Todai Moto Kurashi, and writing the unspeakable

The dedication on Lance of Earth and Sky reads:

for my grandparents–
epic heroes
from an epic time

“At the Foot of the Lighthouse (Todai Moto Kurashi)” is, in part, an illustration of what I meant with that phrase.

I’ve written before about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Go for Broke!; those posts may provide context to this one. It is my greatest hope that this story might inspire some people to learn about the 442 in particular. But the very short contextual recap is that, as some of you know already, my grandfather, great-grandmother, and two great-uncles were interned with 17,000 other Japanese Americans from 1942-1944 in the Poston War Relocation Camp, an event that naturally thereafter shaped my family’s identity and I am sure will continue to influence it in generations after mine. Those who have read the story may also be interested to know that I have a third cousin who was killed at Hiroshima, for which there is also a family story.

This story is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. I don’t say that to lay any kind of claim to quality, only to say that this story was unique in my work for how it was chiseled sentence by sentence, interspersed with long nights poring through war diaries, legal transcripts, historical websites. Many times I would lay down a handful of words and have to get up and physically leave the screen because I was overcome by grief, bewilderment, anguish. This story was reaching for catharsis.

I’d like to talk about the story in total here, and in particular its ending, so this is a spoiler warning of sorts and a chance to stop reading now. I hope that if you read it you’ll do me the favor of reading the story first, because it is that kind of ending. So here’s the link again, last chance!

There is a documentary called Beyond Barbed Wire that I highly, highly recommend if you want an overview of the internment and the culture in which it occurred. It comes paired with the truly remarkable 1951 Academy Award Nominated Go for Broke! and is a heck of a deal. At one point during Beyond Barbed Wire you will see a man whose father was interned talking about how hard it is for him even today to comprehend what happened. His voice breaks, he weeps, not even recalling specific memories but just the simple concept that our own government tagged his father like an animal before loading him onto a train bound for the desert so that, while he was gone, his house could be looted, vandalized, and seized. All of this for racism and for no other reason, as a report filed in 1983 would finally admit, that thousands of lives were destroyed, many were killed or committed suicide, hundreds of millions of dollars of property was virtually stolen, when not one single instance of espionage or treason would ever be connected to a Japanese American.

It is wrenching and incomprehensible. So too is the persistence of the amazing loyalty expressed by Japanese Americans at this time, and continuing today. They say shikata ga nai — it cannot be helped, better to accept the way things are and keep a positive attitude. This same attitude has been admired recently in Japanese culture in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But those of us descended from nisei (which means “second generation” — my mother is sansei, third generation, and I am yonsei, fourth generation) are — at least I am — more American than we are Japanese American, and our grasp on this attitude is not nearly as intuitive. You can hear that in the cracking voices as they describe their disbelief at what happened, and that it happened to people we love. It is one that I share and struggle with. Right now I fight against that swell of emotion to write this, and I can’t speak about it at all without dissolving into tears. It is part anguish, part pride, part horror, part rage — and that is what is in this story.

I’ve known for years that I would write something like this, though I didn’t know when. The opportunity presented itself when Jay and I signed up for Gary Braunbeck‘s fiction masterclass at Context 21 in 2008. If you know Gary’s work (and if you don’t, I highly recommend it), you know that he seems to have an internal radar for the most difficult things in his life to mine for stories, and that what he emerges with is transformative, terrifying, soul-wringing; that when you finish a Braunbeck story, you feel exhausted, human, and real. Jay introduced me to Gary’s work in 2005, and I knew that if anyone could mentor this kind of story, it would be him.

So, months before the workshop, I set out to write the story, which at first involved a lot of reading. If you are interested in this subject, and in authenticity, you may be interested in the work of Hisaye Yamamoto, who was interned at Poston also. As I said, the process of writing “Lighthouse” was unusual (I usually am a thorough outliner; I did not outline this story), and it surprised me many times — particularly when I saw where it was going. And it did just that; I saw the ending coming, and I stopped writing. I asked many of the questions I’m sure will be asked publicly and privately about the story. How could it end this way?

I reached a breakthrough of sorts when I realized that although this was a story about the internment, it was not their story: it was mine. Someday I hope to tell their story, but I had to get through this first. And what I had, beneath the bewilderment, beneath aspiring to shikata ga nai, was rage.

That is the legacy left to those of us descended from interned Japanese. A kind of rage perhaps even denied the first generation, for the most part (though there were resistors). But what I felt from connecting with the third and fourth generation experience was that our anger is greater in part because we didn’t have to undergo this ourselves — because it was inflicted upon our loved ones, and because it went so long unaddressed, decades before there was so much as an apology. Because there are millions of Americans today who don’t even know that it happened, and others (thankfully fewer), who will say that it was justified.

And I wondered what it would mean if that feeling had a literal power. In a way, I wondered if this wasn’t what speculative fiction was for: the literalization of the subjective. I wondered what would happen if that anguish and disbelief and rage could do in the physical world what it seemed to be doing inside of me.

It was inevitable then to ask the question — one of the most difficult questions in American history — that the story’s protagonist is asked at the end. And so inevitable, too, was her answer.

When I submitted the story to the masterclass, it was with great trepidation and self-consciousness. I still have those feelings about its reception. But I also know that, at least for me, the story could not be or end any other way. And among the many things we discussed at that workshop, Gary’s last comment about the story was: whatever you do, don’t change the ending. And I didn’t.

I sent the story to Patrick Nielsen-Hayden at, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, the wonderful Liz Gorinsky pulled it out of the slush. About a year and half after I sent it, Liz had stepped up to a full editor position, and offered to buy it. At the time the title was “A Single Small Globe Against the Stars”, in reference to the Arthur C. Clarke quote, which is in full “It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.” The one that we eventually landed on is much better, and the story is much improved thanks to Liz’s thorough editorial eye. I was thrilled also when I saw Scott Bakal‘s amazing illustration, selected by Irene Gallo. You can read a cool process post about the illustration’s creation on Scott’s drawger site. I am incredibly grateful that this story was handled by such a crack team, and also, as I said, to Gary, his masterclass, and to Jay, who championed this story in particular through many narrow moments when I threatened to not write it.

It is a story that, to me, requires context, and I honestly don’t know if that’s an indication of its weakness. I know what I wanted to evoke, and from the reactions of readers I believe that, at least for some, I achieved it. If you read the story, and/or read this far, I sincerely thank you for your attention. For me, at its core, it is a kind of awed terror — and a nihilist tragedy — at the lesson that we purchased with their sacrifice.

6 thoughts on “Todai Moto Kurashi, and writing the unspeakable”

  1. I am hesitant to comment just b/c of the amount of raw emotion in the story and in your background post. But I want to thank you for writing it and let you know how I felt connected on all levels… the strength of the loyalty, the rage, the disbelief. I didn’t know about the camps, either. If I’d heard, I hadn’t paid much attention or thought about what that meant to generations of Americans. I read Calico Reaction’s review and posted one myself. The story is amazing – so deep, so raw, so fast. And I’m glad I know, glad I am sorry and I hope to share all of it with my readers, too. Thank you!!

    1. Hi Laura — thank you so much for this, and for your review. I’m so glad that you did comment! Your blog post was deeply touching and actually brought tears to my eyes. That you could have such a reaction and also a realization about these events is an incredible connection. Thank you again! And thanks to Shara, too (I posted a comment on her blog also 🙂 ).

  2. Your story does what I think great sci-fi (fiction in generally really) ought to do: make us examine ourselves and our past and inspire us to work for a better future. Coincidentally, I had read the story just after making a facebook post about the importance of learning history. It’s so easy to assume that all Asian-Americans have a past elsewhere (I am often guilty of assuming other Asian-Americans are like first generation like me), but many do have a long family history in the U.S., one that isn’t just facts but also emotions. Thank you for reminding me and others about that history.

    1. Hi Jen. Thanks very much for your comment. I agree that when you identify toward the mainstream as “Asian-American” it’s easy to forget that that too is a big tent. I remember distinctly when I realized that although I had many Asian-American friends, almost all of them were second generation, like you — and so we really had radically different frames of reference growing up. It helped to see that distinction and understand why it seemed like I never quite fit in with them — it wasn’t just my mixed race. Thanks again for reading the story, and for reaching out!

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