Monday, January 16, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Deni Y. Béchard

Deni Y. Béchard
Deni Y. Béchard (author of the Tomo story “Half Life”) is the Canadian-American author of Vandal Love, which won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Cures for Hunger, his memoir about growing up with his father who was a bank robber, is forthcoming in 2012, and in 2013 he will publish Empty Hands, Open Arms, a book about conservationism in the Congo rainforest. He has lived in Japan off and on since 2009. Visit his website: 

Tell us about your connection to Japan. 
I first came to Japan in the summer of 2009, intending to stay a month in order to research a short story set in Tokyo. I fell in love with the country and stayed three months, then again returned in May 2010. On my third trip to Japan, I met my girlfriend who is half-Japanese and half-French, and since then I have spent a great deal of time in Tokyo.

In “Half Life,” the main character discovers some writings by his American grandfather about his time working at Los Alamos. What led you to connect Los Alamos with a post-Great East Japan Earthquake story?
James H. Ellis, Béchard's grandfather
The grandfather in “Half Life” is based on my own grandfather who worked near Los Alamos during the making of the first atom bomb. He was exposed to its radiation and suffered radiation poisoning throughout his life. In April 2011, when I returned to Japan after a trip to the US, I had my grandfather’s papers in my bag. Before his death, he asked my mother to give them to me. He’d wanted me to write about his struggle to have the US government recognize what he’d suffered. The nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi had recently taken place, and, reading his papers, I considered the way his life had been changed and how thousands of Japanese were now being affected. Though some friends and family members were concerned about my decision to return to Japan at this time, I did so to be with my girlfriend, and when I wrote “Half Life,” I was thinking about the choice to overcome fear of personal loss in order to act with a larger vision of the future.

You have a mixed-culture background yourself. Can you tell us a bit about this? How has this background influenced your writing? Did any aspect of your experience inspire the main character Kenji in “Half Life”? 
My father grew up in rural Québec, a six hour drive north of Montréal. He spoke French and learned English when he was in his twenties. My mother was from Pittsburgh, a second generation descendant of Scottish and German immigrants. She went to college for art but left during the Vietnam War and moved to British Columbia, where she met my father and I was born. They were incredibly different. He had a fifth-grade education and had been raised Catholic, and she had studied art and grown up Protestant. My childhood was marked by a sense of deep divisions that I didn’t understand until I was in my twenties. It took time to learn to navigate the two cultures and appreciate both, and the process of exploring and reconciling my cultures inspired a great deal of writing during my twenties. At the time, I felt that by getting to know both cultures better and writing about them, I was learning what had made me who I was. 

When I wrote Kenji in “Half Life,” I was drawing on my memories of a strong desire to reconcile the differences between the cultures I was born into. I also wanted to evoke the sense of confusion I often had growing up, when I couldn’t reconcile my parents’ conflicting points of view. However, in writing the story, I also drew on my girlfriend’s experiences. Her mother is Japanese and her father is French, and she and her sister grew up in Paris, but spent a fair amount of time with their family in Tokyo. Furthermore, in writing “Half Life,” I was aware not only of her stories and my own, but of the challenges we have faced with our four cultures. Though we speak French together, French-Canadian culture is different from French culture, and we also have American and Japanese influences to sort out (not to mention some English-Canadian influence). It took us months to stop misunderstanding each other just because of what we considered normal in our own cultures. On the other hand, since we each had grown up with two cultures, we expected this challenge and knew how to deal with it.

What have your experiences been in Japan post-3/11? 
My strongest impression of Japan post-3/11 has been that of the Japanese reevaluating who they are and what is important to them. The tsunami motivated a lot of people to take action in order to help fellow citizens; it reminded them of the importance of self-sacrifice. However, I think that the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi have resulted in a sense of confusion and often in anger. Given that I am not Japanese, it has been hard for me to understand the real implications of Fukushima-Daiichi. Even my girlfriend, who speaks Japanese, has struggled to learn whether the information she hears from others or in the media is true. There has been so much conflicting information that it is difficult to evaluate the full impact of the nuclear meltdowns. When I wrote “Half Life,” I wanted to convey this sense of confusion and frustration, how people struggle to determine the truth and what is best not only for themselves and their families, but for their society as a whole

Can you tell us about some of your other writing projects? 
Over the last seventeen years, I have been working on a memoir about my father, who lived an extraordinary life. I have already mentioned his cultural background, but what I didn’t say was that after leaving his village in rural Québec, he spent over a decade involved in crime, robbing banks and jewelry stores, among other things. He was an extremely colorful character and a storyteller, and his wildness and exuberance deeply shaped my childhood. After his death, when I was twenty, I began trying to write his story. It has taken me nearly two decades to finish it. The memoir’s title is Cures for Hunger. Publication is set for May 2012. 
Béchard in Somaliland 

The project that is now taking most of my time is a book about conservationism in the Congo rainforest basin. It looks at the work of conservationists who have devoted their lives to the protection of endangered species, in particular the bonobo, a matriarchal great ape. The book will, in part, show how one or two people with a vision can change the world, bringing medicine and jobs to desperate people, saving endangered species, and protecting the environment. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
Over the last fifteen years, I have traveled in about 50 countries, and one thing I have seen repeatedly is how much one or two individuals with determination and vision can change the world around them. Often, these people have suffered; they have told me that they tried to heal themselves but were able to do so only when they started helping others and working for the benefit of those around them. For them, their hardship became a source of strength. They could recognize the suffering of others and knew how to help.

No comments:

Post a Comment