FAMOUS SUICIDES OF THE JAPANESE EMPIRE
by David Mura
Coffee House Press, September 2008
Ben Ohara, a struggling historian, is the sole surviving member his family. Ben's younger brother, a troubled and brilliant astrophysicist, has mysteriously vanished in the Mojave Desert. His father, haunted by an unspoken history, committed suicide when Ben was young. And his mother, who steadfastly refused to revisit the past, has died with her secrets.
As Ben retraces his steps through a childhood colored by tough Chicago streets, horror movie monsters, sci-fi villains, Japanese folk tales, TV war dramas, and family tragedy, he comes to understand the profound courage of those closest to him.
From heroes both acknowledged and unsung, Ben begins to find his personal history entwined with the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II-with draft resisters, decorated veterans, and with the No-No Boys, who refused to sign a government loyalty oath during the internment years.
And on his journey to reconcile the past-leading ever closer to his brother's last days and the site of his father's internment-he will forge a path toward redemption, mapping the byways we all travel on the road toward forgiveness.
“David Mura is essential. There is no writer that dives deeper (or more bravely) into the chasm that is the human heart. His first novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire is a tour de force: luminously written and by turns crafty, tough, wise, and joyful. Pure poetry is in these pages, and a voice for the ages.” -JUNOT DI_AZ
“Charged and probing, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire heals and surprises-a moving act of reclamation.” --GISH JEN
INTERVIEW OF DAVID MURA BY NOVELIST ALEXS PATE
Tell us a little bit about your novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.
The protagonist of the novel is a sansei, a third generation Japanese American. Ben Ohara's life seems at first quite ordinary--married to an Irish Catholic girl he met in college, raising two young sons, living in the suburbs of Chicago, teaching history at a local community college. But as the novel opens, it's clear Ben is still obsessed with and troubled by his past, particularly his childhood. For one thing he's a man beset by ghosts-his father was a draft resister during World II and eventually committed suicide; his brilliant astrophysicist younger brother was a drug addict and sometime gambler who vanished one night in the desert between L.A. and Vegas; his recently deceased mother was someone whose wish to escape the past was as strong as his father's ties to it. Ben is the last survivor of this troubled clan and he wonders if he may soon join them. After all for years he has put off work on an unpromising historical book, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.
Two events cause Ben to realize he must come to terms with his pasts and his ghosts. First, a postcard from his brother arrives from Japan ten years late. Just before Ben's brother Tommy disappeared in the desert, he had visited Japan; upon receiving the postcard, Ben wonders if perhaps Tommy might still be alive. Secondly, thinking about Tommy's childhood attraction to astronomy, Ben visits the Alder Planetarium and afterwards discovers a young Asian looking boy waiting alone outside the Planetarium, and this boy reminds Ben of his lost brother. Ben decides that he will travel to the West Coast, ostensibly to start doing research again on his book on Japanese suicides, but also to check into the circumstances of his brother Tommy's disappearance.
You've written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. Is there an autobiographical element to the novel?
Not on any large or significant levels. For one thing, Ben's father is very different from mine. Ben's father is a No-No Boy, one of the Japanese Americans who refused to sign a loyalty oath that the Japanese Americans given while in the internment camps. This oath was given to both men and women, and in it were two central questions. One asked if people were willing to foreswear allegiance to the Emperor and swear allegiance to the United States. The second asked if they were willing to serve in the armed forces. For complicated reasons, Ben's father answers No to these questions. After the war, his status as a No-No Boy makes him an outcast in the Japanese American community. My father was in high school during much of the camps and so didn't have to face the issue of going into the service, although, given his politics, he would have served (later he was drafted and stationed in Germany during the Korean War).
But if there is no large autobiographical element, there is a portion of the novel which evokes the era of my Chicago childhood, and that is one of the things I liked about writing the book. The novel opens in the present with Ben as an adult, but what follows contains some of the trappings of a coming of age novel. Ben's family lives in the tough Uptown section of Chicago, and he runs with the other kids in the neighborhood, playing ball, catching insects, stealing from the local candy store, The Gyp Joint. There are a variety of references to a childhood from the fifties--popular t.v. shows like Combat and movies like The Incredibly Shrinking Man-as well as occasional ethnic signposts, such as his father's retellings of Japanese folktales like Momotaro and Issunboshi. Here again, though, the novel strays from my autobiography, since my own parents never talked to me very much about anything concerning Japanese culture. They were much more intent on assimilating into mainstream white America.
What I suppose I do share with Ben is a sense that there was a vast silence in my childhood surrounding the past of my Nisei parents and the legacy of the internment camps. This is typical of the way many Nisei parents approached their experiences during the war. There was a great desire to forget the past, to forge ahead, to achieve a surface sense of normality.
But Ben's childhood is hardly normal.
Yes, that's true, and part of that comes from his father being a No-No Boy and the effect that has on his father and their family. Early on, Ben comes home from school one day to find his father lying on the couch rather than his mother greeting him in the kitchen with milk and cookies. This switch in roles is never overtly explained to Ben. All he knows is his mother is now the one who's away at work. Later, his father will be absent from time to time, absences which are also never explained. Gradually the reader intuits that there are secrets from the past which trouble Ben's parents and their marriage, secrets whose meaning Ben as an adult is still trying to decipher the meaning of.
Where did the title of the book come from?
The title of the book came from my friend, Junot Diaz. He pushed me to make more of the theme of Japanese suicides as a corollary to the book's focus on the narrator's father's suicide. I loved doing the little excerpts from Ben Ohara's failed book, particularly because it allowed for touches of humor. My favorites are the absurdities of Yukio Mishima's seppuku, and the Japanese man who leapt from a window and landed on an unfortunate passerby-not a suicide murder but a suicide-manslaughter. I also thought of these excerpts as similar to the manic scribbles by Bellow's eponymous academic in Herzog. (I grew up in a Jewish suburb and I view both Bellow and Roth as part of my literary lineage. A line in my memoir Turning Japanese reads: “Besides I knew more Yiddish than Japanese.”)
As Ben works on his book on Japanese suicides he comes more and more to see that he is actually writing about himself and his own family. And of course given his history it's not surprising that he's obsessed with the subject of suicide.
Years ago, I remember talking with the sansei playwright Philip Kan Gotanda about our trips to Japan. He remarked that just before his visit to Japan, he had been constantly thinking about suicide, but when he got to Japan, those thoughts went away. I understood what he was saying, and that, in part, obviously had to do with our shared background of race and ethnicity and just with the fact that we had both lived for a while in Japan. It's not that Japan provided him-or me-with a home; both of us chose to return to America. Nor was it that living in Japan wasn't alien to him-or me. It was that Japan provided a place where our bodies-i.e., our race--were not the source of our alienation. Our alienation there was cultural not racial. In a way, that allowed us to see that the alienation we felt in America did not come from us but from the society around us. It was not intrinsic to ourselves. That in turn relieved us of a certain psychic burden.
This novel is another type of unburdening. I eventually came to see that I had chosen Ben as the narrator and protagonist in part because he was a survivor. Or to quote from the book, “The one who survives tells the tale.”