01 Oct Intersections | Jan Marler Morrill
The Red Kimono novel by Arkansas-based Jan Marler Morrill takes readers deep into the compelling lives of three young Americans as they recount their experiences during World War II. Morrill, whose mother was interned during the war, reflects upon past memories growing up in an era gripped with geopolitical tensions, societal fears and racism.
The fictional story travels deep into the lives of the three young Americans: nine-year-old Sachiko Kimura and her seventeen-year-old brother Nobu, and Nobu’s classmate Terrence Harris, as they are caught up in the troubles shaped by the events followed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In 1941, racial tensions are rising in the California community where nine-year-old Sachiko Kimura and her seventeen-year-old brother, Nobu, live. When Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, anger erupts.
One afternoon, Sachi and Nobu witness three teenage boys taunting and beating their father in the park. Sachi especially remembers Terrence Harris, the boy with dark skin and hazel eyes. Nobu cannot believe the boys capable of such violence toward his father are actually his friends.
These three young Americans – Sachi, Nobu and Terrence- will spend years behind bars and barbed wire. One will learn acceptance. One will seek a path to forgiveness. And one will remain imprisoned by resentment.
EH: Please start off by giving us a little more background about yourself
JM: Yesterday, in a poetry class, we were asked to introduce ourselves with a haiku. This is what I wrote:
Walking a new path
So many forks in the road
Which one shall I take?
Many times, I’ve avoided changing paths because it was more comfortable to stay on a familiar one. New paths and forks in the road are exciting, even scary at times, but they are unavoidable if one wants to continue to move forward. So, in November, I’ll be veering off my comfortable path to move to move to Dallas, where I’ll be blessed to experience my new role as Grandma.
EH: How long have you been writing?
JM: I’ve been writing since I can remember. In elementary school, I used to write and draw pictures to go with my stories. Starting in junior high, I kept journals where I wrote about everything, including things I couldn’t talk about. That’s when I discovered the power of writing to make a difference, even if it’s only a difference in my own life.
EH: What is your writing process?
JM: Admittedly, in the last several months, I haven’t had much of a writing process, as I’ve spent most of my time marketing The Red Kimono. Many authors successfully maintain a balance between writing and marketing, but I’ve found that I’m easily distracted. If I can’t sit with my characters and give them my undivided attention, I may sit and stare at a blank computer screen for hours, writing one sentence, erasing, then rewriting again and again.
However, when I am in writing mode, I’ve found that writing for a few hours first thing in the morning, before the rest of the world awakes, works best for me.
THE RED KIMONO
EH: What inspired you to write The Red Kimono and why did this part of American history interested you?
JM: My mother was an internee. At the age of seven, she and her family were forced to leave their homes and were sent to Tule Lake and Topaz Relocation Centers. My mother didn’t talk very much about her time in these camps, but when she did, it was with tears in her eyes. I always wondered about the stories behind these tears. I started writing this book as a biography, but with my mother and her family still living, it became a very difficult thing to do. I was often concerned about what they would think about the world know their personal stories. So, instead, I took certain incidents from their lives and wrote a historical fiction, with fictitious characters.
EH: What inspired you to explore an alternative perspective to the Japanese internment camps?
JM: In much of my writing, I explore alternative perspectives. Often, a situation looks different through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes I think we should do that more often in the real world – try to see things through another’s eyes.
EH: What were your sources for the book?
JM: I used many resources in researching the book, including stories from my mother’s family. Most of the resources I used are listed in the back of The Red Kimono. I would say the ones I used most were www.Densho.org, a PBS documentary entitled Time of Fear, and a book titled Only What They Could Carry.
EH: How did you come up with the title?
JM: The title was originally Broken Dolls, which was a metaphor for the broken lives of the characters in the book. However, my publisher (University of Arkansas Press) changed the title to The Red Kimono, not only because they believed that was a more marketable title, but also because of what the red kimono symbolized by the end of the book. Though I was disappointed at first that they wanted to change the title (it’s kind of like changing your child’s name) I ended up being very pleased with the new title.
EH: What were you challenges (research, writer’s block, etc.)?
JM: Other than trying to find the time to write, I would say my biggest challenge came when a prominent editor who had been referred to me by my agent, suggested I cut Terrence from the story. On one hand, I wanted to trust this editor. She’d edited several New York Times bestsellers. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine cutting Terrence from the story, because he’s an integral part of the theme of race and forgiveness.
So, I tried to rewrite The Red Kimono without Terrence. But, I just couldn’t do it, and in the end, told the editor (and the agent) that I thought it best if we parted ways. I’m glad I fought to keep Terrence in the story.
EH: What message did you want to get across in writing your book?
JM: Whether it was in my childhood when I heard my mother’s stories, or in high school when I was called a band freak by the “popular kids,” or in adulthood when I’ve witnessed anger and vitriol over our political or social diversities, I’ve seen that fear of our differences causes us to do hurtful, sometimes terrible things. One of my favorite sayings is from Star Wars character, Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” The character may be fictitious, but his words are wise.
EH: What genre do you think your book is?
JM: The Red Kimono is historical fiction.
EH: Do you think it was categorized correctly?
JM: When I was looking for an agent and a publisher, The Red Kimono was categorized into several different genres: Young Adult, Literary Fiction, Mainstream, Historical Fiction. Of course, to give my book its widest market, I’d say it’s all of those. 🙂
EH: Name one entity that you feel supported you the most outside of family and friends
JM: That’s a tough question, because my friends and family were such a great support. As an entity, I’d have to say my critique group, the Northwest Arkansas Writers. Without their critique and encouragement, without the pressure to finish five pages a week, without their stories of how they became published authors, I don’t know if I would have finished the book. Within that group, I found the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pen. They have all become dear friends, but began as an “entity” of support and knowledge.
Of course, the support of the University of Arkansas Press was invaluable. What a great team! They were friendly, accessible, supportive, and easy to work with. I was lucky to have my book published by them.
Also, I don’t know if you can consider my dreams an “entity,” but without the persistent desire to have a book published someday, it never would have happened.
EH: Did you learn anything from writing your book?
JM: I learned that perhaps more important than hard work or even talent, perseverance is the critical ingredient in the recipe of “Dreams Come True.”
EH: Anything you would change?
JM: I would have dedicated myself more to the time needed to sit down and write. This means I would have said “no” more often. I need to remember this as I work on the sequel.
EH: What is your biggest accomplishment?
JM: Though I’m very proud of The Red Kimono, I still have to say that my biggest accomplishment is raising two healthy, happy children, with whom I have a wonderful relationship.
EH: What are you most proud of?
JM: As I think about the answer to this question, I keep coming back to my children. But if I think about something I’m proud of with respect to myself, I think it would be that I’m proud of those times I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and took a risk in pursuit of something. Whether I was successful or not in those huge steps, at least I did it and didn’t have to wonder anymore. As Sachi said in The Red Kimono, “Wondering is worse than not knowing.”
EH: What books re you currently reading?
JM: I am currently reading The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm and Beware the Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed.
EH: What are your current/future projects?
JM: I’m currently working on the sequel to The Red Kimono. The sequel takes place from 1957 to 1963 during many of the civil rights events of that era, as seen through the eyes of Sachi, Nobu, Taro and Jubie. I am about 100 pages into the sequel.
I’m also working on several short stories, and a young adult novella titled Mo’s Shadow, about what a young girl learns from her friendship with a Bigfoot child.
EH: Can you share anything about your upcoming projects?
JM: I reveal a very big secret about Mama in the sequel.
EH: Do you have any advice for other writers?
JM: 1. Sit down and write.
2. Learn to say “no.”
3. Never give up. Persevere.
4. Don’t be afraid to go with an indie publisher.
5. Be aware that writing the book is only one of many steps to be taken as a writer.