Saturday, December 16, 2023

Q&A with Constance Hays Matsumoto




Constance Hays Matsumoto is the author, with her husband, Kent Matsumoto, of the new novel Of White Ashes. She is based in Greenville, Delaware.


Q: Of White Ashes was inspired by family history--can you say more about that, and about why you chose to write a novel rather than a work of nonfiction?


A: Indeed, Of White Ashes was inspired by the true stories of my husband’s parents. Kent’s mother, Reiko, and her family were incarcerated in America’s camps during WWII.


Kent’s father, Hisao, was born in California and moved to Hiroshima, Japan, when he was a baby. He was 16 years old when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on his city. Miraculously, he survived.


From the moment I learned about Hisao and Reiko’s powerful stories, I knew these treasures were perfect book material, but Kent and I never imagined ourselves writing that book!


Over the years, we tried several paths to capture the stories as a work of nonfiction. We came close to hiring an accomplished nonfiction author who was excited about the project and met with Kent’s parents, but they offered the man nothing but a cold shoulder.


We later arranged to introduce Kent’s parents to a prominent documentary filmmaker who was interested in recording their stories, but they soundly rejected the plan.


In 2017, the year after Reiko’s passing and while Hisao was struggling with dementia, we decided to write the book ourselves.


We chose fiction for two reasons. First, our family dynamics. Siblings have unique parent/child perspectives. Each deserves respect. Second, I love reading historical fiction and have personally learned much about history by reading this genre.


And, more than simply the telling of history, we wanted our readers to experience what it might have felt like to be an American girl uprooted from her home and incarcerated behind barbed wire fences; to be an American boy whose life is upended when an atomic bomb annihilates everything around him.


Both endured the seemingly unbearable with grace and dignity, yet despite their hardships, they loved America.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Painstakingly! Of White Ashes is thoroughly grounded in historical accuracy.


I read and viewed over 120 books, films, articles, and documents on WWII, the political environment in the U.S. and Japan from the early 1900s to 1949, atomic bomb science and history, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Daily life in wartime Japan, Japanese thought and culture, Asian immigration to Hawaii, the Hawaiian sugarcane industry, and the Japanese American incarceration all play a part in the development of this novel.


We divided the research into two phases: Japan and the U.S. After completing the bulk of the Japan research, Kent and I traveled to Hiroshima.


We stood across the river from where Kent’s father had been working in a rifle factory when the atomic bomb dropped. We walked in the tunnel under Hiroshima station to the exact spot where Kent understood his grandparents cowered in terror as their city was destroyed above them.


We toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, viewing the haunting exhibits through the lens of writer, not tourist. And we visited lesser-known surviving buildings: The Hiroshima Branch of the Bank of Japan Museum, Hiroshima Cemetery, and the Fukuro-maki Elementary School Peace Museum.


These aren’t easy places to visit. To calm the intensity of our emotions, we hiked the tranquil landscape of Miyajima Island, its shoreline footpaths, moss-encrusted lanterns, and stream burbles restoring serenity. After returning from Japan, we drafted the Japan chapters of the book.

After completing the bulk of the research on the Japanese American incarceration, Kent and I traveled once again.


We visited his mother’s hometown of Waimea, Hawaii, the Japanese American Memorial Museum in Los Angeles, the Jerome-Rohwer, AR Memorials and the Interpretive and Visitor Center, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.


We had enjoyed the wonderful experience of visiting Tule Lake, California, with Kent’s parents in 2010 during a pilgrimage to the site—a family trip we will long remember.


This research culminated in two spreadsheets: one 64 pages, the other 112 pages. Each included notes that could be sorted by topic and source, which was then supplemented by additional research while drafting specific scenes.


What surprised me about our research? The National Archives proved to be a treasure trove beyond measure. Finding and holding the original arrest warrant for Kent’s grandfather was unexpected and made the family story that much more real to me.


The warrant was dated December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, commanding that his body be taken and detained on suspicion of being an enemy alien of the United States. This peaceful man, a Buddhist minister, was handcuffed and arrested the next day in front of his family.


His experience has gripping relevance to today. Let all of us pay attention and not take our liberties and democracy for granted.


Q: The writer Lois Lowry said of the book, “This well-told story of a Japanese-American couple whose love survives a whirlwind of tragic global events leaves the reader with a new awareness of history and a deeper appreciation of the human heart.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am grateful to Lois Lowry for her generous investment of time reading Of White Ashes and for her kind words. I was floored and honored when she graciously agreed to read our full-length manuscript, and am humbled by her compliments, which resonate with our goals for the book.


If Of White Ashes contributes even a tiny bit of good in this fragile world, I’ll find that immensely gratifying. Reading fiction allows us to live outside of our own perspective and empathize with others who may be different than us.


In Of White Ashes, Kent and I invite readers on a journey where readers can imagine themselves being herded into confinement based solely on race and walking among the devastation of a nuclear explosion.


We hope our readers will feel the power of injustice and nuclear destruction, be reminded of the fragility of our country and our world, and consider the importance of focusing on what unites rather than divides.


Q: How did the two of you collaborate on the book? What was your writing process like?


A: As co-authors, we found ways to combine our individual strengths.


An engaged literary citizen, I joined organizations that bring writers together and support their development and journeys and educated myself on the craft of fiction. I structured the book, determined the dual points of view, fleshed out a comprehensive timeline, and drafted the manuscript.


Together, Kent and I studied family documents, personal stories, and diaries. Using our imaginations, we brainstormed and debated scenes that told the history of what happened to Hisao and Reiko in ways that conveyed how it may have felt to live through those traumatic moments.


Kent offered the Japanese cultural perspective, critiqued and refined my drafts, and maddened me with his wordsmithing.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: We aspire for Of White Ashes to be read in upper-level high schools and colleges, so introducing the book to schools is our current focus.


We have our first in-school presentation scheduled for January 2024, and look forward to the opportunity to personalize this history through our family connection, somehow making it more real in the hearts and minds of students.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For those interested in learning more about the Japanese American incarceration and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, please visit our website, which offers a wonderful repository of resource materials.


Also, we are pleased to donate a percentage of our royalties from Of White Ashes to the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages organization.


JAMP provides a centralized resource for promoting pilgrimages and educating people about the World War II Japanese American incarceration camps and is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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