Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of nine books. His next novel, True, will be published by Little A in 2018. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Atlantic, Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Prize Stories. He is currently a staff writer on the television show Ray Donovan. An excerpt from his story “We Not Die” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Can you share a bit about finding the voice for Kumiko? Was it a challenge to find a consistent rhythm to her language as you wrote? Can you talk a little bit about what you hope your readers will take away from this linguistic style?
This is an interpretation of my mother, Foumiko Kometani’s, English. She’s an eighty-six year old Japanese woman and has always spoken a peculiar, almost pidgin English which can be hard for outsiders to understand, but that my father and I understand and occasionally even lapse into when talking with each other.
What made you choose to write about the Bombing of Osaka? How did you research the event as you were putting together this story? Did any details from the real event stick out as you were imagining Kumiko and Miss Tango’s stories?
This is very much my mother’s story, rearranged and slashed and enlarged as one does when retelling. My mother was born in Japan in 1931 and lived through the events described, though not precisely in the manner I’ve written. Her recollections of the horrors of bombing are real. The story of the teacher who was taken off to become a comfort woman is real, and there is very little written about the fact that Imperial Japan did this to its own women as well as those who were subjugated by the Japanese military. Fascism, as was practiced in the twentieth century in Japan or in Germany, was very sexist with women reduced to their value as procreators of soldiers. For a precocious, intelligent young woman, as my mother was, to live in such a society was brutal. She emerged to become a painter, and emigrated from Japan in the late ’50s, meeting my father at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire where she was a doing a painting fellowship. She has since become a writer, and has won Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Akutagawa and Shinjinsho Prizes, as well as the Murasaki Prize for Best Female Writer in 1998. She’s published sixteen books of fiction and nonfiction, only two of which have been translated into English (Passover and Wasabi for Breakfast). She doesn’t write much about her childhood or her own experiences during the war, preferring instead to focus on her life in America. In the year she came to America, 1958, she was one of perhaps a dozen women who emigrated from Japan by themselves. Currency controls were so strict she was only allowed to bring the equivalent of $100 US with her when she boarded the boat in Kobe. Ironically, I was born in Kobe six years later when she and my father returned to Japan after marrying and circumnavigating the globe.
How did you settle on the conceit of a prospective fellow essay? What is the significance of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts?
I originally wrote the story without that conceit, in an attempt to capture my mother’s English, which is as quirky and irregular as I have written it. But without the conceit of it being an essay, it was impossible to explain why dialogue would also be in broken English. I finally figured out that if I do it as a written document, then all its flaws become plausible.
But, as a matter of historical record, in order to get around the strict currency controls, my mother had to secure a sponsor and a fellowship, and the one she did secure was, I believe, in Pennsylvania. She subsequently was awarded the MacDowell Colony fellowship. She was a very slow painter, only able to work on a few canvases a year, and that is perhaps why she took up writing instead of painting as a means of expression. She still illustrates her own work and frequently does her own book covers and illustrations to accompany essays she is publishing in Japanese magazines.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best advice I was ever given was from my father. He told me to write scenes. He explained if you write five or so scenes, you have a story. Perhaps they are not arranged correctly and perhaps the wrong characters are populating the scenes, but somehow, there will be a story there. The brain tells stories. Dreams are proof of that. We dream in fiction. We don’t dream in nonfiction.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I spent the last season as a writer on the television show Ray Donovan, which was a new experience for me. With the constant shrinkage of the world of magazines, where I made my living for a few decades, I realize I need to find a new livelihood and I hope that television writing might be just that.