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A Sequel to Internment - Eva Tihanyi speaks with Kerri Sakamoto
by Eva Tihanyi

Kerri Sakamoto, who is thirty-nine, was born and raised in Toronto, to which she returned in 1996 after a seven-year stay in New York City. She holds a Master's degree in creative writing from New York University and has written short stories, visual arts criticism, and scripts for two PBS films. She is currently writing full-time.

I spoke with Sakamoto at a restaurant across from her publisher's offices in Toronto, where despite the morning bustle and the summer heat we managed to find a cool, quiet corner. She seemed surprised by the acclaim her first novel, The Electrical Field (Knopf Canada, 1998), has won. The book-narrated by Asako Saito, a Japanese Canadian woman profoundly affected by what the dust-jacket aptly calls "the dire legacy of internment" during the Second World War-has been praised for its psychological complexity and its remarkable interweaving of the historical with the personal.

ET: There was a tremendous amount of advance praise for The Electrical Field. Even before it was published, people were talking about it. The New York Post, for example, as early as last fall [1997] said it "was the most sought-after book of the season", at least judging by the "hysteria" surrounding the agent's auction. How did you feel about all this? Did all this advance praise make you nervous?

KS: It did make me nervous, but more than that I was just overwhelmed-I didn't feel like it was real. I also took it with a grain of salt. As my agent said, New York is a bit of a crazy place. There's a flavour of the month, a flavour of the day.

ET: You've written short stories as well, right?

KS: Not many. And as I was writing The Electrical Field, I began to feel the novel was much more my form. I was also operating under the mistaken notion that I could learn to write a novel through writing short stories. But the forms are so different. People have said that short stories have more in common with poems than they do with novels, and I find that's true. With a novel you can have more flaws in the weave. [Laughter]

ET: Apparently, Norman Jewison's office has contacted your agent about buying film rights to the novel. What's happening with this?

KS: Nothing, so far. People tell me these things can take a long time, don't hold your breath. And to be realistic, there aren't a lot of movies out there that feature all Asian Canadian characters.

ET: How do you feel about someone wanting to turn your book into a movie? Would you want to write the screenplay?

KS: I'd just like to play a consulting role, but I'd be really interested to see what someone else would do with the book. A filmmaker who is not afraid to try to forge something new, who has another kind of vision of the book that has its own integrity. I think a good example is The Sweet Hereafter. It's an incredibly beautiful film, and I've read that Russell Banks is very happy with it. I think The English Patient is another example too. The film is something different from the book. I don't think you can compare them.

ET: So why do you think The Electrical Field was so intriguing to people right from the beginning?

KS: There are different answers to that because there are different kinds of readers. I don't think of it as a very commercial book-and "commercial" is different in the U.S. than it is in Canada. It's bigger stakes there, a bigger readership. What I've heard is that editors are under a lot of pressure to acquire books that sell well. So if you were to ask me why a certain superficial hype happened [over The Electrical Field], I'd say the general plot has something to do with it. The plot revolves around a murder mystery, so that contributes to some of the interest. At the same time, I'd like to think readers were intrigued by Miss Saito's psychology as it relates to internment, which is part of our collective history.

ET: Did you start with the murder mystery idea, or somewhere else?

KS: This is a story that has been with me for many, many years. Although the book is not the story of the internment of Japanese Canadians, the internment past informs the present. That's where it began.

ET: Your book doesn't seem as overtly political as Joy Kogawa's Obasan [1981].

KS: If you mean that my book doesn't chronicle the internment, then yes, that's true. Obasan has told the story of internment so effectively and so beautifully, from the point of view of one who was interned. I experienced internment in its lingering effects in the next generation. The Electrical Field takes place in 1975, decades after Japanese Canadians were released from the camps. I wanted to explore the residue of that experience in a psychologically complex way. I believe that poses a certain radicality in terms of how the characters are represented-for me, a political engagement.

ET: Was your family interned?

KS: Yes, my parents were interned. All my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I guess what I wanted to do was tell a particular kind of story. It involves an incident that happens in an internment camp and is made more tragic because of that. The death of Miss Saito's brother Eiji has more tragic dimensions and more reverberations through her life because of the historical and political context. That kind of death really struck me as tragic, to die without a country.

An uncle of mine, my mother's brother, died in the camps. And that is certainly something that informed my writing of the novel. Although I knew about him when I was growing up, I didn't know the circumstances of his death, where he died. I wasn't told. If you ask anyone of my generation-called sansei, which means "third generation"-I'm sure you'll find the same thing. There was a real collective silence around the experience of internment. Our parents didn't talk about it. There was a sense of shame.

ET: Have you had a response to the novel from the Japanese Canadian community at all?

KS: I've had a lot of interviews with Japanese Canadian publications, and they've been very supportive. I know it's a difficult book because the characters are not model minority depictions. They're hard to love. That was deliberate. I really hoped, though, that readers would feel some compassion for them despite their unlikeability.

ET: The Electrical Field is probably the most significant fictional treatment of the internment experience since Obasan. Were you at all conscious of what Kogawa had done or not done while you were writing your own version?

KS: Obasan was a catalyst both for the Japanese Canadian community, as it moved toward a redress agreement with the government, and for a younger generation of writers. It helped to heal wounds. I don't think my book holds that kind of power, but I believe writing is a hopeful act. And it's a very active thing. If you don't believe that change can come about, you won't write.

I don't think I could address the same things Joy did, because I'm of another generation. I didn't feel I wanted to tell the story of internment-and I didn't feel it was my story to tell, either.

ET: This brings to mind a quote I wanted to ask you about. Near the beginning of Field, Asako says: ".I long ago understood that you had to live in the midst of things to be affected.. And once you did, only then could you be forever changed. You couldn't simply sit and watch, imagining from time to time how such-and-such would feel, would be, what happened to others and not to you." It almost seems as though she hasn't experienced her own stories somehow. She seems so passive.

KS: Seemingly.

ET: So if you had to describe her to someone who hadn't read the book, what would you say?

KS: In relation to that quote, I'd say she was a person who was very much affected by what happened to her in the internment camp-apart from the actual circumstances of being uprooted and interned, she suffered the death of her beloved brother. I think that what happened to her was that she became fearful of moving out into the larger world once she was let out of the camp, as the whole community was. She was too fearful to embrace life. But she finds ways of having-literally-a window onto the world. And she is a manipulative person. It's because her desires have been thwarted, so she finds ways of fulfilling them to some small degree.

ET: That raises the question of her relationship with Sachi. Sachi is thirteen, almost fourteen, and Asako herself was fourteen when her brother died. Obviously, there's a parallel between the two. Does Sachi push Asako out of her "restful life"?

KS: Yes, Sachi unsettles everything. She's a vicarious outlet for Asako, stirs up maternal longings in her. I think there are very positive feelings between Sachi and Asako too. There's real tenderness and rapport.

ET: It's very much a mother-daughter sort of relationship, isn't it? Good at times, bad at times.

KS: And the power shifts all the time.

ET: How did you end up with Asako as the narrator?

KS: Creating the voice of Miss Saito-Asako-and her psychology came in equal measure. Discovering her voice took a long time. And a bit of luck. I did start to write the book at one point from the point of view of a character who became Sachi. In a way, it was my voice at that age, but it wasn't really successful. In fact, when I went to the Banff workshop, some of the writers who read the work said, "You haven't found the right voice to tell the story." I went away and thought about it, and I came up with this character of Miss Saito. I did have to plot carefully, because Miss Saito withholds so much from herself and from the reader. That part was both challenging and fun.

ET: Is this novel really a "murder mystery"?

KS: It's a psychological mystery that hinges on a murder.

ET: The murder mystery is never really solved-at least not explicitly.

KS: It's a symptom of how the characters communicate or don't communicate that it's not said expressly.

ET: Let's talk about Yano for a minute. He wants redress, he doesn't believe in silence. Whereas Asako's approach is to stay quiet-a "let's not talk about it and maybe it'll disappear" approach.

KS: That was true of most people in the Japanese Canadian community at that point.

ET: Yano represents the other side of that coin, the person who says, "Let's do something about this." Which makes the chemistry between him and Asako all the more interesting.

KS: She is drawn to him, but at the same time she's fearful of her feelings. She's someone who's completely repressed, but she's a very sensuous person, actually. She looks at everyone-at the world-and there's definitely a sexuality about her. She's certainly not asexual. But she's in an adolescent state, though she's in her mid-forties.

There's a kind of mutual attraction between Miss Saito and Yano. Opposites attract. For him, there's some empathy there in spite of her different position on the internment issue. His wife, Chisako, is from Japan. She didn't go through internment, but Asako did and he can talk to her. She does listen to him. Chisako is going through her own personal difficulties as a recent immigrant. She's trying to come to terms with her own racial identity in Canada. And Chisako is neglected by Yano because of his political activities. He's angry all the time, and that makes him ineffectual in his activities politically and in relation to his family. He's neglectful.

ET: Yano's ineffective because of his anger, Asako because of her silence. So what then is effective, politically?

KS: Yano is ineffective not just because of his anger but because of the passivity of the community, the wilful silence of people like Asako. No one comes to his meetings, but that's not to say they're not worthwhile. This is in 1975, which was a fallow period in terms of redress activity, but the redress movement did gain momentum in the early '80s and was successful.

ET: Are you saying, then, that there's a place for Yano's anger?

KS: Yes, and I hope that people don't dismiss Yano because he does, in fact, say things that are wise and motivating.

ET: The powerful image of the electrical field itself-what does it mean to you?

KS: The electrical field has a concrete reality for me because I grew up in Etobicoke, and I walked past those fields on my way to school. But I think when I was away in New York and I'd come back to visit my parents in the suburbs I saw them anew. At one point in the book, Asako looks out at the bungalows and the barren field with the electrical towers, and she thinks that really these rows of bungalows aren't very different from the shacks in the internment camp. It's a reflection of her psychological state. There's definitely a barrenness there, and there was for me, too, growing up in the suburbs. I certainly wished there were more Asian Canadians around and that I felt more of a sense of community.

ET: I get the sense in your book that history deals the cards, but we choose how we play them. This was, for me, one of the differences between your book and Obasan. How do you see the relationship between history and individual life?

KS: That's really an important issue to me. It preoccupied me while I was writing the book. My interest lies in the psychology of the characters, and how they carried this history, this experience of internment in distinctive ways along with other experiences particular to them as individuals. I wanted to portray these Japanese Canadian characters in a spectrum of experience that encompasses internment but also extends beyond it, and complicates their own particular psychology. I believe that preoccupation lies at the heart of the book.

ET: Okay, I've got to ask it: Are you working on a second novel?

KS: Yes, I am. I've started to research it. It takes place partly in Japan and partly in Canada. It's about Siamese twins who are bi-racial and separated at birth, both physically and geographically. One grows up in Japan, one grows up in Canada, and they don't learn about each other's existence till their thirtieth birthday. 


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