Fifty years ago, I was still a young man and didn’t have much to do, so I thought I would write the great Japanese-American novel. I thought it might a take a couple of years. But I had the time.
So what went wrong?
I needed a story. You know, drama with conflict, passion, pathos. Those kinds of things.
When you were kid, you were put in an American concentration camp with 120,000 other Japanese Americans. You and your family were ripped from your home and put behind barbed wire in the middle of a desert in Arizona. There should be some drama in that.
Yeah, but I didn’t want to write about that.
Hey, look. There’s been a lot written about that. Lots of well researched scholarly books. They even made a couple of movies. There’s a lot more to the history of Japanese in America than that sordid World War II episode. I didn’t want to write a pity book.
How about your civil rights? You were an American citizen for crying out loud.
Hey, there was a war going on. Shit happens during wartime. Millions of people lost their homes, millions more were killed. People suffered horribly. What happened to us was nothing compared to that. Sure my parents lost everything, but they came out of it alive. And my brothers, sisters and I did okay afterwards.
Then, why did you want to write a book?
That’s what took me fifty years to figure out.
You must have had some idea of what you wanted to write.
I read a book by William Saroyan called My Name is Aram. It was about an Armenian boy growing up in Fresno, California. I found it absolutely charming. It reminded me of myself growing up Japanese in little farming town in California. Aram wasn’t Tom Sawyer, or Andy Hardy, or Holden Caulfield. There was something exotic about him, that is, not quintessentially American. So my first story was about a Japanese boy named Hiroshi who encounters a ragamuffin boy from West Texas on a small dirt road behind town. It was a Japanese boy meets Huckleberry Finn story.
So how did that go?
I was happy with it. But I was writing about a time before the war, when I was a happy kid. Then the war started which tore up my family. I had a lot of excuses, but the reason I didn’t want to write about the war years was because I was unsure of who I was. War propaganda depicted the Japanese race as evil. We were subhuman, cruel, vicious, treacherous and barbaric. Cartoons depicted Japanese as vermin that needed to be exterminated. I don’t think I really believed that, but I wanted to be an American. And how can you be an American and Japanese at the same time? I tried to fight my fear of being Japanese. At one point I had Hiroshi as a young man asserting to himself, “I am Japanese!” As soon as I typed those words, I broke down in tears and I could not write anymore. Eventually, I wrote a memoir titled In Search of Hiroshi. It was a search for that happy kid, who spoke both Japanese and English fluently and didn’t worry about it. He didn’t know there was a conflict.
So things went smoothly after that?
Not by a long shot. There’s a big difference between understanding something and believing it. I could understand that there is nothing wrong with being Japanese, knowing that my Japanese upbringing added depth to my character, and also be plagued by feelings of fear, guilt and shame.
So what happened to your great Japanese American novel?
I’m leaving that for somebody else to write. Fox Drum Bebop is a novel of linked stories, episodes in our hero Hiroshi’s life in which he’s trying to come to terms with who he is. The fox drum is from a Japanese legend about a fox turning himself into a samurai so he could be close to his mother, whose skin was used to make a drum. Bebop refers to Hiroshi playing trombone in funky jazz club in France. So he’s a character pulled by cultural extremes.
So does your Hiroshi eventually find himself?
The novel ends when Hiroshi is in his late 40s, and he seems to have settled down. But one never knows. Deep down he’s probably still a little messed up.
So there’s another novel in the offing?
I would love to write another novel. But I’m 81 years old and a slow writer. I don’t have another 50 years.
GENE OISHI, former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, has written articles on the Japanese American experience for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and West Magazine, in addition to the Baltimore Sun. His memoir, In Search of Hiroshi, was published in 1988.
Author Photo Credit: Priya Patel