Japan’s War

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It’s coming back to me now. Specifically, why I never finished my graduate thesis. I just finished watching a documentary I had casually picked up while at Hastings a few weeks ago, a British production called Japan’s War In Colour. It recounts the history of the Pacific War primarily from the Japanese perspective, using restored color footage never before shown.

The quality of the restoration is astounding; the clarity is relatively sharp, the color crisp, as if these were taken twenty years ago rather than sixty. There’s plenty of footage on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the invasion of China/Manchuria, the horrific firefight on the Marianas, and the heartbreaking sacrifice of Okinawa. The worst is the infamous shot of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, a massive pillar of smoke and fire that reached beyond the sky.

I can’t even imagine what it must have felt to someone coming upon the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately after the bombing. Both cities were decimated beyond recognition. I spent a few days in Nagasaki over the Christmas holidays in 1995 and find it difficult to believe that such a beautiful, tranquil city could have experienced such devastation in its recent history. Even on film as old as this, you could sense the despair and utter helplessness.

I guess this is as good a way as any to get into the mood of writing one’s story. There was a brief segment on the invasion and fall of British Malaya, specifically Singapore, so I was able to catch a glimpse of the city in its prewar glory. With so little material available in English on the conditions and situation in Singapore just prior to the war — especially if one is looking for civilian stories rather than military or colonial accounts — I’m having to scrape up what I can and imagine the rest. (I guess that’s why it’s called fiction, eh?)

A beautifully written post by a fellow writer discusses the “undiscovered country” (with a nod to Star Trek fans) of the novel, and how every story is an attempt by the writer to reveal a deep-rooted part of herself. I suppose that’s true, which may be why writing can be so bloody difficult for so many writers — we’re naturally private people, and we loathe holding up any part of ourselves up to the light. Maybe it’s fear of ridicule, because so much of the fiction writing process is personal, regardless of the subject.

I’m not really sure why I chose this particular story to write, at this moment of my life. The comfort women story was so heartbreaking, so horrifying to research in graduate school, I wasn’t sure I would return to it. And now I’m trying to revive the story, not through a compilation of facts and theories leading up to a conclusion — as in a thesis — but in a work of fiction that nevertheless requires me to mine all the painful details, the agony of the women’s experience without exploiting them or stripping them of their dignity.

What this ultimately reveals about my own self remains to be seen, and maybe I’ll never really understand. Right now, it’s difficult to see beyond my immediate need of learning as much as I can about the period, my character’s background, the atmosphere in Singapore immediately prior and during the war. The mood in the Twilight Samurai was just the right touch for the beginning of book, which made it the perfect film to watch as I started thinking about the rewrite of the first few chapters. This doc, though, looks to provide just the right feel of the war as it exploded in Malaya and throughout the Pacific.

As for the play…well, I wrote eight new pages to open the scene, with a bit more action and what I hope is a more, uhm, realistic dialogue between Linda and Noelle. One of the problems I have is that these are two Filipina characters living in Manila who in real life would be conversing in Tagalog. Since my intended audience is primarily American, however (although this may change as I develop this), I’m having to write the dialogue out in English and in a style that would be familiar to that audience. Not easy, and I hadn’t realized just how different the influence of culture is on both language and movement. It should be interesting to see where this ends up!

Oh… on a different note… the same blogger above linked to a long, very thoughtful essay in The Guardian about what it means to write the mythical perfect novel, written by the brilliant Zadie Smith. If you have twenty or so minutes to digest this — she has some excellent thoughts on the subject — check it out.

MRA

9 thoughts on “Japan’s War

  1. I’ve never tried historical fiction, but watching a documentary recently with my history-buff boyfriend gave me an idea for a new story.

    Reading your post however, I’m second-guessing how much I’d want to immerse myself in studying the details of daily life in wartime Russia.

    Kudos to you for taking that kind of plunge!

  2. Hi, Marilyn!

    I never actually thought I’d try historical fiction, but I suppose it should’ve been obvious — I love history, and given my longtime interest in Japan and Southeast Asia, as well as the comfort women issue, I guess it was inevitable that I would write about them!

    It is a lot of work, but the research is so enjoyable (er, the process, that is, even if the subject itself can be quite difficult to get through!). I bet you all the vodka in Moscow that wartime Russia would make such a fascinating setting! If you decide to go through with it, do keep me posted!

    Thanks for your kind words!

    Cheers,
    MRA

  3. I almost didn’t finish my graduate thesis too. It took me two years but thankfully, my adviser didn’t give up on me.

    Writing takes a lot of dedication and desire. It’s also a journey that the writer takes, from the time that they start the work to the time that they finish.

  4. Hi, MRA! Thanks for linking to my blog. You’ve got a great blog here — I love its name, too — and guess what: I’m blogrolling you! 🙂

    The play and the novel you’re working on both sound absolutely fascinating. Good luck with them!

  5. Hi, Amee! Thanks for commenting! I figured out what I was doing wrong and why you couldn’t post. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

    I’ve loved to write since I was old enough to hold a pencil, but for some reason it never occurred to me that it could actually be a vocation until I was in college. As you know, Filipinos aren’t encouraged to pursue the arts, especially if one isn’t rolling in the dough. Too bad, too, because I’ve met some incredibly talented artists and writers who are doing everything but art.

    And thank you, thomma lyn, for commenting and blogrolling me! I love writers’ blogs and enjoy reading yours. Keep writing!

    Cheers,
    MRA

  6. filipino parents don’t think writing is a profession. that’s what my parents used to think, well, my dad actually, but i managed to change his mind. 🙂

    thanks for making it easier to comment.

  7. Hi MRA,
    The work that you’re doing is very interesting. 🙂 I did a story on a Filipina comfort woman for a journ class in college and that one interview haunted me for a long time after. All the best with your writing and I hope it’s ok if I link to your blog too.

    🙂 T.

  8. Amee, you’ve given me something to think about. Why aren’t Pinoy parents more supportive of their children’s artistic dreams? Surely it can’t just be because of the money. If we’re as materialistic and opportunistic as we appear, you’d think we’d be a wealthier country because of it, no?

    You’ve given me an interesting idea to blog about!

    Trixia, thanks for the comment! Ya, I’d love to hear more about your research. I lived in Japan for a couple of years and was in Singapore as well twice, but didn’t get interested in the comfort women issue until after I had already returned to the States. I hope we can continue this conversation offline. And thanks for linking to me! I’ll place a link to your blog on mine as well. Good luck with the thesis!

    Cheers,
    M.

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