Friday, February 10, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Mariko Nagai

Mariko Nagai in Vietnam
Mariko Nagai (author of the Tomo story in verse “Half a Heart”) was born in Japan but, having grown up in the U.S. and Europe, writes in English. Author of two books for adults, Histories of Bodies: Poems and Georgic: Stories, she has won numerous awards as well as fellowships from art foundations around the world for her writing. Her work has appeared in Asia Literary Review, The Foreign Policy, Southern Humanities Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, to name a few. She lives in Tokyo. Visit her website:

Can you tell us a bit about your background? 
Mariko Nagai, age 3
Though I was born in Tokyo, I was raised in Belgium, San Francisco, and Tennessee. When we lived in San Francisco in the 1980's, our family friends were Japanese-Americans who treated us like a part of their families but they didn't speak any--or spoke little--Japanese.  

How did you come to write fiction and poetry in English?
Having gone to schools in the US, the natural language for me is English though I am fluent in Japanese as well. I don't think this question will be posed if I lived in America, but because I choose to live in Japan, people assume that I should write in Japanese because I am Japanese. 

“Half a Heart” describes a period in a Japanese-American girl’s life just prior to detention in an internment camp. Have you visited Manzanar or any other internment camp sites?
Yes, though I did not go to Minidoka, Idaho, where "Half a Heart" takes place, to do research, I grew up in San Francisco where I heard elderly Issei and Nisei men and women who experienced internment during World War II talk about their experiences. 

Can you tell us about some of the research that you did for this story? Have you interviewed internees? Studied artifacts? Read personal accounts?
I am an avid researcher--in order to recreate a world that existed or exists, I have to immerse myself completely into that time period--be it listening to the music, reading magazines and newspapers, or looking through Sears and Roebuck catalogs. I read books after books--both academic and autobiographical, interview people, and study many photographs from that period. One of the most important artifacts I found was the complete set of "Minidoka Irrigator," a newspaper published at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, which conveyed day-to-day affair of the camp. This, in turn, inspired me to make Mina's father as an editor/journalist for the newspaper. 

“Half a Heart” is adapted from the opening of a novel. Can you tell us a bit about this YA novel?
It's a novel about Mina, a twelve-year old, and her family's experience in the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, which is less well known than Manzanar. Mina Masako Tagawa and her Japanese-American family were sent from their home in Seattle to an internment camp in Idaho. One moment, Mina's just like all of the other girls, singing in the chorus and dreaming of becoming a cheerleader. But all of this changes on December 11, 1941. Seemingly overnight, Mina is no longer the same—she and her family are uprooted from their home and sent to live, "evacuated," to the dust of Eden. 

Why did you opt to write this story in verse? Can you tell us anything about your approach to writing in verse?
In many ways, a story is a lot like a creature with a mind of its own. When a story comes to me, it comes to me at first in a flash as a first line, a character doing something, or a voice. In the case of "Half a Heart," it started out with a Japanese-American girl singing in a chorus on the day of the Pearl Harbor. Her mouth is open, she is just like any other. Then, suddenly, she is different. That’s how the story started, and she started speaking to me in a verse form. This form was a perfect shape to express my love for poetry, my first love, and storytelling, my second love.  

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
"We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey." --Kenji Miyazawa

No comments:

Post a Comment