Photo credit: Matthew Modica
When one thinks of historical fiction, one might think of the immersive experience of dropping into a different time and place replete with the sights and flavors of that world, but there are other kinds of fiction that grapple with the idea of history itself, where the details and experience can only come to the reader slivered, or shrouded, or fractured and dappled, everything, even the most intimate events, contingent on the limits of a particular perspective and, ultimately, the reticence and unreliability of human memory itself.
My paternal grandfather died three years ago, following his 100th birthday. My last remaining grandparent, he was in good health, mobile and relaxed, savoring the mundane pleasures of everyday life — rain, sun, snow, heat — all of it joyful, an endless miracle.
When he died, I happened to be in Japan, not at home, but at an artist residency in a different part of the country. Lucky because I was able to make it to his funeral; unlucky because, despite logistical complexities, I could’ve detoured to see him before traveling on to the residency, but I did not. He was fine, just as usual, I’d been told when I’d called. But I should’ve heeded my own premonition: the last time I’d seen my grandfather, three years earlier, he’d looked at me with unusual focus and remarked on how well I’d grown, and I’d gotten the distinct feeling that he was transmitting his last real words to me and that I should commit them — his face, his voice, his affection — to memory.
My grandparents and I were close, though the closeness was more of a sensory thing, a felt bond. In concrete terms, I seldom saw them and knew very little of their stories. Because of my father’s work, I lived abroad most of my early life, only returning to Tokyo for the latter half of high school before coming to the US for college. After that, following the twists that kept me in the States, I more or less stayed on, flying home whenever feasible, which worked out to be every three years or so. I rarely spoke to anyone in my family — they simply weren’t phone people — all the catching up saved to be done in person, which meant I heard about the big things, the smaller developments always left to circumstance and what it chanced to bring up. But there’s another reason I knew so little about them. My grandparents, all vocal people, never told stories — no anecdotes, no reminiscences, no personal illustrations to prove a point, nothing that evoked their past, nothing about the war.
When I asked him about it later, he searched my face, a comet of thought passing through his gaze.
Odd because the Second World War, which for Japan began in 1931, 10 years before Pearl Harbor, seemed ubiquitous there — on TV, in the tabloids, in the blaring music pumped out of the little vans occasionally parked outside the train stations, their ultranationalist slogans, comically anachronistic, plastered all over their bodies. It was a mainstay in conversations, too, a point of reference, especially among the older generation, though nobody ever divulged anything, only repeating the usual refrain — war is bad
— if anyone happened to notice me. Some of this was because I tended to be in Japan in the summer, the season of Surrender and its annual commemoration. But it is also because the war continues to be a live wire, the taut string holding hostage the countries surrounding the Sea of Japan, the finger of the US idling there, of course.
Was it bad? Did everything burn?
I remember asking my grandmother these questions, her swift answer — no, no, nothing like that here
— brushing me away like her fastidious broom. Well, maybe so, but glimpses came in other ways, through my parents’ equally rare stories about that time: my father as a hungry child stealing watermelons from a neighborhood farm; my mother watching her father read from his hidden library of Marx and Engels; my mother mourning her own mother’s decision to sell the family scroll during the American Occupation, the names of their forebears dating back centuries exchanged for practical necessities. No context, no explanation, but they all confirmed the existence of an adjacent world, the war like a phantom limb, the generation’s amputated lives banished there.
Then, one summer while I was back from college: a story. It concerned one of my paternal grandfather’s brothers — my father’s uncle. An airman in the war, he was shot down by an American fighter close to the Japanese coast. He lost an arm, and perilous amounts of blood, but managed to swim ashore. He’s not normal
, my father had concluded, shoving a photograph in my direction. It was certainly an extraordinary story, the empty sleeve of the man in the photo mute with sunlight, a truncated sentence. (And, indeed, my father, a lover of cliffhangers, ebulliently declared that there was another story to tell about that arm — but next time.)
Another kind of silence, another gap, an omission: I mentioned growing up abroad; I grew up in Southeast Asia at the height of Japan’s economic dominance and attended British-based International schools, where I learned English and got a sort of colonial education, this still being the eighties. The result was that I learned much more about England and Europe than about Japan or Asia, and it wasn’t until high school that it finally hit me that I’d been living in countries that had been brutally invaded by Japan and that I, like others from affluent countries, had had the privilege of not being confronted with that history.
took over a dozen years to finish. Researching into the gaps and silences proved trickier than I’d anticipated, and writing within the context of North America and Europe (“the West”) also posed its challenges. How to responsibly write about a fraught, contested, often dangerously oversimplified and traumatic history? How to tell stories so that they retain their diversity and partiality, each a part of the larger living mosaic, our collective trajectory?
Countless books, films, and art helped shape Inheritors
. Though stylistically different from my book, W. G. Sebald (particularly The Emigrants
), Daša Drndic (Trieste
), and later Svetlana Alexievich (Secondhand Time
) were especially vital companions, all of them captive to what remains — a web of objects, documents, images, as well as slices of people’s stories — their narratives haunted by the curtain poised to drop on a generation’s unresolved history and its inherited legacies.
My grandfather’s funeral was beautiful, a celebration of his life rather than a mourning of his passing. He, after all, had lived a full century and lived it fully. For the first time, I met my extended family, though not my father’s one-armed uncle; he’d died a few months earlier, just shy of his own 100th birthday. After the service, we gathered for food, exchanging news, then several rounds of toasts, then, unexpectedly, stories. My grandfather featured in many of them, but so did his one-armed brother, and I relished the details, the ends of so many truncated sentences completing themselves.
For example: I knew that my grandfather was an engineer; what I didn’t know was that the car company he’d worked for also manufactured fighter planes during the war.
For example: I knew that my father’s one-armed uncle powered to shore; what I didn’t know was that when he was found he was declared dead and strapped to a stretcher before he revived and went on to eke out a living, running errands for the Occupying Americans stationed near his town.
I, for my part, kept waiting for the
story, the other one my father had promised about the arm. But it never came. And when I asked him about it later, he searched my face, a comet of thought passing through his gaze before it dimmed and disappeared, one more story withheld or gone, perhaps to be lost with the generation.
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in Japan and grew up in Singapore, Jakarta, and Tokyo. A graduate of Tufts University, Brown University, and Emerson College, she has received two O. Henry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. A recent fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she currently lives in Boston. Inheritors
is her first book.