I learned about this book through Liz Rosenberg’s session last year during the Asian Festival of Children’s Content: “A Book Reviewer Speaks: Trends in Children’s Literature in America.” She was so smitten by Kyoko Mori’s Shizuko’s Daughter that she even read excerpts from it. I was intrigued but didn’t have the chance to read the book then. It’s just as well that I didn’t discover the book earlier since it’s perfect for our Festival of Asian Literature bimonthly theme until first week of July. While it does not speak about the immigrant experience, it is a fitting book to celebrate the craftsmanship of Asian storytellers.
Multiple Voices and the Gaps in Between. This is the first book I’ve read that used multiple voices (without the narrative sounding schizophrenic in the least). It was done very artfully and seamlessly that the technique provided a more nuanced portraiture of each of the characters in the story. The first chapter is the only one in the entire book that is told in Shizuko’s wavering yet resolute voice before she committed suicide.
If I were to use my clinician’s eye as I went through the first few pages, it is clear that Shizuko suffered from clinical depression. There is just a quiet sadness that makes careful attempt to not overwhelm the reader – it remains tasteful and dignified. Despite the evident shakiness and the lethargy, there is a sense of determination in Shizuko’s ending her life. She made sure that she wrote a letter to her 12-year old daughter, Yuki, who eventually discovered her body in their home.
In spite of this, she wrote, please believe that I love you. People will tell you that I’ve done this because I did not love you. Don’t listen to them. When you grow up to be a strong woman, you will know that this was for the best. My only concern now is that you will be the first to find me. I’m sorry. Call your father at work and let him take care of everything (p. 6)
The story is such that one can deduce the seething unhappiness which may have caused Shizuko to do something so drastic, but there are still yawning gaps in between that the reader can touch and put her finger on – such is its essence and its subtlety.
I also love how each chapter appears to be graceful snapshots of Yuki’s life as the reader sees her grow up to be an outspoken, bright, willful young woman whose searing pain prevents her from seeing and finding love (p. 141):
“I believe that if we could foresee the future, none of us would ever fall in love. It comes to nothing one way or the other.”
As I was reading each chapter, I felt that it could stand alone on its own as a short story, with the author’s lyrical voice that I could only liken to the gentle falling of raindrops on crushed flower petals. And true enough, when I looked at the Acknowledgments Page at the end of the book, certain chapters have been previously published in Maryland Review, Sun-Dog: The South-East Review and The Kenyon Review-New Series among others.
Burning Silences of Guilt and Pain. While most of the chapters are written in Yuki’s strong (but pained) voice, the reader also gets to hear Masa’s voice (Yuki’s maternal grandmother, Shizuko’s mother) in Yellow Mittens and Early Violets; Hanae’s, the stepmother’s whining and resentful voice in Grievances (one of my favorite chapters), and strangely enough even the father of Yuki, Shizuko’s husband, Hideki’s weak and ineffectual squeaks cloaked in unacknowledged yet keenly-sensed guilt (p. 156):
The thought of Yuki, as far as he could remember, brought him nothing but a useless sense of guilt – guilt for her mother’s unhappiness, guilt for her eventual suicide, for which, Hideki knew, Yuki held him responsible. After that, there was guilt for his remarriage, for keeping her away from her mother’s family according to Hanae’s wishes because Hanae thought people would talk – they would see the continued contact between Yuki and his former in-laws as an admission of blame on his part for his first wife’s death. Guilt was a useless emotion, Hideki reminded himself. Still, the list of his wrongs seemed endless.
While I tried to emphatize with Hanae, the quintessential evil stepmother (who used to be the mistress of Hideki when Shizuko was still alive), I found it too difficult to find a piece of her I can sympathize with. Despite her obsession on cleanliness and clearing away dust and wiping away all traces of the dead first wife – the presence of Yuki, our young protagonist, is something Hanae can’t dissolve or vacuum away. There is no remorse over what happened to Shizuko – nothing but righteous indignation and burning resentment, and yes, grievances.
There are shavings and chips of my heart falling like tears as I read through how Yuki remembers her mother, as shared with her maternal grandmother, Masa (p. 86):
“I remember her voice without her body and her body without her voice. Sometimes, I dream that her voice has been trapped in the telephone line somewhere, and I try but I can’t help her. I just can’t help her.” She stared at her hands. “I wanted so much to help her.” She shook her head and covered her face with her hands, her fingers pressing hard against her eyes.
It amazes me that the entire piece of writing communicates that dignified pain – it is never uncouth, crass, or overly-emotional: just little thrusts and jabs that pierce the core, but always always wrapped in grace, and quiet, and honor. I have earmarked quite a number of pages in this beautiful book, but this one, I feel is the one that spoke to me the most (p. 148):
My mother and I, Yuki thought, we are moving on. We leave behind nothing but empty spaces – empty spaces turning green as we move away from here.
About Kyoko Mori [as taken from the jacketflap of the book].
Kyoko Mori was born and raised in Japan. Now an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, she has published her poetry and short stories in leading literary magazines such as The Kenyon Review, The Apalachee Quarterly, and The Beloit Poetry Journal. This is her first novel.
In this interview with Kyoko Mori in Southern Indiana Review, I learned that Kyoko has written a memoir, The Dream of Water, which supposedly “describes her journey to make peace with her mother’s suicide.” I’d have to find The Dream of Water soon.
Resources for Teachers. Most of the photos that I have included here are of Kobe and Himeji in Japan – the setting of the story. I was also very happy to discover a very comprehensive Teacher’s Guide written by Jacqueline Parker who is a writer, consultant, and teacher – as could be found in Random House for High School Teachers. The teacher’s guide includes a plot summary, questions for discussion, journal topics that can be used in selected chapters of the book, notes on literary exploration such as imagery and theme, character development and plot, as well as recommended activities inside the classroom.
Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori. Ballantine Books, New York, 1993. Book borrowed from the community library.
American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Award, Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 58 (35)
PoC Challenge Update: 19 of 25