Why She Left Us: A Novel

Why She Left Us: A Novel

by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

Paperback(1ST PERENN)

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Why She Left Us tells the story of three generations of a Japanese-American family whose lives are tragically affected by the Second World War when they are interned in camps in the American West. It is also a searing yet redemptive novel about a family and its secrets—secrets that grow from fierce love and terrible fear whose sources are both personal and cultural. The story unfolds like a mystery, narrated by the four principal characters: the innocents, Mari and her brother, Eric; the complex uncle-patriarch, Jack; and the ghost voice of the grandmother Kaori. Why She Left Us illuminates the universal relationships between mothers and their children while evoking the power of history to affect indivdual lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060931827
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2000
Edition description: 1ST PERENN
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


Hold Your Breath, 1946

Eric's heart is going to burst. His heart is holding all his breath. Except, his cheeks are holding some, and more floats across his eyes. The cars outside keep passing, vague and dizzy through the parlor window. Eric's head is light now.

He has to let it go.

His breath breaks out, pulling his lungs with it until he can gobble another one. He presses his small hands to his mouth to contain it this time. Last night, when he lay in bed, he chose this spot on the otherwise slumped-over couch; it was the best place to watch the moving picture outside the heavy curtains. Now, his nose near the glass, he is close enough to feel the street sounds zoom through him.

Eric is looking for a new car.

Mama's profile flickers through the doorway, tossed clothing hanging over the basket on her hip as she slips down the hall. Eric sees the smooth bun of gray hair she has twisted against her neck, wrapped in a thick, blue ribbon. The ribbon confirms everything he knows about the day. She, too, is expecting something, though she's still in her housedress and isn't quite ready. He freezes, straight and tingling, hoping she will pass, and knowing he's never been that lucky. She doesn't even pause to drop the laundry basket as she steps into the room.

"What are you doing in here?" Her palm swings in a wide wing to slap his mouth. "Get off that couch."

The slap misses his mouth and tears his hand away; it tears his feet off the ledge and his body follows, his shoulders hunching while the rest of him stands still. "Waiting for my mother," he says.

Mama sways toward him again, butdoesn't strike. "Who said. . ." Her voice trips, her thought unfinished. In a peek, Eric sees she looks pale. The lines in her face stand out strangely, like little rivers on a map, and his dizziness returns once more. It's not a bright light in his head this time, more like worms, like Mama's wrinkles, and they tickle as they make their way to his stomach.

As time stretches this unexpected moment, Mama kneels in front of him and places the laundry basket at her side with some effort. Their faces are at the same level, peeking over the top of the sill. They are close enough to touch, but he doesn't expect it; they never do. Eric watches, indirectly, as the light turns silver in one of her black eyes.

"Your mother?" she asks finally, taking the hand she slapped to rub it lightly between her own.

"Jack says I have a different mother. Last night. He said she's coming here today." Slowly, so she won't notice, Eric parts his lips and draws a new breath to hold.

Mama withdraws--he can feel it--until she is far from him, far even from her own stroking hands. Sadness pulls at her singsong syllables when she finally speaks. "What were you doing, Eric?"

"Jack...my mother--" Eric bursts, another wish released. "I asked Jack if my mother was coming to live here. He said, "Hold your breath."'

Mama leaves Eric by the window and calls for his Uncle Jack. He can sense her anger in the quiet that crushes her words. In other houses on the block, Eric knows, arguments Scatter with yells and the crash of objects into walls, but Japanese is different. Not a language to be shouted. Maybe the words fly apart and lose their meaning, he doesn't know for sure.

As Mama and Jack begin to fight, Eric finds his little sister, Mariko. He tucks her thumb into his fist and leads her onto the scrawny patch of grass between their house and the street. Cars whoosh by on black pavement. Eric expects to see army trucks and jeeps, even after a year of living outside the internment camp, but these cars are low and shiny. They look like bubbles, with half-mustaches over their spoked, skinny wheels, and they drive too fast to see inside. Eric's world is smaller now that they moved to Los Angeles. There are so many bright and painted houses and no prairie that runs forever through the barbed wire.

His house is a good change though, with everything, even the toilets, right there inside. There's a kitchen with flowers on the walls and two magic boxes: a hot one, called an oven, and one that's icy cold. The floors are made of wood stripes so smooth and clean he can lay on them. They don't hurt the way the brick floors at camp did. More than anything, he loves his new floors.

Under the tree, Mariko grabs the swing Jack made for Eric one day when he was in a good mood and could remember Eric's name. Her first jump up misses. "Help me, Eric."

"Jump higher. You're knocking the seat away."

His sister's impossibly round eyes examine the wood plank, then she smiles. "Please?"

"All right." He wonders why he always gives in to her. "But don't get dirty. Our mother is coming."

Mariko yanks her head toward the house looking for Mama. "Not." She is pleased with the wiggle she's made with the swing and shakes the ropes to broaden it. "Swing me."

Eric sighs. "Mama will push you later," he says. She is not yet four--too young to understand that her mother was missing and has been found. He didn't know either, not at first, until Jack pointed out that Mama was an old lady, as old as a grandmother, which was what she really was. Eric's grandmother. But it was the words old lady that stuck and reminded him that Mama had always been too busy for anything he wanted to do. Like last month, when she wouldn't help him make something for sharing time at school. She gave him her Bible--a book filled with tiny drawings of faces and shaking leaves, stickmen and falling boxes. He made up an entire story using just the first page, but Mrs. Morris, his first-grade teacher, stopped him before he was partway through. She told him the drawings were Japanese characters; he was horrified, suddenly Japanese again when he was trying so hard to be American. He wished she'd take back the words, let him sit down gracefully, but as each second passed, he was standing there. In front of the blackboard, in front of the class, with each tick on the smiling clock, still unable to read the book.

What People are Saying About This

Nora Okja Keller

In a debut novel of depth and grace, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto creates a haunting portrait of a Japanese American family splintered by a history of betrayal and secrets. Why She Left Us weaves the national shame of World War II's internment camps with the personal tragedies of three generations of the Okada family. Narrated by four family members, their story is one of violence, pain, and also, ultimately, the gift of forgiveness.
— (Nora Okja Keller, author of The Comfort Woman)

Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Beautiful and poignant, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Why She Left Us tells the bitter truths of the Japanese-American story the issei and the nisei choose to bury in sadness and shame. What a gift Rizzuto offers as she fuses the shadows of the generations and leads us with unflinching honesty to wisdom and forgiveness.
— (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, author of Blu's Hanging and Heads By Harry)

Julia Alvarez

Why She Left Us is a beautifully crafted and finely orchestrated novel. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto weaves together diverse points of view to tell the story of a family's tragedy and redemption. Not only was I captivated by the artistry of the book, but I learned so much about the legacy of Japanese-Americans in this country. This is a book that breaks the reader's heart and then heals it the way only a fine story can, page by well-crafted page.
— (Julia Alvarez, author of Something to Declare, Yo! and In the Time of the Butterflies)

Reading Group Guide

While the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War is a central incident in Why She Left Us, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto feels that this historical injustice is just the prism through which the events of her first novel are refracted. "The book isn't about the internment," the author says. "It's about how we construct our lives in the face of silence. On the grand scale, the silence surrounding the internment affects the children in my novel. But there is a second silence -- a missing explanation for why a young girl gives up her child -- and that is where the emotional resonance in this book really lives." That girl is Emi Okada, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, who brings shame to her insular family by bearing two fatherless children. She gives the first child, a boy named Eric, up for adoption, but her indomitable mother, Kaori, finds the boy and brings him home. After the war and the time spent in a Colorado internment camp, Emi moves to Hawaii with a new husband, taking her second child, a daughter named Mariko, with her. But she leaves Eric behind with his grandmother, and this seemingly callous rejection of the boy is the mystery around which the novel unfolds.

Moving backward and forward in time through much of the twentieth century, the story slowly emerges from the mouths of four narrators with four very different perspectives-Kaori, Emi's brother Jack, and her two children, Eric and Mariko. It is a story rife with emotionally destructive secrets, diffused by the revisions of time and memory. Family violence, the degradation of the wartime relocation, the passive silence that simultaneously binds the Okada family and rends itapart -- these are the psychic burdens that, in the end, Mariko is left to unravel. An intricate puzzle that unfolds with narrative assuredness, Why She Left Us is the richly evocative and emotionally raw story of a family torn apart by the conflicts of honor, shame, pride, and love.

Questions for Discussion

  • The story in Why She Left Us is told by different narrators, but we never hear from Emi herself. Why do you think the novelist made this narrative choice? Was it a good choice?

  • In the end, we never learn why Emi totally rejects her son, Eric. Does this omission make the story stronger or weaker?

  • Why does Rizzuto move back and forth in time when telling her story rather than use a more chronological narrative?

  • How well does Rizzuto create the different voices of her four narrators?

  • Kaori rescues Eric from his adoptive home because she feels that family ties cannot be severed, yet at the same time, the family spurns and alienates Emi for her actions. Discuss this seemingly contradictory, complicated response to the bonds of family.

  • Why do Emi's brothers so willingly become soldiers and fight for a country that is, at the same time, treating their people as prisoners of war?

  • Which generation seems to face the biggest obstacles -- the Japanese immigrants Kaori and her husband; their children, Emi, Will, and Jack who are both Japanese and American; or the fully American generation of Eric and Mariko?

  • Are the events and secrets that fuel the novel a unique by-product of the war and the internment or could they have happened anyway?

  • Discuss the different ways the older generation of Japanese immigrants and the younger generation of their American-born children react and respond to the internment.

  • Rizzuto has said that she feels Emi's silence is believable because she does what many Japanese-Americans do -- puts a painful event behind her and pretends it didn't happen. How might characters from other cultures have dealt with the events that take place in the novel?

  • Rizzuto's great-uncle once told her that the Second World War was "the best thing that happened to the Japanese-Americans" because it broke down the pre-war ghettoization. Because they had "proven" themselves during the war, the Japanese finally could become citizens, marry white persons, and fully integrate into American culture. What to you think Japanese-Americans might have gained and what might they have lost because of this change?

  • There is a painful moment in the novel when an old Japanese woman, forced to use the communal latrine at the camp, puts a paper bag over her head. How does this act serve as a metaphor for the confusion and shame the Japanese-Americans must have felt when they were interned?

  • Are the members of the Okada family swept along by the events of history, or do they have some control over their own fates?

  • At novel's end, do you come away with a clear idea of "why she left us?"

  • Interviews

    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.

    In Why She Left Us, the older generation--generally the immigrant Japanese-acquiesces to the internment, while the American-born younger generation has a more complicated response, one that mixes an eagerness to be a good American with an underlying anger.

    There definitely was a difference. One of the reasons that the Japanese were interned so effectively was that the first generation, the Issei, was too powerless and the second generation was too young. In general, the Issei men came here as migrant farmers at a time when "orientals" were not allowed to become citizens or marry outside their race. Then a law cut off Japanese immigration, but left a small window when family members were allowed in. That's when most of the picture brides arrived. So most of the first generation of Japanese American citizens were in their late teens to mid 20s when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Suddenly, their parents were aliens, they were stripped of their homes, cast out of the military, their citizenship was unclear-and, let's face it, they were children.

    And their children?

    As a group, their children are the ones who feel the outrage. I think it has something to do with the silence. The first time I heard about the internment I was 16, and my history teacher invited my grandmother to speak to our class about the camps. She told us about the evacuation, and how they had one week to sell all their possessions. That was a 'eureka' moment for me -- and I think that's where the passion comes from. Sure, it was a terrible injustice. But the force that drives the children - which helped fuel the redress movement - is that moment when the silence parts and you discover the internment inside yourself.

    So, your own "discovery" of the internment...

    Was the initial inspiration for the book. But the book isn't about the internment. It's about how we construct our lives in the face of silence. On the grand scale, the silence surrounding the internment affects the children in my novel. But there is a second silence - a missing explanation for why a young girl gives up her child - and that is where the emotional resonance in this book really lies.

    That young girl is Emi Okada, and yet we never hear the story from her point of view. Instead, there is a "Rashomon" quality to Why She Left Us that, to a Westerner at least, seems to suggest a very Japanese sensibility.

    I think it's because no one, in any of the interviews I did for this book, told me a straight, simple story start to finish. They gave me fragments, often conflicting memories, and I had to act like a detective to figure out what really happened. Just one example: I spoke to several pairs of sisters, and interviewed them separately. In one case, the first woman I spoke with made me turn off the tape recorder and told me things she had never even told her own children, including some heartbreaking things that happened to her sister during the war. But, when I interviewed that sister, she only told me about all the great activities at the camps. I even probed her about what her sister had revealed, but she didn't talk about it at all.

    That's where Emi's silence comes from: she put the past behind her and then, for her, it didn't happen. The narrators in the story--her mother, her brother, and two of her children-don't know what really happened, and I didn't want them to. I wanted them to come to terms with their own responsibilities and their own role, without ever know the whole story. Because there is no single truth.

    All of your characters are very stoic and private, yet they ultimately must reveal a lot about themselves for the reader to understand the roots of their tragedy. How did you strike a balance between recreating that detachment and exposing their emotional truths?

    It was harder to get the Japanese characters to talk than just about any other technical issue I faced with the book. Kaori, the grandmother, was very hard. She is not the kind of person who would spill her guts, and in early drafts readers felt very distant from her. In the end, I had to pick her most terrible moments and just show them. Using the four characters' perspectives was a help; it allows us to see member of the family through different sets of eyes.

    On the surface, each generation in the novel seems to become more "American" than the one before it, and yet each retains Japanese notions of family and honor.

    Since I am part Japanese, I don't look at my characters and say, let's give them this or that Japanese quality. They just are ordinary people to me. In fact, I don't think that many of my characters realize that the things they are dealing with come from Japanese culture. But in fact, most of them are hybrids, and it is the ones who are equally Japanese and American--like Emi and her brothers--who struggle the most.

    You, yourself, are half Japanese.

    Yes. And sometimes I wonder if I may be biracial because my family was interned. One of the consequences of the war was that the Japanese were asked abruptly, instantly, to assimilate. When I was interviewing people for this book, my great uncle said - very casually - that the war was the best thing that ever happened to the Japanese Americans. It's a staggering statement - but before the war, people of Japanese ancestry were discriminated against, ghettoized, they were the inscrutable orientals in a 'whites only' world. And after the government stripped them of just about everything they had, it said, in a very concrete way, you can be Japanese or you can be American: choose. Which they did. In the case of my own family, ethnicity was no longer important to my mother's generation. I am one of 14 cousins. Every one of us is biracial.

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