This post is by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. This essay is part of the Women Doing Literary Things blog series. WDLT features weekly essays by women novelists, poets, editors, librarians, journalists, academics, booksellers and more, on the topic of being a woman in the literary arts. The series is curated by Niranjana Iyer, a freelance writer from Canada.
As a writer, I have always been attracted to what is hidden. I write to understand what is not understandable, what is not even acceptable, and to find a deeper truth in what has not been spoken.
I write war, trauma, history.
I also write family, without planning to do so. And motherhood. This is the natural consequence of writing who I am. In our culture and our stories, gender is everything. I have learned – not always in the nicest ways – that even when I am sure that my own preoccupations have nothing to do with gender, my readers will still bring their own, gender-based expectations to my work.
When I began writing, I was working in fiction: the just-discovered (by me) story of the Japanese American internment during WWII, in which my mother and her family were stripped of their citizenship and held in camps with some 120,000 other Japanese Americans and their parents. I had never studied this in school, had never heard it mentioned in my family. My own mother seemed to have forgotten she was ever interned (granted she was only one month old when she was sent to camp, but close to five when she was finally released). I was shocked by the denial, the lies, the racism, that surrounded that circumstance, and as I interviewed many former internees about their experiences, I was surprised at how many told me they never talked about it, and especially, that they had never told their children. They gave me what had not been recognized, nor reconciled. But in the end, something else, unrecognized, emerged as well: my Japanese-American internment novel became the story of “a mother who leaves her child.” Although I spent five years working on Why She Left Us, it was still a surprise when an interviewer pointed this out to me after it was published.
Some twenty years after I started dreaming my first novel, this issue of child abandonment would come crashing back into my life. But in the meantime, I went to Japan for six months to interview the survivors of the atomic bombing. This material became the center of a memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was published in September, as well as a forthcoming novel.
What I learned through all of these interviews is that memory is not fact, nor is it history. Memory is narrative, a way to rewrite personal experience, to rewrite self. The internment stories were full of that: of young men volunteering to fight even after being stripped of their citizenship, of the first American generation helping to get their own parents and children “peaceably” interned. The Hiroshima survivors also told their stories to explain that the loved ones they lost had sacrificed for world peace, and the trauma they had lived was not in vain. I listened to these “healing narratives”, and then, the September 11th attacks on the United States shattered our sense of safety, even as far away as Hiroshima, and I saw for the first time, the nightmares that lay beneath the carefully constructed memories.
The narrative of trauma is the narrative of rewritten self at its most basic level. It is requisite so that people can sleep at night. It allows them to transcend the shock, the shifts in their identity and in their understanding of reality. If they could assign reasons for that bombing, and those reasons did not now exist, then they were safe. That was the story they were telling me, and telling themselves: We survived. It is over.
In Hiroshima, I realized that I, too, had told myself my own story, and that my explanations were coming apart. Far from home, my former identity was becoming foreign to me, and my marriage was failing. I had never wanted to be a mother, but had become one, and now, faced with divorce, I had to find a way to challenge the traditional mother role I so feared in order to be a good, present mother to the children I loved. I rejected the myth of the perfect mother that our society relies on. And the support and criticism that I eventually attracted had nothing to do with Hiroshima, or war. It was a debate about what women should do: what we are allowed, what is expected, what is “natural,” versus what we want to do with our lives and who we want to be.
I was vilified for leaving my children (unnatural!), even though I hadn’t left them. I was thanked for having the courage to tell the truth by women who were still looking for the courage to speak their own truth, or who had spoken and were suffering from the backlash. I was a writer who had written about her research and her observations and her family, but I was attacked as a failed woman. The debate about my motherhood obscured everything else I had to say.
As humans, we decide what we want our story to be and cast ourselves accordingly. As writers, we are compelled to share that narrative and explore it publicly. I didn’t set out to grab a soap box on behalf of women’s choices, but I didn’t expect how strong my readers’ gender-based assumptions would be. By questioning the myths of motherhood, I have turned the tables on myself. My story has become just a bit of research for other women, as they rewrite their own stories to recreate themselves.
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, which is a National Book Critics Circle Finalist and the winner of the Grub Street National Book Award. Her first novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award in 2000. She is a
recipient of the U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications, including the L.A. Times, Salon.com, the Crab Creek Review, the Huffington Post and the Progressive Media Project. She is Associate Editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City, and teaches in the MFA program for creative writing at Goddard College. Visit her website at www.r3reiko.com.