Lynne Kutsukake’s novel The Translation of Love explores the American occupation of Japan after World War II. I reviewed it last year, and as I was reading this engaging novel, I had some questions for the author. I’m so pleased that she agreed to be interviewed.
You mention that the book was inspired by letters from Japanese people to General MacArthur. How did a whole novel grow out of a book of letters?
Lynne: I was fascinated that Japanese people would write hundreds of thousands of letters to someone who until recently had been the enemy and who was now in charge of occupying their country. At one level it seemed so strange and mystifying. Yet when you think about the complex emotions many people probably felt at the end of the war (the pain of defeat but also enormous relief that the war was finally over), maybe it’s not so surprising that people sought a way to voice their feelings and demands in a way that they couldn’t have during the war. The person in charge was MacArthur, so they wrote to him. The situation completely intrigued me and really sparked my imagination. I was interested in the emotions driving people to write to MacArthur. How desperate would you be? How angry? How hopeful? And I was really keen to try my hand at writing the letters myself.
I was really drawn in by the first scene in the book, when Fumi describes looking forward to American food such as peanut butter and white bread. Did the American occupation of Japan change Japanese culture in any way?
Lynne: Without a doubt the occupation had a significant impact on people’s daily lives in the postwar years. There was a rush to learn English and a fascination with things American. The new constitution crafted by the occupation forces was very progressive and granted voting rights to Japanese women for the first time and renounced war. Peanut butter, though, never really caught on in the long run.
You tell the story through the eyes of several different people, and you manage to make each character engaging and unique. Did you base your characters on anyone you read about, or anyone you knew? How did you develop the characters?
Lynne: Thanks so much. I’m really glad you liked the characters. Although they are entirely fictional and not based on real people, my hope was that readers would become as attached to them as I did. The first character who came to me was Fumi. I knew from the start that I wanted a twelve-year-old Japanese protagonist, and Fumi sprang to life pretty quickly. Once I had Fumi in mind, I wanted her to have a friend who could help her write her letter to MacArthur, and what better person for that role than a Japanese Canadian girl who knows English. The character of Aya allowed me to bring in the backstory of the Japanese Canadian internment and deportation, just as the characters of Matt and Nancy provided a Japanese American perspective. I gave each of the characters his/her individual backstory, but I found that the real development of their characters didn’t take place until I put them in relation to each other and made them interact. Once they began interacting with each other – talking to each other and acting upon each other – their individual personalities really began to grow.
In your novel, the Japanese seem so welcoming to the Americans. Was this really the way it was? Why do you think the Japanese welcomed a country that dropped two atomic bombs on them?
Lynne: I think it was very complicated. Most Japanese did not welcome the Americans at the beginning, not at all. On the contrary there was widespread fear that the Americans would conduct a brutal, vengeful occupation. When that turned out not to be the case (the occupation was more administrative and bureaucratic in nature than it was military), there was a sense of relief. And then, because there were terrible food shortages and because the Americans were the ones who brought food aid, the relationship of dependency grew.
What was your research process like? How did you keep track of the information you found?
Lynne: I did a lot of reading and I took a lot of notes. But it wasn’t very systematic. Of course I gathered a lot of information that I didn’t need or couldn’t use or didn’t want to use, but I don’t think there is any shortcut. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you just trust that the interesting details that you come across will spark your creative juices.
How did you decide when to stick with historical facts and when to stray from those facts?
Lynne: I didn’t want to stray from historical facts. But at the same time I found it more interesting to focus on those hidden corners of history that have not been explored much and that therefore allowed a lot of space for imaginative roaming. So, while the story of the American occupation of Japan (as told in English) is usually seen through the eyes of white American GIs, I wanted the perspective to be through the eyes of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans – people who were in a kind of in-between space, people who were often ignored.
What do you hope people will come away with after reading this novel?
Lynne: That the humanity of people everywhere — regardless of country, color, race, religion — is basically the same.
Is there anything about this book that most people are not noticing or commenting on, that you wish readers and reviewers would notice?
Lynne: Not too many people comment on the fundamental irony of America bringing democracy to Japan but at the same time interning and incarcerating its own American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the war.
Thank you for the interview, Lynne! If you would like to follow Lynne, she is on Twitter: @LynneKutsukake