by Jerry Waxler
Memoir writers reach back through time to find our own story. Is it still a memoir if we reach into our mother’s memory to find her story? That’s what I wanted to find out when I read “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.” The book is about Yaeko Sugama Weldon, who grew up in a small rural town in Japan before World War II, married a serviceman and moved to the United States. Her daughter, Linda Austin, grew up in America with a Japanese mother and an American father. Naturally she was curious about her mother’s earlier life, and as her mother aged, Linda began to put it all together. After extensive interviews and edits, Cherry Blossoms is the result.
Is it co-authored or ghost written? Is it a memoir or a biography? These distinctions blur into artistic interpretations rather than hard definitions. For example, in the memoir “Color of Water,” when James McBride searched for his mother’s past, he maintained his own point of view, with occasional well-marked shifts into his mother’s voice. In Cherry Blossoms, Linda Austin drops out of the frame and lets her mother tell the story.
Thanks to Yaeko’s willingness to explore her past, Linda Austin has the opportunity to delve deep into her mother’s journey. It’s an achievement that many people, me for example, wish they had achieved with their own parents.
The book is pleasant, easy, and informative. Since it is written for a younger audience, it does not go into deep analysis of emotionally sensitive topics, but despite this lightness, it gives profound glimpses into painful subjects, like war, prejudice, family splits, and abandonment. Because Yaeko does not hide her pain or the difficulties in her family, the memoir feels authentic and respectful, allowing me to stay connected with the protagonist’s emotions and experiences. In the end, it satisfies my criteria for a fascinating memoir and has convinced me to extend my definition of memoirs to include assisted ones.
To learn more about this book, and the experience of the author in working with her mother, I interviewed Linda Austin. Here is part 1 of that interview:
Jerry Waxler: I love this book. It’s short and easy to read, and yet it feels complete, and authentic. Nice work! So tell me what made you decide to write it as a children’s book?
Linda Austin: Thank you, Jerry. My mother had a lot of stories of when she was a little girl, in a different culture and era of history, plus the many Japanese festivals are fun for kids. I also wanted to preserve the children’s songs she taught us, so I thought the obvious audience for all of this would be upper elementary and older school children. And my mother speaks simply, too—perfect for a younger audience.
Jerry Waxler: How has the decision to write it as a children’s book worked out? Are you happy with the choice? What sort of feedback are you getting?
Linda Austin: It didn’t work out that well as a children’s book, partly because as an indie-published book it could not get pre-pub reviews from the all-important Kirkus or School Library Journal which librarians use to help determine which books to stock in their libraries. The kids I know who have read it love the children’s parts, but lose interest when my mother moves to the U.S. as an adult. Instead, I was shocked to hear all the praise from older adults who had lived through WWII in the U.S. – they loved comparing their experiences to my mother’s in Japan. Another, less shocking, development was that university libraries wanted it, I’m sure for its unique perspective of WWII—I’m proud to say that Princeton carries it.
Jerry Waxler: In addition to interviewing, what other research did you do? Did you go back to her home, or interview people who knew her when she was young?
Linda Austin: Believe it or not, I have never been to Japan. It’s very expensive, the time was never right, my relatives speak only Japanese and I speak only English. My mother rarely went back to Japan. Mostly I had to research WWII history and what was going on in Japan during the War. I read books and searched online. If I could not verify something I either left it out or stated it as an opinion or personal belief. I had a Japanese gentleman and his wife who are close in age to my mother review the book for details of the Japanese culture of that time.
Jerry Waxler: If it’s not too personal, what role if any did your father play in helping you construct the story?
Linda Austin: My dad played almost no role in writing the story. He knew I was working on this so a couple of times he suggested things to ask my mother about, and he graciously reviewed bits that pertained to him and his early relationship with my mother. It is all my mother’s story and her perspective. My parents had a bitter divorce, so writing the sections about my father was very difficult for both my mother and I as she is still very hurt. I had to negotiate difficult terrain and we had some arguments. I had to keep reminding my mother that this was a children’s book.
Jerry Waxler: Your time frame continues into her adulthood. Since this is a children’s book, I might have thought you would be tempted to stop when she was no longer a child. Tell about your decision about where to end.
Linda Austin: It was logical the book should end when she moved to America, but she was about 28 years old then. I tried to make the adult-life part shorter, less detailed, and of interest to at least middle-school kids. This is actually the second edition out there because I learned so much from the St. Louis Publishers Association that I just had to re-do the original. I honed down the grown-up years and added songs, photos and a concordance and glossary of Japanese terms specifically for the kidlit market. Because of the sales channel setup, I can’t tell if the book sells to schools.
Many times I’ve thought to create a fictionalized version of this book just for kids because the story is an important learning experience for youngsters and fiction allows freedom to develop the story in a way they would respond to better. On the other hand, adults tell me they want to know more about what happened to my mom in the U.S.! I’m lost between audiences.
This finishes Part 1 of a 3 part interview.
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin
Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin
Color of Water, by James McBride: a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing
I am reading another story of a father’s life, written by his son called Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham about his father’s life through the Vietnam war.
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It’s been a couple of years since I read this book, and it still stands out in memory as a compelling one. I loaned my copy to our Adult Services librarian. His wife is Japanese. They both loved it, and as a result, my copy found a home in the library. It is often checked out. Bravo Linda, and I appreciate reading this interview Jerry.
Great interview, Jerry. The “Eaves of Heaven” is another great “memoir” in which a son writes in his father’s voice.
I appreciate your looking at a writer’s relationship with her parent, since I’m struggling to work with my own mother while writing about my childhood.
Thanks for the comment, Kathryn. It’s great that you are working with your mother on this. The intimacy of discovering a parent’s story is yet another great treasure awaiting memoir writers.
Thank you Jerry (and Sharon). Jerry asks the best questions! I had to put my name as co-author in order to facilitate handling all the publicity and business of the book, yet it is my mother’s stories in her own words embedded in other material also written in her style of speaking. The greatest compliment I receive is when readers tell me they could hear my mother speaking. Also, writing was very difficult for my mother as she is lost between countries, so I did have to write the entire book myself with her as oral storyteller and consultant. This was very much a project done together, and was a beautiful experience. I think James Patterson and his book factory are responsible for the more common acknowledgement these days of ghostwriters as co-authors.
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