A haunting novel of uncommon emotional power, Why She Left Us weaves in and out of the personal tragedies and political persecution of three generations of a Japanese American family and exposes the complex, often destructive bonds of love and honor that tie a family together.
At the center of the story is Emi Okada, a young girl who finds herself pregnant and alone on the eve of World War II. She gives up her firstborn, Eric, for adoption, but her mother finds the boy and brings him home, intent on raising him as part of the Okada family. This crucial event becomes a turning point in the story as it dramatically alters the lives of Emi's parents, siblings, and, later, her children. Betrayals and secrets tear a family apart a family that is already struggling with assimilation, intergenerational conflict, and war.
Narrated in turn by Emi's two children, Eric and Mariko, her mother, Kaori, and her brother Jack, Why She Left Us crisscrosses the century--from Japanese picture brides and migrant farm workers to the internment of Japanese Americans in the Colorado desert to contemporary Los Angeles and Hawaii, where Emi's two children have settled as adults. When, fifty years after the war, Mariko applies for reparations from the American government for the family's secret. As she tries to unravel the mystery that shrouds the events of the past, and to find her lost brother, Eric, Mariko must come to terms with her complicity and her own secrets, as well as her feelings of guilt for being the child Emi chose to keep.
Sparely and exquisitely written, Why She Left Us is a superbly accomplished first novel that illuminated the universal relationships between mothers and their children, while evoking the power of history to affect individual lives.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Why She Left Us revolves around an intriguing mystery: a Japanese American woman's abandonment of her illegitimate child during World War II. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto reveals the reason for her act--and its effect on four generations of her family--in a series of alternating narratives. A son, daughter, mother, and brother all chime in, and the author's sophisticated interweaving of their tales is what gives this debut novel much of its power.
Rizzuto's book includes its share of violent and disturbing incidents. A daughter helps her mother give birth on the floor of a shack; a son accompanies his senile grandfather to the toilet; a brother delivers a swift kick to his pregnant sister's belly. Yet Why She Left Us never relies on mere sensationalism. For one thing, the author's prose is strong and vivid, and she's particularly good at evoking the passage of time: "My life doesn't come to me in any order," notes one character. "Moments flip-flop, overlap--sometimes they come only in splinters." This isn't, it should be said, a big-canvas portrait of wartime life. But Rizzuto has produced a minute and successful investigation of the moments that define what a family is.
That leaves the initial mystery. To her credit, Rizzuto doesn't come up with a pat solution: instead, she offers up a collage of perceptions, which fuse into a kind of answer as the story progresses. In other words, this is the latest addition to a growing canon of diplomatic, Rashomon-like novels. Why She Left Us is a true study in perspectives--and a kaleidoscopic lesson about the nature of memory and forgiveness. --Rucker AlexAbout the Author:
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto was born and raised in Hawaii and has a degree in astrophysics from Columbia College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A Conversation with Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of Why She Left Us
We generally expect a debut novel to be autobiographical. What inspired you to use the internment of the Japanese during World War II as the jumping off point for your first book?
My mother and her family were interned at the Amache camp during the war. In 1992, I went there with my mother and my grandmother for the 50th anniversary reunion of the opening of the camp. It was fascinating, and heartbreaking. There were about 200 people there--telling stories in the middle of a prairie, surrounded by a cemetery, a monument, and a few cracking foundations. My mother and I climbed on one of the foundations and paced off the tiny rooms that entire families lived in.
Was there a factual inspiration for the events in Why She Left Us, then, or did it spring wholly from your imagination?
The story came mostly from my imagination. Before I started writing, I spent about a year and a half interviewing people about their experiences in the camps. Those interviews had a huge impact on both the structure and the plot of the book. I found that there were all of these secrets--and some of them were amazing. For example, one young woman told me that, when her grandmother got her redress papers, she pulled her aside and told her that the man she had always believed was her grandfather was actually not. Her real grandfather was an American soldier who had six brothers in the Japanese army. He was captured in Japan, and when he was taken prisoner, all six of his brothers committed suicide because they felt he had brought shame on his family. Then he committed suicide as well. It was secrets like that that inspired much of the novel.
So you didn't draw on your mother's memories when writing about life in Little Tokyo before the war, or the demeaning experience of the internment camps?
She was too young, only five when the war ended. And her parents never talked about it when she was growing up. In fact, my interest in the past has stimulated hers, and she's discovering things as I discover them, too.
Do you think the secrets--both the real ones you heard and the fictional ones you imagined--were a unique by-product of the war and the internment?
I think there is an element of shame, and the time was unquestionably painful. But, everyone has secrets. The internment just made it possible for people to bury things, to bury them very effectively.
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