Debut Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Gene Oishi

Bloom: You’ve written a memoir, In Search of Hiroshi, about your and your family’s experience in an Arizona internment camp during World War II. When did you decide that you also wanted to write fiction that explores that period of history and those experiences? Tell us a bit about what was behind that decision—to write fiction, in addition to the nonfiction.

Gene Oishi: In Search of Hiroshi started as a novel in the 1970s, but at the time I did not fully understand how traumatic the war years had been for me. It was my view that World War II and our confinement in a concentration camp had been economically ruinous for my parents, but I had gotten over it unscathed. When I started getting into people’s heads and my own — as one must do when writing a novel — I began falling apart emotionally and had to cease writing. About ten years later, I was able to pick up the writing, but this time as a memoir. I could handle clear memories in my head supported by interviews and writings of journalists and scholars. The book does address the war and the internment but it is more about their lingering psychological impact.

Bloom: Related question: what did you find most different in the process of writing the fiction versus the nonfiction?   And what was it like revisiting those experiences, through stories and characters, all these years later?

Oishi: One way I was able to safely approach the Japanese American experience was through short stories, which do not directly address the issues. They deal with peripheral matters and situations that only suggest to the reader what the real issues might be. The author does not need to confront them directly. Eventually, as I understood myself better, I was able deal directly with the central issues of the Japanese American experience and meld my short stories into a novel. But it took a very long time.

Bloom: There is sometimes—often?—a resistance by Japanese Americans who were interned to talk about it. Shame, a sense of preserving dignity by keeping silence, etc. Did you meet resistance in the writing and publishing of either of the two books—from your community, your peers, your family?

Oishi: I did not meet resistance. What I got was silence. My own family hardly responded to my first book, and I have not dared to ask them directly what they thought of it. I’m still waiting to hear what they think of my novel. As for the reading public, the correspondence I got was almost entirely from white women. I think they were able to identify with an individual who is unsure of himself and his place in the world. One Japanese woman did write to me, but all she said was, “Thank you.”

Bloom: Did you feel at all in the shadow of Jeanne Wakatsuki’s classic novel (and well-known film) Farewell to Manzanar when writing either of these books? When writing, were you aware of or concerned with the fact that many white Americans might know of the internment experience solely through this one account?

Oishi: No, I did not and was not.

Bloom: The title of the novel is striking—not a title that would make one think, “This is an internment novel.” Was that intentional? Can you share with prospective readers what Fox Drum Bebop refers to?

Gene Oishi Fox Drum BebopOishi: Actually, I had named the novel Bread Crumbs. It was Kaya Press who changed the title, with my approval, to Fox Drum Bebop. The new title does refer to the content of the novel. Fox Drum comes from an ancient Japanese legend and bebop alludes to my hero Hiroshi playing trombone in a funky jazz club in France. Sunyoung Lee, editor of Kaya Press, wanted to take the focus away from the internment, because in the final analysis it is not a camp novel. Only three of the fourteen chapters in the book are devoted to the camp. The first two chapters take place in a vibrant and relatively affluent Japanese American community that existed before the war. The bulk of the novel takes place in the postwar years all the way to the 1980s.

Bloom: The phrases “psychic aftermath” or “psychological impacts” are used often in reference to the internment experience.   Is psychotherapy at all a part of the post-camp experience?   If yes, tell us a little about that. If not, do you think it should be? Why or why not?

Oishi: Psychotherapy does not play any significant role in the novel, even if it might be inferred. I as the author have had extensive psychotherapy, much of it as treatment for chronic depression. I do not know whether a significant number of Japanese Americans have sought psychotherapy and whether they should if they have not. I do believe, however, that many, if not most, Japanese Americans old enough to have experienced World War II have been in deep denial, just as I had been until I forced myself to confront the trauma brought on by the war.

Bloom: Tell us about Kaya Press and your editorial experience.

Oishi: My editor Sunyoung Lee is an astute, caring and hands-on editor of the type rarely found nowadays. She did a marvelous job of editing the manuscript and her insightful suggestions helped me rethink and rewrite portions of the novel.

Bloom: Was this the one novel you had to write; or do you have others in your mind or forthcoming?

Oishi: Yes, this is a novel I had to write, and it took me nearly a half-century to write it. I would like to write another, but I am 81 years old and I don’t have another 50 years.

Bloom: Is there a question we didn’t ask that you wish we did? Feel free to ask, and answer it, here.

Oishi: I address this issue in the “Afterword” to the novel, but one stereotype I wanted to shatter with my books is that of “the model minority.” This tag is not only condescending; it feels like a threat hanging over our heads: behave or we’ll lock you up again. As I say in the Afterword: Japanese Americans are real people with all the virtues and vices, strength and weakness, wisdom and foolishness, intelligence and stupidity that are common to all humanity. At the same time, most of us are different in unique ways from other Americans, and there is nothing wrong with these differences; they make us who we are. My hero Hiroshi is not always an admirable or even a likeable character, but he is trying hard to be true to himself.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read an excerpt from Gene Oishi’s newly released debut novel Fox Drum Bebop.

One thought on “Q&A With Gene Oishi

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful interview. I’m looking forward to reading Mr. Oishi’s novel. Thousands of Japanese Americans were removed from their homes in the Seattle area at the beginning of the war, but even though I grew up in Seattle and went to school with their kids, I didn’t know this history until I was an adult, and then only vaguely. It wasn’t until I began talking to a Japanese American friend and his family (who, fortunately for me, were more than willing to talk about their experiences) that the picture began to fill in for me. And even though I was a white guy with limited knowledge and no real credibility, I decided there was a story there that needed to be told, and I was going to tell it. My friends in the Japanese American community gave me some encouragement. None of them said or even implied that I shouldn’t write my story. So I did my research. I wrote. I realized I didn’t know enough. I did more research. I asked some of those who had experienced internment to read my drafts. I got feedback. I revised and polished and submitted the manuscript. And finally, almost exactly ten years ago, my young adult novel THIN WOOD WALLS was published by Houghton Mifflin. It was greeted with praise by both the Japanese American community and the reading public at large, but the most gratifying (and interesting) result of the whole thing to me was that as I traveled around to other states and talked to kids about the book, many of them (as well as lots of adults in the audiences) told me that the history related in the story was news to them, that they’d never learned that 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens, had been taken away from their homes and locked up behind barbed wire for most of the duration of World War II. I’m currently working on a companion novel, set in the final months of the war, after the protagonist of THIN WOOD WALLS and his family are released from Tule Lake and relocate to a small eastern Oregon town. Because every project should have a working title, I’m calling it CAUGHT IN THE WAKE.

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