Friday 24 May 2019

500 words from Andrew Lam

500 words from…is an occasional series in which novelists talk about their latest novels.

Andrew Lam’s second historical novel, Repentance, is in bookshops now.

Andrew, a third generation Chinese American, is the award-winning author of two earlier books, Saving Sight, an Amazon non-fiction bestseller about his career as an eye surgeon, and Two Sons of China, a novel of World War 2 that won a Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in 2014.

Repentance is based on the history of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. It opens in France, in October 1944, with a Japanese American war hero who’s keeping a terrible secret.  Fifty-five years later, his son, Daniel Tokunaga, is a world-famous cardiac surgeon who is perplexed when the U.S. government comes calling, wanting to know about his father’s service during World War 2. Something terrible happened while his father was fighting the Germans in France, and the Department of Defense won’t stop its investigation until it’s determined exactly who did what.

Wanting answers of his own, Daniel upends his life to find out what his father did on a small, obscure hilltop half a world away. As his quest for the truth unravels his family’s catastrophic past, the only thing for certain is that nothing - his life, career, and family - can ever be the same again.

So, over to Andrew…

There is one group of Asian Americans that is recognized as the most decorated unit in U.S. military history: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of World War 2. The 442nd was a unit of Japanese Americans who fought with uncommon valor in Italy and France. They were volunteers from Hawaii, and from mainland internment camps like Manzanar, who won an unprecedented 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 560 Silver Stars. The 14,000 men who ultimately served in the 442nd won 9,486 Purple Hearts.

I thought everyone should know about these American heroes, so I wrote my historical novel Repentance about them. But I decided to do this in a unique way. Instead of writing about a hero, I wrote about a coward.


Because anyone who knows about the 442nd already knows it was full of heroes. Some of these soldiers mounted “banzai” charges against German machine gun nests, exposed themselves to fire to flush out the enemy, and threw themselves on grenades to save their comrades. But sometimes, especially after the passing of many decades, it becomes easy to put our heroes on pedestals and forget that they were real boys with all the same fears and insecurities as the rest of us. To recognize men as fearful and fallible actually makes their accomplishments more poignant, because this shows what heroes must overcome in order to succeed.

I decided to write about a Japanese American war hero who has a terrible secret. A secret so bad that he’s never spoken of the war. Then, decades later, his son begins to unravel the truth of what happened when his father was fighting the Germans in France, and the consequences have earth-shattering results for their family.

In Repentance, the 442nd’s story is also closely entwined with the tragic history of Japanese American internment - when over 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the west coast lost their homes and businesses, and were incarcerated in ten isolated, inland camps, such as Manzanar and Tule Lake. Two-thirds were American citizens. Half were children.

Today, the best thing we can do to honor the memory of those who suffered is to prevent it from happening again. We do this by remembering our history. Because history repeats itself. The same evil that stems from unjustly ostracizing the “other” at times of perceived peril can recur in a heartbeat.

I hope in some small way my novel helps broaden readers’ understanding and empathy for a different group of people, in a different time. I hope it reminds us that human nature, fears and vices do not change. In America, as elsewhere, it takes constant vigilance to ensure politicians and people in wider society make choices based on what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

As a writer, my goal is to shine a light on aspects of history that may not be that well known but deserve to be. I try to employ drama, emotion, and suspense to convey universal truths that bring historical characters to life. The story of the 442nd is one that everyone should know because it illustrates that being an American has never been based on race. It’s based on the ideals Americans share.

Details: Repentance is published by Tiny Fox Press (USA) in paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.