by Katy Bowman
We recently interviewed Asako Serizawa, author of The Visitor, which appeared in our Summer 2011 (Volume 69, Number 3) issue and which won an O. Henry Prize award in 2013. The Visitor takes place in Japan after World War II. A young man, a former soldier, has come to visit the parents of someone he knew in the war. Serizawa’s prose explores the tension created by secrets kept, secrets divulged, and by simply living in that time of uncertainty following the war. In her juror’s essay, Edith Pearlman, also one of our long-standing contributors, wrote that “In seemingly straightforward sentences (with deft side metaphors, allusions, and unexpected adjectives) the story behaves like a scorched flower, slowly dropping its browned florets to reveal the next circle of unpleasant facts or perhaps fabrications or perhaps distortions, always deepening our sense of war’s corruption of its warriors.”
KB First, congratulations on the O. Henry award. The Visitor is exquisite, and the award well-deserved. Where did the idea for this story come from?
AS Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The story is part of a collection of interconnected stories, and it has two directly linked companion pieces, so at the narrative level, the story had to fill in some gaps left open by these related pieces. The Visitor and its two companion pieces are written to form a kind of triptych, with each piece providing a different and somewhat conflicting view of the Second World War, so The Visitor grew out of very specific conceptual and thematic needs as well. Basically, I was working with strict thematic and narrative parameters, and the story was squeezed out of these constraints.
KB Did you have to do much research for this story? If so, where did you look?
AS The collection as a whole required quite a bit of research, and the section that includes The Visitor (the Second World War section) needed some historical research, not only because I had to get some period details right, but also because I wanted to write against problematic popular conceptions of Japan and the Second World War. Despite the enormous role the U.S. has played (and continues to play) in the region, on a very basic level there has been relatively little cultural output about that war’s Pacific side (it’s almost always eclipsed by the European side), and when it is represented, it often reinforces a handful of familiar stereotypical images: kamikaze fanatics; brain-washed, emperor-worshiping citizenry; disfigured atomic bomb victims; and maybe geisha (represented as exoticized—fetishized—prostitutes). If the Occupation is mentioned at all, it’s usually in terms of a benevolent, paternalistic rule that successfully (magnanimously) transformed Japan into a civilized, democratic nation capable of competing in the world market. It was important to me to offer contrasting, and at times competing, views, but without totally victimizing the Japanese, which is of course equally problematic.
So a lot of it involved the usual: looking at so-called primary materials (diaries, letters, interviews, newspaper articles, photographs, documentaries, stories and novels from and about that time and place) to get not only a sense of, but also some perspective on that time and place. A bigger chunk involved looking at critical material (scholarly articles and books across the disciplines) to see how the topic has been represented and discussed, and how I might creatively and imaginatively respond to all that.
For this particular story, and a couple of other related stories told from the perspective of women, I focused on women’s writing and other critical and creative works that focused on women and war
KB I love the way the story very tantalizingly leaves many questions unanswered. Could you tell me little about your decision to leave so many things open-ended?
AS I’m glad you enjoyed the story’s open-endedness. One of the running themes in the collection is secrets, witting and unwitting, and the general unknowability that shapes our lives. Among the different ways I’ve tried to get at this is to write a collection that works contrapuntally, where each story is designed to be read with the others, contesting one another’s assumptions and truths to call attention to the partiality of our perspectives and the fraught ways in which we experience, interpret, understand, and pass on our personal and collective histories. So each story has its own set of ambiguities and poses questions other stories may or may not answer. I wanted to capture and examine the layers of insecurities and uncertainties that pervade life in times of crisis. For this reason, among others, it seemed important and necessary to invite readers to participate in the interpretation of the stories.
In terms of “The Visitor,” the mother’s questions are left unanswered partly because of circumstance: she has received no news of her son until this visit, and her husband, as becomes clear in a different story, has divulged little of his experience and what he knows about the war. There are also social reasons: as a middle-class civilian, mother, and wife, she is confined to the domestic sphere, where she is not only kept, but can keep herself, relatively insulated—though, of course, the story challenges this. Mostly, though, this is a story that works through the characters’ competing agendas, shaped by their unreliable assumptions and interpretations, fears and hopes, what they want and don’t want to know, as well as what they choose to tell, or not tell, themselves and others. In my mind, it’s the interplay between these elements that raises questions that haunt this story.
KB The story is layered with so many levels of oppression—the heat, secrets, not-knowing, poverty—can you talk a little about that?
AS War, especially a lost war that ends in defeat and occupation, is oppressive, I think, even for—and maybe, in some ways, particularly for—someone like this mother, a so-called passive civilian who has survived relatively unscathed. In general, the immediate post-war was a dire time for Japan. Cities were bombed out, people were starving and homeless, and necessities, including food and medicine, often had to be bought on the black markets because of shortages. After the depression, and after 8-14 years of war (depending on where you put the start date), people were pretty exhausted, their spiritual and material resources plundered by the military state, only to be replaced by an uncertain occupation, with questions of culpability, brought by the impeding tribunals and returning soldiers, pressing in from all sides.
Because the protagonist in The Visitor is a woman who has lived a circumscribed life, confined to her house and her neighborhood, she is haunted and threatened by the war, a nebulous, menacing presence, embodied here by all three men in the story: her son, her husband, and Murayama, who has literally come knocking at her door, sharpening her fears, as well as her hopes, oppressing her physically and mentally, emotionally and psychologically. The threat is further amplified by the son’s and husband’s absences, which function the way ghosts do in a ghost story. So, besides the external, gendered threat, she is ultimately oppressed by her own imagination, its slow revelation literalized in the photograph at the end. I saw this story as a kind of ghost story, so I employed elements of tension and oppression from that form.
KB You mentioned in your bio that The Visitor is to be one story in a collection of linked stories that you have been working on. How is that coming along? Will we learn more of Yasushi and Murayama’s story?
AS The collection is almost done. I have just a few pieces left to write, but I write excruciatingly slowly, so “almost” is a relative term. But it’s getting there. And, yes, one of the two companion pieces to The Visitor is Yasushi’s story, where you learn what happens to him. Murayama makes an appearance there as well.
KB Has winning the O. Henry affected your writing career in any way?
AS That’s sort of hard to say. I’m not sure I have what can be called a writing career yet, but the O. Henry has precipitated a flurry of optimistic-seeming activity, so it feels like there has been some movement, and I’m really grateful for that. More than the practical side of things, though, the O. Henry has made a psychological difference, and for me that’s the prize’s real gift. Writing is hard work with sporadic rewards, at least for me, and I go through bleak stretches, which is more the norm than the exception. So receiving the encouragement is like seeing a green light in the middle of a horrific traffic jam. There is still a ways to go, and nothing is promised or guaranteed, but it’s a bright, vital boost that came at a critical time. It was completely unexpected too, totally unsolicited, from such a luminous corner; it made a future in writing seem possible, and that has been invaluable, a lifeline.
KB Do you have any upcoming work we can look forward to reading?
AS I have a couple of new pieces in the works, and I’m about done with a few revisions, so hopefully I’ll have some stories to send out in the next month or two. With luck, maybe some of these will see the light of day.
Asako Serizawa‘s stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, The Hudson Review, and the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories. Her awards include a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and a fellowship to attend the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is finishing a collection of interconnected stories.
Katy Bowman is a writer living near Dayton, Ohio. She has had writing published at The Rumpus, Flash Me Magazine, Circa, and Dayton Mom-Spot. She has also volunteered as an Assistant Fiction Editor for the Antioch Review for the last three years.
©2014 The Antioch Review