It’s a great honor to introduce author Jan Morrill and to share the news of her newest novel, The Red Kimono from the University of Arkansas Press. The book will be available next month through the University of Arkansas Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
I met Jan five years ago at a conference in Oklahoma. A month later, we spent a week together at the Writer’s Academy at West Texas A&M University where we attended classes with New York Times Best Selling Author Jodi Thomas. It was a memorable week for all students.
It’s often said that you can’t really know someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. While I haven’t walked a mile in Jan’s, we do share common connections. Our mothers are Japanese, and there is no escaping the sensibilities from an upbringing of a Japanese mother. Also, both Jan and I grew up as dependent children of career military men.
Jan was born and mostly raised in California. Her mother, a Buddhist Japanese American, was an internee during World War II. Her father, a Southern Baptist redhead of Irish descent, is retired from the Air Force.
The Red Kimono, as well as many of her short stories, reflect memories of growing up in a multicultural, multi-religious, multi-political environment.
Her award-winning short stories and memoir essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books and several anthologies. Recently, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her short story “Xs and Os,” which appeared in the Voices Anthology. An artist as well as a writer, she is currently working on the sequel to The Red Kimono.
Here’s a peek into The Red Kimono:
In 1941, racial tensions are rising in the California community where nine-year-old Sachiko Kimura and her seventeen-year-old brother, Nobu, live. Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, people are angry, and one night, Sachiko and Nobu witness three teenage boys taunting and beating their father in the park. Sachiko especially remembers Terrence Harris, the boy with dark skin and hazel eyes, and Nobu cannot believe the boys capable of such violence toward his father are actually his friends.
What Sachiko and Nobu do not know is that Terrence’s family had received a telegram that morning with news that Terrence’s father was killed at Pearl Harbor. Desperate to escape his pain, Terrence rushes from his home and runs into two high-school friends who convince him to find a Japanese man and get revenge. They do not know the man they attacked is Sachiko and Nobu’s father.
These three young Americans–Sachi, Nobu, and Terrence–will spend years behind bars and barbed wire. One will learn acceptance. One will seek a path to forgiveness. And one will remain imprisoned by resentment.
Linda: Jan, what sparked the idea for The Red Kimono?
Jan: Two events in my mother’s life always made me wonder how I would feel if I had been in her shoes. One event was the internment of her family during World War II. She rarely talked about the years of her internment, which was from the age of seven to eleven. But I do remember my family stopping once to visit the desolate area of Tule Lake, where she’d been in “camp.” As I tried to imagine what the camp must have looked like, my mother stood by with tears in her eyes. She told me that day that if I’d been born back then, I, too, would have been placed behind barbed wire. It was something I could hardly fathom at the time, as I’d never even been to Japan.
The other event was the murder of her father by two Black teenagers shortly after the family was released from internment. Though he was killed for the five dollars in his pocket, I took that event and created a fictitious story around it.
Linda: How did you do research for the book?
Jan: I read several books about the internment, including Only What They Could Carry by Lawson Fusao Inada and To the Stars by George Takei. Also, much of my research was done on the Densho.org website. This is a fascinating website of archived documents and videos of interviews with former internees. I also watched several documentaries on the internment, including Time of Fear, which was produced by the University of Arkansas. Over the years, I’ve visited several sites of the internment camps, such as Rohwer, Heart Mountain and Tule Lake, as well as the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Of course, nothing beats the first hand stories of my mother and her family.
Linda: What were some interesting discoveries that you made during your research that didn’t make it into the book?
Jan: I have to say, I tried to include most of the information I found in my research because I found it so interesting and important. However, sometime after I finished writing the manuscript, I visited the Japanese American National Museum and met a very friendly docent named Frank. He was probably in his eighties and took us around the museum, telling us stories from his past. He told me several things I did not know, and that I was not able to include in the book, since not much of the book focused on the actual war. However, it makes the stories no less fascinating.
I learned that the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit comprised of Japanese-American soldiers, rescued the Lost Battalion and suffered over 1,000 casualties in the process to rescue 216 men trapped behind German lines. My mother’s oldest brother was a member of the 442nd. (I wrote an essay on my uncle being awarded the Bronze Star, titled “Hyphenated Americans” which appeared in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors.) The 442nd also liberated several of the concentration camps near Dachau. One of the most interesting facts is that over 300 Nisei (second generation) women served in the Women’s Army Corp.
Linda: Will you share with us your impressions about your very first visit to Japan? How was it different from what you expected?
Jan: Probably the very first impression I had was how I stood out. I was taller than most men. It reminded me of when I attended my first Obon (Japanese dance) festival in California. I was about thirteen years old. I remember being in awe of the pretty, petite Japanese girls. I envied their straight, coal-black hair and the graceful way they danced. I felt like an awkward albatross among swans. I have to laugh looking back. It was such a pre-teen girlish way to feel.
Aside from that recollection, the next thing I noticed was how helpful the Japanese people were. They went out of their way to try to help us find our way around, even though surprisingly, they spoke little English.
And of course, I was surprised by the beauty of the country. Even in a country so crowded with people, I was able to find tranquility in the gardens and architecture. I’ve been to Japan three times, but never to northern Japan. I hope to go there someday.
Linda: You’re working on the sequel to The Red Kimono. Will you share with us a bit about the storyline? Will all the characters be returning?
Jan: The sequel is tentatively titled Broken Dreams. However, I have no doubt the title will be changed, just as Broken Dolls was changed to The Red Kimono. The sequel begins in 1957, on the day the Little Rock Nine attempt to enter Little Rock Central High School, and follows the lives of Sachi, Jubie, Nobu and Terrence through 1963. As these characters deal with their pasts and the civil rights issues of the era, the themes of prejudice, resentment and forgiveness are also a part of the sequel. I’ve also added dashes of humor and a little bit of romance to this story.
Linda: Jan, thank you for a glimpse into your writing world. What is something that others would be surprised to know about you?
Jan: I like to talk to people who disagree with me. It doesn’t happen very often these days, because it seems people can’t hold their tempers when they disagree. It seems more and more, people somehow feel we’re all supposed to agree with each other. Personally, I think that’s ridiculous. How boring this world would be if we all agreed. I like to discuss differences, and when I’ve been lucky enough to do so, I usually learn something new.
On a lighter note, I don’t like licorice or black olives. But I love fried rice and martinis.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about Jan and about a part of American history that is often not spoken of nor written in many school textbooks.
You can connect with Jan in these places:
Linked In: http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=151948993&trk=tab_pro
Let’s chat with Jan. She’ll be checking in today to answer questions and respond to comments.