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FIGHTING ERASURE by Yutaka Dirks

LIKE ITS AMERICAN COUNTERPARTS, my Japanese-Canadian family was interned by their own government in the horrible years after Pearl Harbor. Most of my Canadian-born grandfather’s family lost their homes in Chemainus, an island mill-town, when they were taken to a camp in the mountains of British Columbia. In just a few months, vibrant, long-standing Japanese communities along the West Coast were completely erased. When internment ended, no Japanese-Canadians returned to Chemainus. If not for two murals painted in the town in 1982 (one of which features my great-uncle Eddie Shige Yoshida, who formed an all-Japanese Boy Scout troop in 1929) the erasure would be nearly total, their experience forgotten forever.

And so I was intrigued when I discovered Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil, a crime novel set during this dark moment in history. I’d read books by internment survivors, like Joy Kogawa’s classic novel Obasan, but was curious about how McAlpine, a white contemporary writer, might engage with the injustice faced by ethnic Japanese in World War II–era North America. The slim novel was a thrill to read. It’s not just another historical mystery but an ingeniously structured metafictional noir of surprising depth.

Woman with a Blue Pencil is presented as a series of excerpts from three found documents: The Revised, an unpublished novella “handwritten […] on 102 sheets of WWII-era, GI-issue writing paper” by Japanese-American author Takumi Sato; letters addressed to Sato from the titular character, Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries; and The Orchid and the Secret Agent, a pulp spy thriller written by an author called William Thorne, published in 1945 by Wakefield’s press.

The Revised opens at the Rialto Movie House in downtown Los Angeles on December 6, 1941, the night before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Eleven months after his wife Kyoko’s murder, Sam Sumida, a Japanese-American academic, watches Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, hoping to absorb the detective skills of Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled hero. Sumida intends to do what the LAPD could not — find Kyoko’s killer and bring him to justice. But before he can even finish watching his movie, the entire theater goes dark. When the screen comes back to life, it shows a different picture, a cheery romantic comedy. No one but Sumida seems troubled, and when he complains to the manager, he gets a shock: The date is January 22, 1942; in a blink of an eye, he’s lost six weeks from his life. The Maltese Falcon has been closed for a month, and the US is at war with Japan.

As Sumida navigates a world that has suddenly become hostile toward his very existence, the letters of Maxine Wakefield reveal the source of his troubles. Takumi Sato, a novice author, has had his previously accepted, partially finished mystery novel returned by the publisher. Wakefield explains that after Pearl Harbor, it is “impossible” to publish a novel featuring a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese protagonist and a Caucasian villain. “The world has changed,” she writes to Sato. She offers the writer a second chance: rewrite the story with a different hero, now battling Japanese Fifth Columnists intent on destabilizing America from within. “Patriotism will sell in the coming period.”

We don’t hear how Sato feels about compromising his artistic vision — we only see his character through his fiction and his editor’s letters. We do know that Sato eventually agrees to Wakefield’s proposal: The Orchid and the Secret Agent, written under the pen name William Thorne, is the result. Sam Sumida becomes the wisecracking Korean-American private investigator Jimmy Park, an expert in Taekwondo and “Oriental languages.” He is a fervent nationalist, prone to jingoistic, racist comments about “Jap” spies. To Park, the Japanese are physically weak, but still sneaky and dangerous, “in the manner of night-crawling scorpions.” Park moonlights for the LAPD, infiltrating Japanese spy rings in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

McAlpine is familiar with the tropes and archetypes that populate the crime fiction canon. One of his earlier novels, Hammett Unwritten, was a tricky story-within-a-story that imagined the real-life Dashiell Hammett solving the case of the Maltese Falcon. McAlpine is comfortable interrogating the mystery and thriller genre by writing within it, but with Woman with a Blue Pencil, he’s taking aim at something larger. He’s critiquing the art and artifice of writing, editing, and publishing.

The three strands of the novel change and inform each other; as the plots intertwine, events in one story impact the narrative in another. In The Orchid and the Secret Agent, Park shows up at the Rialto Movie House to discover that the same manager who spoke with Sumida in The Revised has been murdered, an ominous message in Japanese calligraphy on the office wall written in his blood. Park is soon recruited by a super-secret arm of the US government to infiltrate a shadowy network of Japanese assassins operating under the command of a dragon lady caricature named the “Orchid” — a stunning woman who bears a resemblance to Sumida’s murdered wife. In The Revised, Sumida returns to his Echo Park home to find it stripped of any evidence of his life. Instead, another Asian man, recognizable to the reader as Jimmy Park, is in all the photographs in the house. The letters from Wakefield move between the two fictions. Clunky exposition in The Orchid and the Secret Agent is later revealed to be the result of her edits; supporting characters cut from The Orchid find life in The Revised.

McAlpine effectively creates two distinct worlds with their own tone and color. The Orchid is all short, punchy sentences, full of heavy-handed, pulpy dialogue. (“‘You need only bring your love of country.’ ‘That, gentlemen, I bring with me everywhere.’ Jimmy answered.”) When Jimmy Park is in a reflective mood, he thinks about the evils of “Jap” spies and the beauty of America. Sumida’s concerns are more human: he’s alone in a city where Japanese-Americans are subject to curfews and the once-bustling Little Tokyo is a ghost town; there is no record that he and his dead wife ever existed. He meditates on memory, love, and loss in moody, ruminative sentences: “Sugitaru wa nao oyobazaru ga gotoshi.‘Let what is past flow away downstream,’ his aunt said, being aggravatingly fond of maxims. But he didn’t want to let go, to move forward. The only movement he wanted was backward, and that was impossible.”

Some of the differences in language are political. Sumida is “Asian” in The Revised, while Jimmy Park prefers “Oriental” — a result of Wakefield’s blue pencil. In her letters, she tells Sato — who is now writing The Orchid while interned with his family in Manzanar — to further adjust his character so as not to challenge a reader’s possible prejudices: “Remember, you are writing for a general and very broad readership.” An arch manipulator, she praises Sato for his writing talent and then breezily suggests that he introduce “more traditionally exotic, ‘foreign’ elements.” She even goes so far as to frame Sato’s internment and forced withdrawal from UCLA as a “blessing in disguise,” since it gives him more time for writing. She encourages him, cheerfully critiques his writing craft, and pushes him to compromise himself.

Last month, Claire Vaye Watkins published the explosive essay “On Pandering,” in which she admitted to writing to impress, quoting James Baldwin, “the little white man deep inside of all of us.” As I read Woman with a Blue Pencil, I thought about this essay and a pointed response by Marlon James. James wrote that “writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman,” an archetypal female reader enamored with suburban suffering who supposedly drives book sales and, as a result, publishers’ tastes. For Sato, Wakefield is this imaginary reader personified, pushing him to compromise his voice and write for a “general and very broad readership” by removing any trace of the authentic experience of living under oppression.

Early on in the novel, Wakefield answers a question from Sato about the fate of characters “cut from never-to-be-written drafts.” Maybe they remain half written, relegated to background roles, she muses, or crumble to nothing like the paper they’re written on. Sato, the unseen protagonist of Woman with a Blue Pencil, has given us his answer in The Revised: the discarded and marginalized live on and fight their erasure.

¤

Yutaka Dirks lives in Montreal. A journalist and writer of fiction, essays, and comics, he is currently at work on a book about the housing market and inequality.

Guest Blog for Mystery Fanfare

 

Is it “Write what you know,” or “Write to discover what you know”?

Acclaimed author Gordon McAlpine explores this question, drawing from his experience writing the Edgar nominated novel, Woman with a Blue Pencil. 

Thanks Flannery O’Connor, Thanks Dad 

All students of writing fiction are familiar with the dictum to “write what you know”; I have always regarded this advice with ambivalence. For some, it provides important license to draw from actual experience, suggesting, not inaccurately, that each of our lives is characterized by meaningful elements that could make for a compelling story. All to the good. However, the flip side to this advice is an implication that one ought to write only what one knows, to ignore or avoid uncharted territory accessible exclusively through the exercise of imagination, often in combination with research to make the imagined feel real. For me, then, a better precept for writing a work of fiction is this simple thought experiment: if I were browsing in a bookstore, what as-yet unwritten book would I wish to come upon to read? This simple ground rule, I believe, incorporates the most valid element of “writing what one knows” — specifically, the natural impulse toward stories that reflect upon our own lives, whether or not we consciously understand why – without limiting imaginative possibilities My own work has been undertaken under these general guidelines. That is, I’ve begun new stories or novels simply because I wanted to create the precise reading that most interested me at any given time. This provides the act of writing (which consists, day after day, of being alone in a small room) with a sustaining tie to the boundlessness of reading, discovered wondrously as a child and no less powerful now as an adult. Write what one knows? Rather, write the book you’d like to read, which will never exist unless you write it. Simple enough.

Or, perhaps not so simple.

My books have been set in Paris in the ‘20’s, Chicago in the 30’s, Los Angeles in the ‘40’s, New York in the ‘50’s….nonetheless, these books, undertaken as acts of imagination rather than disguised memoir, have all, eventually, revealed themselves to me as autobiographical in sly, unplanned ways. This revelation usually comes about 2/3 through the first draft. This is not to say the books are ever overtly autobiographical. Rather, elements that comment on my own life or the lives of those I know deliver themselves in indirect ways. It turns out, then, that, despite my protestations, perhaps I write “what I know”, after all. Or, at least, what I come to know through the process of writing….

I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor, who said, “I write to discover what I know.”

 For me, writing to discover what I know has never been more true than in my latest novel, the Edgar-nominated Woman with a Blue Pencil, which is set in Los Angeles during World War II and the Japanese-American relocation to internment camps, specifically revolving around a young man named Takumi Sato whose dream of publishing a mystery novel is compromised by world events. Such compromise eventually effects not only the young author’s work but also his concept of identity. According to the straightforward dictum, “write what you know”, I would be disqualified from writing this novel, being neither Japanese-American nor 96 years-old, as the character Sato would be today. Fortunately, I used my own bookstore ground rules, as outlined above, for beginning the book. However, about 2/3 of the way through the first draft, I realized that its essence revolved around a question that was unexpectedly personal to me: how to exist when you are “the wrong kind of man”. In the novel, this is characterized by political and racial discrimination. Some reviewers have linked the story to political and racial events in our country today. This, I had planned. What came as a surprise, however, was that the book’s heart had come from my heretofore unrecognized acknowledgement of my recently deceased father’s lifelong, painful, and mistaken sense of being “the wrong kind of man” himself. Thus, I could empathize with the pain, humiliation, anger, shame, and pathos of a young Japanese-American in the 1940’s because I had witnessed, as a child, my father’s heartbreaking sense of dislocation in his world, which had nothing to do with Japanese internment but everything to do with being fully human and generous of heart and yet still feeling like “the wrong kind of man”. Hence, I came to know my late father in a new way by writing about a 22 year-old Japanese-American named Takumi Sato and his fictional experiences between the years 1940-1944.

Write what you know or write to discover what you know? 

I’m with Flannery on this one.

A Great Evening at the Center for Fiction in NYC

What if your life had been erased by an editor holding a blue pencil over a manuscript? In Gordon McAlpine’s new novel Woman with a Blue Pencil (Edgar Award nominee!) he takes the reader on a meta-fictional investigation of this question. A serious exploration of racial tensions during WWII, wrapped up in a hard-boiled detective story, this novel and this event are not to be missed. McAlpine was joined in conversation by award-winning author and dramatist Joseph Goodrich.

To see the interview: http://www.centerforfiction.org/calendar/in-conversation-gordon-mcalpine-amp-joseph-goodrich

Woman with a Blue Pencil Nominated for Edgar Award

 

Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce, as we celebrate the 207th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, the Nominees for the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2015. The Edgar® Awards will be presented to the winners at our 70th Gala Banquet, April 28, 2016 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books
What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
The Daughter by Jane Shemilt (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)

Starred Review from Shelf Awareness

In this refreshingly innovative detective novel, Hammett Unwritten author Gordon McAlpine follows the life of a character cut–via the vicious blue editing pencil–from a novel.

Takumi Sato is a Japanese-American in the Manzanar relocation camp during World War II who has written a novel featuring Sam Sumida, a Japanese-American sleuth investigating his wife’s murder. In order for the book to be published, Sato has to agree to change his own name, his protagonist’s ethnicity and various other elements of the work. But Sumida has come to life and simply will not die.

Sumida walks into a movie theater on December 6, 1941, to watch The Maltese Falcon, and emerges after what he believes is a few hours to discover it’s January 22, 1942, and his world is in complete chaos. No one knows who he is–in fact, there’s no evidence he ever existed–but everyone is hostile toward him. With nowhere to go and a million baffling questions, Sumida sets to work unraveling this isolating conundrum.

Woman with a Blue Pencil is the intricate plaiting of excerpts from Sato’s novel, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, published as William Thorne; correspondence from Sato’s editor, the woman with the blue pencil; and a novella merely labeled The Revised. McAlpine ingeniously blends the three plots to create a multi-dimensional, absorbing mystery, simultaneously examining the shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans in camps by the U.S. government. He also takes hilarious, yet subtle, jabs at the tropes of “commercial” fiction.

McAlpine’s creative talent is rare and this novel is an exceptional literary treat. —Jen Forbus

Discover: When a character takes on a life of his own, even the blue editing pencil can’t eradicate him.

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street):
Don’t let all the highbrow praise for this metafictional head-spinner scare you away–McAlpine’s ambitions may be more high-falutin’ than those of the next ink-stained jasper, but he knows how to tell a kick-ass story. Even when it’s presented in bits and pieces. The snippets from a couple of different novels, interspersed by selected correspondence from the editor (the “woman with the blue pencil” of the title), are dealt out here like clues that the reader must assemble on his or her own. You’ll soon be caught up, though, as I was, by the author’s ambitions and audacity, as well as his capacity to nail the tone and reach of 1940s pulp fiction, and the tango writers and editors have been seemingly dancing forever. This slim volume should be a heaving mass of look-at-me-now literary pretension, but McAlpine keeps it moving, flitting from one novel’s story of a bookish Japanese-American UCLA professor, Sam Sumida, who’s still grieving over his murdered wife, seeking solace in watching a detective film on the night of June 6, 1941 … to the eye-rolling adventures of pulp hero Jimmy Park, a preposterously over-boiled L.A. gumshoe of Korean descent turned super spy, who’s out to nail those “dirty Japs” for Uncle Sam. And then there are the letters from Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries Inc., who offers guidance to Tukumi Sato, the creator of both Sam and Jimmy. Tukumi just wants to be a writer, but the poor sap’s ambitions are being thwarted at every turn not just by commercial necessity (always a bitch), but also by the cold, bitter realities of a scared, paranoid post-Pearl Harbor America. And that, beyond the post-modern whiz-bang and the gleeful potshots at the publishing biz, is where the true heart of this book beats. McAlpine may be a master of hint and nuance, but when the walls break down between fiction and reality, and the real story emerges, it’s a punch to the gut: the sad tale of Tukumi Sato, an American writer caught up in history.

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