Monday, October 19, 2020

Kimiko Guthrie

Kimiko Guthrie grew up in Berkeley, California, dancing like her mother and writing like her father. She teaches dance and theater at CSU East Bay and is the co-artistic director of Dandelion Dancetheater. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA in Choreography from Mills College. Guthrie has worked with many Bay Area-based dance companies, including Asian American Dance Performances and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Block Seventeen, inspired by her experience growing up with a mother who was incarcerated in an internment camp during WWII, is her debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title of the book refers to the place where the main trauma of the story occurred – so the location and point in time from which everything ripples out. During WWII, when Japanese Americans were made to leave their homes and give up their possessions to be imprisoned for an indefinite period of time in confinement centers, known as the internment, or “Camp” as people referred to it then, the barracks were arranged into numbered blocks. Block Seventeen is the number of the block where our main character Akiko’s mother was held as a child, and where she witnessed something horrible that haunts her to this day. So, in a way, Akiko’s mother has never really left Block Seventeen. Akiko, a mixed race woman in her mid-thirties who is attempting to lead a normal, happy life in the Bay Area of 2012, has unconsciously inherited aspects of her mother’s trauma, and therefore is also, metaphorically speaking, still trapped in Block Seventeen.

What's in a name?

My main character’s given name, Akiko, is tied to a long-buried family trauma. As a girl in middle school, when Akiko first became aware of the existence of this hidden trauma, she chose to take on a new, more “All-American” name, Jane. So Jane/Akiko’s two-name identity reflects the friction within herself between many conflicting pulls: her two identities and cultures, white and Japanese; her family’s past and her own present; herself and her mother; memory and denial. I was inspired to use naming like this because when my own mother arrived back in Los Angeles after her incarceration during the war, on her first day in her new school, her teacher introduced her to the mostly white class with a brand-new, All-American name that the teacher had simply chosen in that moment, with no connection to my mother. My mother was then called by this strange new name for the rest of the year, and my mother, an eight year old child, was expected to somehow integrate these two identities within herself, and all they symbolized – the racism of her country, her family’s recent imprisonment, her renewed invitation back to American society that had so many strings attached … Of course kids today are often put in a similar situation, being asked to process so many conflicting aspects of the unjust, often even hateful grown-up world around them, and it’s too much. So this internalized confusion often manifests in unconscious ways and can have insidious effects. It’s these insidious effects – the lingering, unconscious effects of trauma - that I was interested in exploring with my novel.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Maybe not so very surprised; this is a story that has been forming in me for a long time. Ever since I was a teenager, I knew wanted to write something that explored my childhood confusion about the fragmented glimpses of my mom’s, and her family’s, experiences in “Camp.” And one of my favorite books as a teenager was A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, a story that also explores wartime trauma, the play between memory and denial, and mother-daughter relationships. This work – to this day, one of my all-time favorite books - very much inspired me to write my novel.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are much harder for me. Blankness is a daunting thing! So many possibilities. I love the editing process – for me, that’s where the fun really begins, honestly. So once something exists, no matter how raw or unformed, I am always excited to dive in and find definition, clarity, to follow its threads to their logical ending points.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I would say yes. I think as an artist it’s hard or maybe impossible to make something that doesn’t have something of yourself in it. For this story, I drew inspiration from many people and places, and I’m sure I also unconsciously took various parts of myself and scrambled them up to embody these new characters. The main character, Jane/Akiko, shares many obvious similarities with me, such as being mixed race, growing up in the Bay Area, having a mother who was incarcerated during WWII … but she’s also very different from me. For one, I would like to think that I am significantly more well-adjusted than her! But well-adjusted people don’t make for very interesting characters or stories, do they? I often start with something I know, then allow it to grow beyond the limits of reality – for me that’s the joy of art.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In my “other life” I am a choreographer, so the physical, visual, performative art form of dance has strongly influenced my writing. The dynamic play between time, space, the body, and energy. Also nature – being away from crowds, buildings, cars, and all human technology, and instead being surrounded by open space, trees, rocks, bodies of water. The textures of nature are teachers to me. My family and friends inspire me, too – probably more than anything. They remind me of what’s most important in this world – connection, love, forgiveness, looking at things from someone else’s perspective.
Visit Kimiko Guthrie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue