ANSHU: DARK SORROW
By Juliet S. Kono (Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 2010, 327 pp., $18.00, paperback)
Being a historian, like other callings, carries its occupational diseases. To be sure, I do not face the same hazards as, say, a coal miner. Instead, my curse is that I am unable to take in historical novels or films without thinking ceaselessly of history. I find myself commenting, usually acerbically, on the historical inaccuracies, and lose sight of their value as literature. In vain do people plead dramatic license, or seek credit for their best guesses about the past. I flash on Sherlock Holmes, who complained to his dear friend Watson on one memorable occasion that Watson’s accentuating the romanticism in his account of Holmes’s detective work was akin to working a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid. Even worse, perhaps, is the converse: I appreciate turgid works that are heavy on historical accuracy.
My plight has been eased by the discovery of a new Japanese American novel, Juliet S. Kono’s “Anshu,” that is both moving and graceful as a piece of literature and instructive as a work of history. Kono’s novel tells the story of Himiko Aoki, a Hawaiian-born Nisei who is trapped in some extraordinary circumstances. After her father’s untimely death, she is left unsupervised by her mother, who must return to work to support the family, and by a sister resentful of being forced to quit school to help out. A developing affair with a local Japanese American boy ends with her becoming pregnant. Knowing that there is no place for an unwed teenage mother in the restricted plantation society of Hawai‘i, Himiko’s mother sends her daughter back to Japan to live with her brother and his family. She arrives just before Pearl Harbor, and soon finds herself trapped in a Japanese society where she is not only a stranger to the language and customs, but suspect because of her unusual appearance and American nationality. She lives during the wartime period with her uncle’s Japanese family, who are increasingly beset by hunger amid the privations of war, and has the supreme bad fortune to arrive in Hiroshima as it is destroyed by the atomic bomb.
Kono, already well-known as a skilled poet and short story writer in Hawai‘i, presents an achingly believable tale of a teenager’s experience amid confusing and horrifying events. Her wonderful ear for speech not only renders Japanese and pidgin, but also provides rich imagery. Himiko pungently describes her jealousy of a local boy who had “both parents and a house full of brothers and sisters who stuck together like stinky natto beans.” Kono also flavors her story with tiny touches that make the history come alive. When Himiko arrives in Japan, her uncle buys her a stylish silk jacket, explaining that because of boycotts of Japanese exports, silk clothes have become less expensive than cotton. While the book is not for the faint-hearted — I had to stop a few times and remind myself that it was fiction — it does demonstrate the power of the human spirit to survive and gain wisdom and peace amid trying circumstances.