.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I Am Malala“‘Who is Malala?’” the gunman demanded on that fateful day, October 9, 2012, before he shot three bullets into a bus carrying teenage girls to school. Unable to answer then, Malala answers now in her new memoir for all the world to read: “I am Malala and this is my story.”

Years before she became “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban,” readers may be surprised to learn that Malala was already an international ambassador-in-the-making. Even if the bullet that “went through [her] left eye socket and out under [her] left shoulder” was what put her in the glaring spotlights, her determination to get an education – not only for herself, but for all girls in her village, her country, and beyond – was nurtured early: at 11, she wrote about her life under Taliban control  for BBC Urdu under an assumed name for her safety; at 12, she was featured with her father in a documentary, “Class Dismissed: The Death of Female Education,” by Adam B. Ellick and Irfan Ashraf for The New York Times website; at 14, Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated her for KidsRights‘ 2011 International Peace Prize (which she subsequently won in 2013), and Pakistan awarded her the country’s first ever National Peace Prize. On her 16th birthday, following her hard-won recovery, she addressed the United Nations in New York; she became the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Co-written with Christina Lamb, one of the world’s most lauded journalists, I Am Malala is a page-turning revelation. That said, for the most effective experience, choose to go audible. Malala herself reads the “Prologue,” which chronicles that fateful last day in her native Pakistan: “… I left my home for school and never returned.” The British actress, Archie Panjabi, seamlessly takes over as narrator and never falters.

That a 16-year-old’s life can fill a 300-plus page book with so much history, family saga, tragedy, joy, and inspiration, is a remarkable feat. To become such a renowned public figure so young will surely prove to be both a blessing and a challenge. “By giving me this height to reach people, [my Allah] has also given me great responsibilities,” she writes with earnest purpose. “Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country – this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.”

For all that she’s accomplished thus far, what she might/can/will do as a mature adult should include dreams achieved, rights guaranteed, and wishes fulfilled. Here’s to the next spectacular volume of multiple memoirs to come.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated by Kevin Wiliarty

Well-Tempered HeartEvery once in a while, only the very best schmaltz will do. Earnest and endearing, this just-arriving-in-translation sequel to the international mega-bestseller, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, is a through-the-night read that will leave you sighing and swooning.

Okay, so we’re not talking Nobel-quality: “‘I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind.’” We’re not particularly surprised by the cold shrink who thinks mind-altering drugs are the only cure, or the wise sage that has no use for colorful pills. We’re so sure that true love is going to happen that we’ll guess the ending long before the final page. But that’s all okay, because whatever their not-quite flaws, German journalist Jan-Philipp Sendker‘s novels somehow manage to provide a rare, cleansing catharsis. Besides, what’s a little loss of sleep when you can float through the rest of the day?

When Julia left her older brother U Ba in their father’s small village in Burma, she promised she would see him again “within a few months.” But almost a decades passes, and suddenly Julia finds herself unable to give an important presentation at her law office: an insistent voice in her head sends her running out of the meeting, the building, and soon enough, her high-powered city life. Her ties to Manhattan are virtually none: her engagement is broken, she’s estranged from her mother and brother, and her single best friend is not enough to tether her.

She arrives unannounced in Kalaw, where U Ba is ready with open arms. Only he fully understands about the voice, the black boots, the terror, the warnings. And together they begin a journey of discovery that will lead them to a woman and her two sons, and eventually towards forgiveness and redemption.

Julia’s first journey to Burma revealed her father’s left-behind past and bonded her to a half-brother she never knew she had. Just as her father followed his heart home, Julia is called back by a desperate stranger with impossible questions from the other side of the world. “Who are you? … Why do you live alone?  … What are you afraid of?” the disconnected voice relentlessly probes. But before Julia can answer, she must learn in her own heart “what is important” … might I add, surely a life lesson for us all.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Frangipani Hotel*STARRED REVIEW
What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.

In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.

Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

Dogs at the PerimeterAbove all else, Janie is a survivor. She escaped the horrifying deaths that took her entire family in her native Cambodia. She’s outlived her adoptive Canadian mother who passed away just last year. She’s built a fulfilling career as a scientist specializing in brain research. She’s the wife of a kind, gentle husband, and the mother to an adorable 7-year-old boy whose name in Khmer means “mountain.”

And then her colleague and good friend Hiroji disappears without warning – literally just walks out of his own life. And, Janie, too, begins to unravel as she can no longer contain the haunting memories of her never-faded past. Janie knows of Hiroji’s connections to her native country: his older brother James left Canada in 1970 to work as a Red Cross doctor for the victims of that heinous war, married a local woman, then just vanished. Hiroji’s repeated journeys produced no answers about his brother’s fate.

Now decades later, Janie realizes Hiroji’s need to finally know what happened has catapulted him from all that is comfortable and familiar; she knows that she, too, must do the same and confront her brutal past in order that she might reclaim her uncertain future. Both have lost a father, mother, brother. Both will need to face long suppressed memories literally trapped in their brains with which they are both so scientifically familiar, yet so emotionally detached.

In breathtaking elliptical prose that suggests more than it divulges, Madeleine Thien presents a tragic history in search of hope. Connecting elusive glimpses with disappeared moments and fractured pieces, Dogs at the Perimeter proves to be an exquisite story of redemption and recovery.

An award-winning Canadian writer of Malaysian and Chinese descent, Thien’s first two titles – her novel Certainty and short story collection Simple Recipes – found U.S. publishers after their Canadian debuts. Ironically (sadly), Dogs pubbed in Canada then in the U.K. (from highbrow Granta Books) to excellent reviews, but has yet to find an American home south of the border. U.S. publishers, take note: surely it’s time to move these Dogs at the Perimeter into the spotlight.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011 (Canada), 2012 (UK)

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

Yokohama Yankee‘Sprawling’ barely begins to describe journalist/editor Leslie Helm‘s ambitious family history that spans nearly a century-and-a-half, three continents, and the titular five generations of a German Japanese American family with current branches spread throughout the rest of the world. Prompted by the death of his difficult father in 1991, and further spurred by the imminent adoption of two children soon thereafter, Leslie embarks on a personal quest to discover the complicated layers of his mixed-race heritage.

In 1868, Julius Helm, then 28, left his father’s 400-acre farm in Rosow, Germany, for a new American life only to find his options were limited to being a common laborer in Minnesota. One year later, the transcontinental railroad took him to San Francisco, where he narrowly missed his intended ship to China and landed instead in Yokohama in 1869.

Barely a decade earlier, Japan had been opened to foreign trade, and Yokohama was a primary entry point into the still-insular country. Julius’ arrival was fortuitously-timed: after moving from various minor jobs and apprenticeships, working for the German consul, and training Japanese soldiers, Julius eventually established himself – and his future generations – as an important merchant presence in Yokohama. Five of his nine siblings followed him to Japan. And his Japanese wife and their four hapa children insured the Helm family’s lasting Japanese ties.

Japanese ancestors, Japanese spouses, Japanese births left most of the Helm generations conflicted over the next 140 years: ‘The Helm relatives I knew were people caught between cultures,” Leslie observes. “… Most had lived on three continents and spoke four languages, yet they never felt at home in any one country.” Caught between a belief of superiority over the Japanese and too often a shameful insecurity over mixed blood, each generation of Helms battled doubts about their identity. Four generations removed from Julius, Leslie is the first to explore, explicate, and accept his challenging relationship with the country of his birth. Ironically, the fifth and latest Helm generation returns the family (at least Leslie’s branch) to Japanese ethnic ‘purity’ as both Leslie and his older brother adopted Japanese children; the children’s American upbringing, however, guarantees the Helms’ cultural hybridity.

Working with unpublished memoirs and diaries (including Julius’ biography “[r]e-written from his personal notes, by his brother Karl”), aging photographs, letters, articles, public records and registries, interviews, and memories, Leslie admirably attempts to corral an unwieldy cast of characters into a single historical narrative. His presentation is not always smooth: sections lag, skip, overlap (Leslie’s father Don’s life story, interwoven throughout, is often jarring to the story’s flow), while certain repetitions are unrelenting (too many of the Helms’ self-loathing doubts and denials). That said, the pages continue turning and fascinating details keep the narrative moving; the book’s latter chapters about the rediscovery of a distant, elderly Japanese cousin and the newly established bond with extended Japanese relatives of Julius’ Japanese wife’s family are particularly memorable.

Whatever its narrative pitfalls, this memoir is an undeniable visual success, exquisitely designed with fascinating photographs, historic documents, maps, handwritten notes and passages, travel stamps, and family crests. The mementos add a vibrant intimacy that overshadows any literary missteps. The family that emerges from these pages, with deep roots in Japan yet constantly in flux between wars, migrations and returns, economic opportunities – not to mention languages and cultures – proves to be a resilient force of inspiration, tenacity, and discovery.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, European, Hapa, Japanese, Japanese American