Thursday 26 November 2020

A brilliant grappling with history through interlinked stories: Asako Serizawa's sterling debut 'The Inheritors'


ASAKO SERIZAWA was born in Japan and grew up in Singapore, Jakarta, and Tokyo. A graduate of Tufts University, Brown University, and Emerson College, she has received two O. Henry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. A former fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, INHERITORS is her first book. 


Spanning more than a century, and revolving around the Pacific side of World War II, Inheritors paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of five generations of a Japanese family grappling with the legacies of loss, imperialism, and war. Written in myriad styles and set across Asia and the United States, each of the characters’ stories adds to the others to illuminate the complex ways in which we experience, interpret, and pass on our tangled history. A retired doctor is forced to confront the moral consequences of his wartime actions. His brother’s wife answers a call for first-person testimonies, gradually revealing the shattering realities of life in Occupied Japan. A half century later, her estranged granddaughter, raised in America, retraces her roots across the Pacific, chasing the secrets behind her father’s absence. Decades later, two siblings confront the consequences of their great-grandparents’ war as the world, mutated by new technology, is threatened by a violence more pervasive than the one that scorched the earth a century earlier. Serizawa’s characters walk the line between the devastating realities of war and the banal needs of everyday life as they struggle to reconcile their experiences with the changing world. A breathtaking meditation on the relationship among history, memory, and storytelling, Inheritors is a triumph of imagination and stands in the company of works by Lisa Ko, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Min Jin Lee. 

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Asako. Congratulations on Inheritors, a tour de force for what the short stories can do: the prose is breathtaking and poetic, and the stories themselves so rich and pulsing with intelligence and thematic exploration.  It’s also a linked short story collection. In what way have you linked the stories, and did the book start out in your head with linked characters? 

AS: Thank you so much—I’m so delighted to join you here! Inheritors was conceived as an interconnected story collection (as opposed to a novel) from the start. I’m not one to plan and outline, but I do begin by working out a conceptual frame. In the case of Inheritors—a book meant to complicate and challenge the dominant narratives of World War II (Pacific) and explore the way history is lived, shaped, and passed on—I began with two organizing concepts: the mosaic, in which each story contributes to a larger whole but without being subservient to it; and the kaleidoscope, where the stories, individually or as clusters, are designed to interact with one another, fleshing out the details of an event or challenging the truth of a character’s perspective, ultimately showing up the partiality of every position. So, in my mind, the stories are very much interconnected, and I hope this adds to the reading experience. As for the characters, they emerged out of the space between the first two stories, “Flight” and “Luna,” which, to me, comprise the collection’s “beginning.” The protagonist in “Flight” is an old woman born in the 1890s, while the protagonist in “Luna” is a child born in the 1970s. The two characters are related by blood but utterly unknown to each other, their stories unfolding in very different spheres, times, and circumstances. It’s the chasm between these characters and their stories that suggested a whole host of stories, an entire family tree, cleaved together and apart by history. 

EC: The stories also span more than a century – from the Meiji Restoration (1868) to the future in 2035, allowing for that family tree and different spheres, times, and circumstances you mentioned, as well as history. By conceptually framing these characters’ lives through passages of time, history and place, what were some questions or ideas you grappled with? 

AS: First, thank you for noticing the significance of that date. Details like this are almost never picked up in the American/European context, so I appreciate it. For me, the Meiji Restoration marks the official beginning of Japan’s nationalizing/imperial project that set into motion the destructive trajectory that Inheritors spends its pages charting. But, really, the book begins with the epigraph: “Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” The quote, taken from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, refers to the disastrous consequences wrought by the Western Enlightenment project, a movement that ushered in a world that privileged science, reason, order, and a notion of Progress, all still familiar to us. On the bright side, this spurred advancements in medicine and technology, for example, but, on the shadow side, it divided the world into the “primitive” and the “civilized,” the “inferior” and the “superior,” and ultimately justified Western imperialism and colonialism. I’m totally oversimplifying, but I do see World War II as part of this larger trajectory, a logical expression of what happens when the tools meant to better the world turn into weapons of domination. The last two stories in the collection, set in the near future, are my projection of where I imagine we’re headed if we continue our course. It’s depressing to see some of it already playing out in 2020. 

EC: And how would you characterise the writer’s function in historical retellings within fiction? 

AS: There are so many doors to this question. Maybe what I can say is something I say in the “Author’s Note.” That, when it comes to historical fiction as a genre these days, the function of the writer seems to be to provide the reader with a seamless, immersive experience, a sense of what it was like to be there then. But history doesn’t start and end with the birth/death of a character, a meeting/parting of a couple, or even the first attack and the final surrender; there are roots and ripple effects, and the experiences are myriad. Rather than a seamless retelling, I’m interested in the seams, the stitchings, the very way stories are told, or not told, and to what effect. 

EC: The American Occupation period (1945-52) is invoked in many of the stories – a historical thematic within the works of Japanese writers such as Oe, but less so from the viewpoint of the Japanese diaspora. Did you feel conflicted writing these stories, a kind of metaphysical tug-of-war? 

AS: Great question, but let me backtrack and say that I’m actually not Japanese American but Japanese, though I currently live in the United States and write in English and have conducted most of my life in English. But had I been Japanese American, would I have felt conflicted about my depiction of the American Occupation, let alone the American firebombing of Japan? I’m curious about the answer. I mean, how deep do national, ethnic, and/or cultural roots go? Why do people feel this sort of loyalty? These questions about nation/ethnic/cultural allegiance are fascinating. They haunt the book, I think. 

But more to the point, I was acutely aware of how differently these stories would land, depending on the context. I knew that stories like “Willow Run” and “Train to Harbin” would read very differently in America, Europe, and East Asia, for example. So the process felt less like a tug-of-war than an act of tight-roping through a minefield of clashing narratives. 

EC: The title gave me goosebumps: Inheritors. In a literal sense, they are the descendants of Masayuki and Taeko, from whom various stories unfold, but the title also begs the question of what these protagonists of your stories inherited. Did the word weave through the conception and then the writing of the stories for you? 

AS: I’m so glad the title resonated. Titles are hard; I didn’t come to this one until the manuscript was complete and about to be submitted to publishing houses. Prior to Inheritors, the working title was Allegiance. It never sat right, but it got at something central—it’s what every character in the book grapples with in their own way. Inheritors, though, simply fit. When the word popped into my head, it was like the soul of the book had revealed itself. I don’t mean this in a mystical sense. The book took over twelve years to write, and I had been wrestling with different parts of the concept, the different branches of the family tree. It was when the last t’s were crossed and I finally stepped back that I saw the book with a clarity that distilled it to a single, crystalline word. 

EC: There are so many great stories in the book, particularly the structurally innovative ones, but I feel drawn to particularly one story: “Willow Run”. It takes on the important issue of comfort women (still unsatisfactorily addressed from the perspectives of many Asian nations in terms of reparations and the issue itself is in danger of sinking under historical amnesia). The story does so uniquely where we get the one-sided answers from a victim responding to an invisible interrogator. What role does the invisible interrogator play, to your mind?  

AS: For me, form is political, a political choice arrived at after thinking through the issues of representation relevant to the story I’m writing. It has to do with how I feel that I, as a Japanese writer writing in English in the twenty-first century, can responsibly access and write that story, especially if it involves underrepresented perspectives—perspectives that have been historically suppressed, repressed, silenced, or otherwise excluded or voiced-over by a dominant perspective. The first-person narrator in “Willow Run” is not a Comfort Woman, but she is a victim who has answered a call for Comfort Women testimonies and has come to be interviewed by an American activist collecting these testimonies for legal purposes. The story is set in the early 1990s, when the Comfort Women story was beginning to break, and it is written as a one-sided interview where we see/hear the narrator’s answers but not the interviewer’s questions. The setup is fraught. Each person has her agenda, and over the course of the interview we begin to see the unfolding power dynamic at play. In terms of the role of the invisible interviewer, she is excluded from the page but remains a shaping force with the power to prompt, prod, and silence. I wanted to explore this dynamic inherent in the production of testimonies and look at the fragility of a victim’s voice, the way they can emerge and be heard but just as quickly disappear, struck, buried, or usurped to be lost and forgotten. 

 EC: One of the most striking sentences of the collection come from the beautifully-told story “Pavilion” : “We Japanese have many rituals to acknowledge space: the physical space of a place, the space of a threshold, as well as the shared space of a meeting, the social space born in a moment of an encounter. We mark this space with a bow.” There’s a cultural element here: a Japanese conception of metaphysical and social space. How would you say it differs from a Western-centric conception? 

AS: I love this question, which touches on something core, but it’s impossible to talk about in the given space. I’ll just say that the character who delivers these lines is a war victim who, because of his experiences, has devoted his life to advocating for peace. But is peace possible? Is the cycle of violence avoidable? What is at the root of war? And under what conditions might it become possible for humans to avoid it? It’s by parsing the differences between the Japanese and Western conceptions of metaphysical and social space that this character arrives at a potential answer. I’d love to hear what readers make of this story. 

EC: As a fiction writer handling the hefty weight of histories, how do we tell and represent stories of individual lives unfurling within such contingencies with authenticity and integrity? 

AS: This is a question I wish every writer handling histories would answer. For me, it’s an important political question that informs all my aesthetic choices. I talked a little about this in response to some of your previous questions, so I’ll just say that, at the most fundamental level, I feel that it’s vital to remember that stories shape our imagination; they shape our image and understanding of people, a culture, a race—the world. Personally, I try to be absolutely clear why I’m writing the stories I’m writing, what my relationship is to the lives I’m potentially representing, what assumptions I might be bringing, and what I need to know and understand to responsibly handle it all. I don’t know about authenticity—it’s a tricky concept for me—and integrity is a perpetual work-in-progress; I’m curious to know how different readers are responding to the book.

EC: Thank you Asako for your wonderful insights and warm candour and for joining us on AsianBooksBlog!

NB: Inheritors is available worldwide at local bookstores in local currencies but the author would like to give a special shout-out to Bookshop (an online bookseller supporting local bookstores).

Signed copies might be available through Brookline Booksmith, Parnassus Books and Book Passage.