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Margaret Dilloway

Photo of Margaret Dilloway

Photo: © Saflower Photography

About the Author

Margaret Dilloway is the author of How to Be an American Housewife and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns. She lives in California with her husband and their three children.

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Author Essay

Q. This novel about the marriage between a Japanese woman and a white American soldier after World War II was inspired by your own mother's story. How much of it was based on events that actually happened, and how much did you invent?

There's quite a bit that actually happened, based on stories my mother told me. Her father actually inherited wealth, but gave it up to become a priest. The story of her father choosing a husband for her through photographs. The plane strafing her and her siblings on the way to school. Nearly starving, her sister unable to go through puberty as a result. Seeing the blast from Nagasaki as she jumped rope. Her not being allowed to play baseball, but being excellent at dance and more feminine arts. Her working as a maid and having the officers get all over her, going out dancing, working for Americans, dating several Americans. Her proposing to my dad. These are all events she told me about multiple times; I fleshed out the details and conversations with my imagination.

While she was very sick, I asked her to record these stories for me on a tape. I used it for a college art project and listened to it right before I wrote this book.

The story about Ronin, however, was totally fiction. I happened to stumble across research about the untouchables and thought it would be interesting to incorporate this somehow, as a star–crossed love story.

Q. Growing up, did you see yourself as Asian–American? Did you identify with your white classmates?

I grew up in suburban San Diego and we did not know any other Asians, really. If we did, they were identified by their specific country; my mother tended to identify only with Japanese, not with people from other Asian countries. So she might tell me that so–and–so was Korean, or Chinese, but she wouldn't try to socialize with them.

I did not identify with my white classmates, but I didn't identify with my Asian classmates, either. I was not Asian enough to be Asian, and not white enough to be white. I always wanted Barbie's turned up nose and blonde hair, and definitely recall thinking those girls with those attributes fit in more easily, from the time I was preschool age. And there weren't many mixed race children around then that I can recall; I remember being called ugly several times from elementary to junior high. These days it's not unusual to be mixed race. Now I live in Hawaii, and I don't stand out at all.

Q. How much are you like Sue, the daughter in your novel?

I'm like Sue in the way she was raised. Her relationship with Shoko was obviously inspired by my relationship with my mother. My mother tended to be very critical of me, and emotionally unavailable.

I think maybe I was like Sue more when I was younger. Sue undergoes a transformation where she matures in some ways and becomes a stronger woman. I definitely feel stronger in character now than I did in my early to mid 20s, and I wanted to chronicle, in a way, what that transformation was like.

Unlike Sue, I don't think I'd ever work in a job I hated for so long; I would probably say something or do something to get me fired! But I know lots of people like Sue—men and women—who work at jobs they hate, at companies they despise, to get the benefits and paycheck. There are worse things that could happen. I definitely respect and admire people for doing what they need to do for their families.

Q. What was The American Way of Housekeeping? How did it inspire the invented book quoted in your novel, as well as your title?

The book was a guidebook created by American officers' wives for their Japanese housekeepers in 1948, with many editions printed. It was written in Japanese and in English and provided a guide for how to do things like cook proper American food, including recipes; how to clean; how to use American appliances; even how to properly nanny American children.

Though it was intended for housekeepers, it was actually given to many Japanese brides. My mother had a copy of the book, which I found after her passing. My father said he thought it was for housewives, but it was for maids, and since my mother had been cleaning American houses she had no need of it. She just stuck in a drawer. But I began thinking about it, off and on. I read an article where a Japanese war bride, like my mom, used it as her Bible. So Shoko turned into a character who referred to it often.

I then wrote my own book within a book, How to Be an American Housewife, based on the original book, but of course changed to emphasize the cultural divides I had seen under the surface of the original. I also changed my fictional book so it was written by sympathetic Japanese people to Japanese brides. It's my own little subversion of history.

Q. The American Way of Housekeeping often seemed to assume that Japanese women were ignorant not only of Western ways, but of common sense and basic human skills. What are some examples of that mindset?

One of my favorite examples of this from the book is the chapter on childcare. The book warns to not give a baby sharp objects, and to dress the baby "lightly for indoors, and then to put on plenty of warm clothing for outdoor play" (58 ). As if women of any culture would give a baby a knife, or overheat an infant. I'm pretty sure even the cavemen knew not to give a baby their sharp stone speartips as a teething instrument!

Q. Given the intense racial hatred that existed between Americans and Japanese during World War II, how did it happen that so many U.S. servicemen and Japanese women ended up getting married to one another?

I think that many of these people who got married were not actually in the war; they were children during the war, like my parents. And I think that Americans were amazed at the civility of the Japanese, the beauty of their culture. To me it seemed the Japanese were quite welcoming or at least cooperative, for an occupied nation, which might have been surprising. Before the Americans came, they had a perception of "yellow-skinned Japs" that turned out to not be true.

Also, frankly, some men probably liked the concept of the stereotypical subservient Japanese woman and wanted to bring one home for themselves.

Q. How did these marriages fare once the couples settled in the United States? Did marriages between Japanese women and African–American men face tougher obstacles than those between Japanese and whites?

There was a hierarchy where the Japanese women with white husbands considered themselves above those with African–American husbands. Some communities of Japanese wives would purposely isolate the wives who had African–American husbands. I had read about this during my research and decided to include it. I didn't want to convey that all the Japanese wives were gung–ho and supportive of each other. The reality was there was definite prejudice. It's kind of mind–boggling; you would think all the Japanese wives would want to help each other, given how they themselves had been treated, but it wasn't the case.

Q. In telling the story of Shoko's early years, you vividly portray daily life in Japan during and after World War II, a subject not often addressed in Western literature. What was most striking to you about that world? What about it do you think will seem most remarkable to contemporary American readers?

How the Japanese people got on with their lives and how quickly they sort of accepted the new world order, and also how fast the country became Westernized.

And one of the most striking things was hearing about pilots strafing children. In school you're taught Americans are heroes, and it's hard to wrap your mind around the "good guys" doing something like that to innocent kids. But of course, that's why they say war is hell.

My mother never held things like that against the Americans, nor the atomic bombings. To the contrary, she insisted these were necessary to break the spirits of the Japanese. Whether her view is widely reflected, I can't say.

Q. Japanese people had very different reactions to being conquered and occupied, like Shoko and the brother she is estranged from. Why did some adjust to the new reality so quickly while others refused to accept it?

Some people are more accepting of change than others. In the case of Shoko's father, he was just very practical and I think realized during the war the great futility and misplaced pride the Japanese political machine had in trying to challenge America, though people weren't allowed to really criticize the government. He knew the Americans were not going to go away. Other people clung to the old ways, still had that national pride. I think you'd probably find this in any culture that has undergone such a big transformation.

Q. You also portray daily life in contemporary Japan as you describe Sue's visit. Of course, it has changed vastly since the post–World War II era, and it has in many ways become quite Westernized. But what are the strongest continuing contrasts that Sue notes between Japanese and American culture?

There's a greater emphasis on aesthetics and appreciation of beauty, tied into ancient cultural practices, seen throughout all of Japanese culture. For example, there are no American equivalents to such Japanese traditions such as going to see the cherry blossoms, or the formal tea ceremony.

Another contrast might be the emphasis on cleanliness in Japanese culture that some Americans might find borderline obsessive–compulsive. For example, removing your shoes before entering a home.

Q. Is the rigid class system that existed in Japan during and immediately after World War II still in place? Is there still an untouchable class that no one else is able to marry or even acknowledge?

It is illegal to do burakumin (untouchables) background checks anymore for marriage or employment, but that doesn't mean some people don't still do it. However, now there is a burakumin civil rights movement for more visibility. Apparently the subject is still taboo in Japan; many people don't know anything about it.

Q. You lost your mother when you were twenty and she was sixty–one. What was the state of your relationship at that time? Do you view it differently now? Do you feel cheated in any way that you were both so relatively young when she died?

Our relationship was a mixed bag at that point. We were never particularly close; she tended to be very hard on me. We never had the sort of relationship where I could pour out my troubles to her. She wasn't receptive in that way.

However, things were getting better because I'd gone to college, and there was some distance. It seemed like she and my father were getting along better with the kids gone and less stress. She was more open to me during her last couple of years; I was seeing her as an individual for the first time, and she finally seeing me as not just her daughter, an extension of herself. One of the last things she told me was that I was a hard worker and could do whatever I wanted and that she was proud of me, which is certainly something she never conveyed to me while I was growing up.

I can't say I was unprepared for her death, because she was always sick when I was growing up, and she basically told me not to expect her to live very long. But it was sad when I had my own children; I think she would have enjoyed them. And it's also sad because I've really lost that connection to the Japanese part of myself altogether.

Q. Do you think other women have had relationships with their mothers similar to the mother–daughter relationship in your novel, and the relationship you had with your own mother? Is that surprising to you?

Yes, I have been told this. It is surprising to me. I thought my mom's bluntness was due to a cultural divide, but apparently not. For example, a friend of mine just read the book and said she thought of her mother throughout—and her mother is from Mexico. I think the communications between mothers and daughters is naturally ridden with strife and all sorts of hidden messages, real and imagined. Mothers say something they think is innocuous, and the daughters are hurt.

Q. To what extent do the stereotypes of Asian women as fragile hothouse flowers, subservient sex kittens, or imperious dragon ladies still persist? Both mother and daughter in your novel are very far removed from those stereotypes. Was debunking them a conscious goal as you wrote?

Today I think these stereotypes still do exist. For example, I still come across men who say they want an Asian wife or girlfriend because they think Asian women will be subservient. And when I was dating, some men would ask me out solely on that basis; they were sorely disappointed.

When I think of these stereotypes, I think of South Pacific. You have either the dragon lady, Bloody Mary; or the passive young sexy girl, Liat. Neither of those women are fully developed characters, and that always bothered me. Totally stereotyped characters aren't realistic; even people who fit into a stereotype also have other traits that are different.

Nonetheless, even knowing about the Asian women stereotypes, I didn't set out to portray the opposite. I had these characters and the specific personality traits of these characters in mind; I never thought, "I'm going to make Shoko strong and go against this Asian woman stereotype." Rather, I wanted to make the characters fully–developed humans.

I'm sure there are reasons these stereotypes exist; some women do play into these stereotyped roles for their advantage. Yet no intelligent human being is solely a stereotype.

Q. Both Sue and her brother, Mike, have difficulties that are specifically related to their mixed racial and cultural heritage. Yet their challenges are quite different. Without giving away any surprises, why is that so?

In large part, it is to due to how their parents treated them differently according to gender, and the era in which they were raised. For example, Shoko does everything for Mike because he's her son, while she goes the opposite way with Sue. Therefore Sue ends up more independent than her brother. Yet both Sue and Mike both still have problematic relationships with their parents, despite the different ways they were treated.

Q. You started this book in 2005, when you were pregnant with your youngest child, and you did the final revisions on it when you and your family were preparing for a move from California to Hawaii. How has having your own three young children affected your view of your relationship with your mother? And your writing habits?

I have come to a greater understanding of my mother's difficult circumstances after having my own children. I am aware of how isolated my mother must have been, with no car and living in the suburbs, and not even able to walk anywhere due to her heart. I think my mother probably suffered from depression. Who wouldn't, in her situation? It must have been extremely hard. But when I was growing up, I never thought about her situation, or tried to analyze her inner life, or even tried to think of her as a separate person.

Yet despite this empathy for her, I also see that some aspects of our relationship were unhealthy. With my own children, I am much more sensitive to how my words have lasting impact, particularly with my daughters. I want them to grow up strong and independent and to know that I want them to be this way. My mother really didn't interact too much with us; she was primarily concerned with running the house. I don't recall her ever playing with me. I do play with my kids, I don't try to be perfect, I sort of make an effort to know their inner lives, and I tell them about what I'm thinking.

My writing habits since having children have become much more focused. I can work anywhere at any time. I don't give myself excuses not to write. While I was rewriting this book and my youngest was a baby, I worked at night and on the weekends when my husband was home. I was also doing freelance writing at home to bring in extra money, as well as odd jobs like mystery shopping, where you go into a store and pretend to be a customer and then write up an assessment. When I sat down to write, I tried to make it count for something in the limited time that I had. Writing time is a gift.

Q. What is your special contribution, do you think, to the literature of the Asian immigrant experience, and particularly the Japanese immigrant experience?

Most Asian immigrant literature depicts, I think, immigrants who come to America and are still within their own Asian–American communities. This book depicts someone who specifically steps out of that culture and into another. Also, it describes biracial children and how they were a bridge between post–war America and post–war Japan, which I have not seen often.

Q. Do you think your novel also illuminates the experience of other Americans of mixed races, cultures, and ethnicities?

Yes, in terms of the isolation experienced and that feeling of "otherness." Always having to check off "OTHER" on the race card. I mean, obviously I am not trying to speak for everyone everywhere; this story is based on specific circumstances and characters.

Q. You based Shoko's imperfect and often very funny English on your mother's speech. Your own writing voice is very distinctive, as well, with short sentences, a sparse use of adjectives, and deadpan humor. Do you think that it has been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by your mother's speech?

That is an interesting question. Certainly the way I write is far different than the way I speak. I've always written in this style, ever since I was a little kid. Perhaps my mother's voice has influenced me unconsciously; I know that sometimes the way I word things is different than other people's (which may or may not get corrected during editing! ) Interestingly, my oldest daughter's writing style is quite similar to mine. Maybe it's genetic.

Q. This is your first novel. Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes. I started writing when I learned how to write, in kindergarten, and immediately began writing books instead of the one–page stories I was assigned. Actually, I wanted to be an artist, but my parents couldn't afford the art classes or materials I wanted, so I figured it would be cheaper to be a writer.

My teachers encouraged me by doing things like reading my stories aloud, or recommending me for various awards. It was the one thing I was known for in school. Today, people I went to school with will tell me they remember some story I wrote that the teacher read aloud 25 years ago. I did major in art, though. And I still became a writer.

Q. You once wanted to be an actress, and you've also done improv comedy. Do you see connections between live performing and writing?

Definitely. There are so many connections. In improv, there is a quickness, a stream of consciousness, which is also exactly what you have to unblock when you're writing. In improv, you're taught not to second guess your choices; you let it come out and trust it.

When you play team improv, the number one rule is, "Yes, and?" So when your scene partner does something, you go with it, and you add to it. You never say no. That "yes" attitude is something you can take to writing. Improv is a great tool for writers, especially if there's writer's block.

And there are also tons of connections between acting and writing, in terms of character breakdown and study. If you're an actor, you have to imagine a back story for your character if it's not given. Writing a novel is like writing the character's whole back story and thoughts, the same thoughts that hopefully you're feeling as an actor in character. I guess acting is like external writing.

Q. Which writers have had the greatest influence on you?

This is always a difficult question for me, because I have categories of writers I love. Overall, from childhood until now, Madeleine L'Engle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, and Anne Tyler. There are many more that I can say I love, but I think those five have given me the most "ah-ha!" moments as a writer and made me improve in some way.

Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write every day, even if you only have time to write three sentences. Someday you'll have an entire book. Write with your heart, not for what you think will be good for the market. Hopefully those two will meet synergistically.

You may have to write several books, complete works, before you get one published. Learn how to write—that is, learn how to plot and pace and all the technical stuff. This is important even if you have a great style. Don't try to self-publish because you're impatient, unless you're a really great self-marketer.

Look for generous, well–informed writers to critique you. Not people who will tell you you're great, nor those who are purely negative. Finding these writers is hard. Another choice might be to find someone who is a careful, critical reader, but has no desire to write; or to find one writer that you are committed to trading off reading with.

Listen to people who know what they're talking about. I mean working editors, agents, and published writers. If an agent takes the time to make suggestions for change, you should at least consider the suggestions. And if five people all tell you that something is wrong, perhaps that the story is dragging in one place, something probably is wrong. There's staying true to yourself, and then there's ego. Don't let ego get in the way of making your work better.

Q. You write a blog called "American Housewife." What is it about?

It's about my life and writing, about parenting and all the funny things that happen to us, Hawaii culture shock, stuff like that. My observations on humanity. A few crafts, sometimes a recipe if I feel like it. It's like a window into my brain, messy and unintentionally humorous.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from this book?

To me, my book is about communication and understanding. I hope people read the book and learn something and maybe ask themselves questions they never considered. Even in today's multicultural America, people tend to stick in their own comfy boxes. For some it may be out of fear, others lack of opportunity. I remember being at a school club meeting and bringing rice crackers and sushi, in suburban San Diego last year, and people had not ever tried these things. I thought these foods had become mainstreamed. And maybe if they see someone sitting alone at the PTA meeting, they will go up and say hello.

I also want them to start thinking, if they haven't yet, about the stories that their parents own, their mothers' experiences, hopes and dreams. Have they ever thought about their parents' inner lives? Have they asked? Who knows? Maybe it will give them a fresh sympathetic inspiration to view their mother/daughter relationships.

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