'Block Seventeen' Chases the Shadows of an Ugly Chapter in American History

Kimiko Guthrie's debut novel uses her own family's experience in Japanese American internment camps during WWII to address a generation of suppressed memories through one woman's quest to uncover the truth.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly. 

Tricia Ford: I am very excited to meet Kimiko Guthrie, author of Block Seventeen. My name is Tricia Ford. I'm the Audible fiction editor. Block Seventeen is Kimiko's debut novel, and it's set in San Francisco in early 2000s. 

It's the story of a woman who's on a very unusual journey. It’s an exploration of her family's past, the dissolvement of a current relationship, and lots of delving into her own mind and emotions. Kimiko, how would you summarize this story? I don't want to pigeonhole it at all. I want to see what you think.

Kimiko Guthrie: I really loved the way you just described it. I've found it hard for me to summarize it, actually, eloquently, in a few words. But for me, it’s about one woman trying to piece together her identity based on a lot of missing pieces. I was inspired to write this story because my family experienced the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. I always heard these bits and pieces, these fragments of that story, but it was often told through this cheerful lens, and it was confusing to me, so I always wanted to write about it, but I wanted to write it through that lens of chasing it, shadows, in a way. Trying to build a narrative when a lot of parts of that narrative are missing.

TF: In that research, I read that a lot of it was your own family's experiences in the internment camp that sparked the story. Did you interview family members and get firsthand accounts specifically for this book?

KG: …When I began to understand more about the larger context, I began to get interested. Right after high school I interviewed all my family members about their internment experience. I'm thankful that I did, because now, writing the novel, not many of my family members who experienced it are still with us. 

Words in movement have their own cadence and their own rhythm. I think of writing as almost a physical act in that there's movement involved in energy and musicality.

I also went to a rest home, a senior home in San Francisco and interviewed many Issei women about their experiences. Issei is the first generation of immigrants. That was years ago, so I felt like I had done this groundwork long ago, before I knew I was going to write this novel. But during the course of the novel, I also had my mother and my two aunts, who are still very much with us, so I used them as a resource and talked to them a lot about their experiences.

TF: That's amazing.

KG: I want to say that it is definitely fiction, but it’s inspired by my family's experiences.

TF: Did you find your family hesitant to share their stories? Or did they portray it as “camp” and feel reluctant to talk about the dark parts of their experience?

KG: Definitely, I would say that today my mom and my aunts are very clear about the trauma of the experience. But growing up, right after the camp experience, it was very prevalent within the Japanese American community, and definitely within our family, to not look at the troubling aspects of it…

The older I got, the more I talked to my family members about it and the more they were... Especially after the reparation happened in the '80s, the redress. I think there was more public awareness that it was an ugly chapter in American history, and so then I think my family was more willing to look at it in that way and talk about it in that way.

TF: And do you feel like they had any kind of healing experience with talking about it? I know it's such a huge part of this story, the idea of facing the past in order to move forward. Do you think you helped in that?

KG: That's interesting. I would like to think so. I'd have to ask them that. My mom is actually a trauma therapist, so she's almost the opposite of the mother character in my story. It was funny because she asked me, as I was starting to write the novel, "Please don't make the mother exactly like me." And I thought, "Oh, sorry, but I can't really control that. I'm just going to be true to the story." But the more I worked with the story, I really did find it more interesting to not make her my mom. 

My mom was an exception. She moved away from Los Angeles and her family and pursued therapy, became a trauma therapist, so she definitely has used that traumatic experience as healing for herself. And not only for herself, but now she heals others. She's used that experience as a transcendent experience. I'm sure it makes her proud and feel good that I've continued that healing through art. But I'll have to ask my aunts and my mom if they find this narrative as a source of healing.

TF: That's interesting, because one thing with the mother, Sue, and our main character, they have a battle of who had the best first memory, almost. Those passages for each of their first memories. Before we get further into this story, one question I had when preparing to talk to you was, I wasn't quite sure what to call our main character. Do I call her Jane, or do I call her Akiko? Because that is a theme, so to speak, in the book. It's something that she goes through, and as a middle school student is when she decided to Americanize her name, so I just wanted to get your feeling poststory. Now that we know her, how should we think of her? What do you think?

KG: Right, right. I love this question, because I do feel like the name becomes very symbolic, for me, of her journey. Stepping back and looking at her in a bigger picture, I like to think of her as Akiko, which is her inherited Japanese name. 

The whole battle between Jane and Akiko for me was inspired by when my mom came back from the incarceration camps in Los Angeles and her third grade teacher suddenly introduced her to her new class, who is mostly white. "Oh, we have a new student," and she just completely renamed her. I forget the name right now. I think of it as Jane, but it was another very similar all-American name, and my mom was shocked because that had nothing to do with who she was. And she suddenly was known as that name at that school. And of course, I think the teacher thought she was doing her a big favor. But, yes, I think of Jane as Jane in certain times in this story, but I like to think of her as Akiko in the bigger picture of who she becomes throughout the story.

TF: So I will call her Akiko. Is that the right name to use?

KG: Yes, in Japanese they put the same emphasis on each syllable, Akiko.

TF: Akiko.

KG: However you want to say it. 

TF: Okay, Akiko... I did want to ask you about storytelling in general. I know this is your debut novel, but you're not new to the art of storytelling. As a choreographer, you're used to telling stories through dance and through choreography, and I would love to hear you talk about how that inspires your writing, how the two are similar, and how they're different.

KG: Thanks. It's funny because my mom was a dancer and my dad was a writer, so I definitely didn't rebel at all, following in those footsteps. Not a plan, but it happened. When I had my second child it became much harder for me to keep up with the schedule of rehearsals, all the complications of organizing everyone in one place. And so writing, as a solitary art, at least in the early stages, was much more manageable. 

At first I experienced how different they were. Being alone, I didn't have to constantly give notes to people or I didn't have the pleasure of interactions. And there were differences. But the more I worked, the more I found many similarities, as well. One thing with telling stories through choreography that I always loved is it's a very open art form, because movement is literal for us in our culture. There's so much room for the audience to bring themselves to it, their own imaginations to it. No matter how much you give them, they're going to be filling in a lot themselves. I think that was something that I tried to carry into writing, that idea of keeping a lot of space around the words in a story to leave room for the readers to bring themselves to it.

Also working with rhythm, words in movement have their own cadence and their own rhythm. I think of writing as almost a physical act in that there's movement involved in energy and musicality.

TF: I agree, and I think that comes through, especially in the ebb and flow between flashback and the current time. They each have their own cadence in this story, so you know where you are by the rhythm of the words. That definitely comes through. I always like to ask a writer if they read their work aloud in the editing process, or while writing?

KG: That's a great question. I actually don't so much, but it's funny because when I give writing advice to my daughters, I always say, "Read it out loud, read it out loud. You learn so much by reading it out loud." But I don't follow my own advice. 

One thing I do is I print it out. Which I'm afraid to say wastes a lot of paper, but when I only see it on the screen I have a different relationship with it than when I'm now looking at the words on a page. But I'm really excited. I haven't gotten to listen to Natalie Naudus'srendition all the way. I just listened to some of it, but I'm really excited to hear my novel. But I haven't really read it aloud so much for myself.

TF: I think you'll really enjoy fully experiencing it with Natalie's performance. She does a great job in capturing Akiko as this modern-day woman, and at the same time, as I mentioned before, all the flashbacks, and capturing the feeling of past times in World War II-era USA.

KG: I loved the sample with her voice. When I heard it, I was listening with my family and we immediately, when we heard her voice, we were like, "Yes! That's her. That's Akiko." I was just thrilled, because I didn't think I was going to be that much a part of the audiobook process, so I was thrilled to hear her interpretation, because I felt like, "Oh yes. She understands the story."

TF: I did want to talk about something that is stated early on in the story. To quote it, it's, "At best, memories are good guesses. At worst, pure inventions being tainted by our biases. We can't trust ourselves to be objective when looking at our own lives, so what's the point in looking back at all?" 

I think this novel illustrates what that point is. I wanted to get your feeling on that. If we can't trust our memories, if it's all biased and colored by what we want to believe, is it important to look back? I think I know the answer. But what do you think?

KG: I love that you think this novel is an answer to that, because for me, that was my thesis statement, countering that bogus statement that Akiko makes. For me, that's her justification of not having access to these memories that were suppressed, that her mom couldn't deal with and couldn't pass on to her. "Oh, it's fine. Memories don't matter." 

We need to look back and understand what's happened in order to be centered in ourselves and move forward with integrity.

For me, it’s the opposite. I have a quote at the beginning of the novel by Walter Benjamin about the angel of history, and the quote was very... it always struck me. There's this angel of history who's always looking back at all the accumulation of trauma, or the mistakes we made, but could never really stay to help fix them, because this storm is blowing the angel forward, forward. And that storm he calls “progress.” I think that's true with our culture. We're always looking forward to what's the next in technology, the faster, the newer, the better, that we tend to not also value pausing, reflecting, and looking back. We need to look back and understand what's happened in order to be centered in ourselves and move forward with integrity.

TF: That it shines through in the book. I love the end, and we're not going to talk about the end, but it does give a full-circle experience, without being too neat and tidy. That’s what I’ll say about it without giving too much away.

KG: That's great to hear.

TF: Another quote from the mom. I really like this mother, though I don't know what that says about me. She had this great quote where she said, "The world is changing so fast we're practically a new species." And she said that in defense of not looking back. But it struck me. This is true, just in this story, the mother basically only lives in a virtual reality, as far as we know. We never meet her in person. She's only online.

KG: Yes.

TF: So she is that new species. By personal experience, and most of the world's experience over these last several months, we're living in that new virtual world, so yeah, we are a new species, is how I'm feeling.

KG: It's interesting to be experiencing that the past few months with this pandemic. I'm embracing a lot of ways of communicating that I used to not value very much. As a dancer and choreographer, I cherish the physical realm, and being in the same room with bodies, and I'll always be that way I’m sure. And I also grew up before the internet, so I have a sense of place without that virtual connection. 

I think, like anything, we always have to look at both. There's wonderful ways that we can connect through this technology, and I also think if there's a tendency, as I was saying before, we can be so infatuated with the speed of connection, and getting our needs met instantly in one click, that we may be rushed so quickly ahead that we lose track of ourselves, and there are dangers there we have to be wary of. But we can't fight it, because we're always evolving. I see Sumiko as becoming a new species. In my mind, she's a bit of a tragic figure, within the context of this story. I see that as her losing herself in a way. I don't think it has to go that way with technology, but I think it can. We can lose track of ourselves without a very concerted effort to also unplug.

TF: I agree, and it's going to be our next challenge, how to creatively solve that problem and come out better for it in the end, and I think we can.

KG: Young people are really valuing the physical world because they spend so much time in the virtual world. If anything this shelter-in-place time is making people realize how much they miss the simple face-to-face experience with others.

TF: I think you're right, and even how dramatic an effect it's had on our physical world, for everyone to be still for this time. Even that is proof of how impactful it is.

KG: Definitely. I was reading about all of the animals who are coming out onto the streets, and how much cleaner the air is. I do hope on the other side of this that we will try to find more of a balance.

TF: Now, we're running out of time, and I do want to be sure to ask you about what you're working on for the future.

KG: Well, because of this time, I haven't had a lot of alone time. I'm here with my family 24/7. Two kids, my dog, and my parents are right downstairs, and my dad needs 24/7 care right now. So unfortunately, I haven't been able to have a lot of focused time at my favorite café where I like to write. But I have a couple projects on the horizon. One is actually really fun. A dear, longtime friend of mine has hired me, propositioned me to write lyrics for the libretto for an opera.

TF: Oh, nice.

KG: That'll be something completely new for me. David Ryther, he's a wonderful composer. I'm excited about that project. And then, a very dear friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago, and ever since then I've been looking at my friendships over the years, important friendships with other women. And I think there's something in that for me for my next project.

TF: Interesting… And I just wanted to reiterate how much I love this book. It's great. I love debuts and I love your story. As exciting as it is to see in a 20-year-old with their debut novel, it's nice to see... I don't know, to me, writing a well-marinated story is extra satisfying. 

KG: That's a good way to put it. I'm definitely not 20. Not by a long shot. Thank you. My mom became a therapist in her 60s. She decided to switch careers and go back to school in her 60s. She had been a kindergarten teacher. So I'm always telling my students, "Don't panic. Follow your passion, and if you want to change later, you can." Because like my mom, I'm not too old to start a new career. But thank you. I feel so honored and excited that the work spoke to you. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me about it with such thoughtful and helpful questions.

TF: It's my pleasure. I enjoyed it. It's great meeting you. I do have to say to people listening that we've only just touched upon it. There's a whole lot more going on in this story, and that you will be surprised about, so I highly recommend taking a listen. This is something completely different. A great blend of a telling of a modern woman living in an American city with a great historical hook, and an important message. So, Kimiko, thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been my pleasure.

KG: Thank you so much, Tricia. Thank you so much for having me. It's a real honor, again.

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