Interview with author Juliet S. Kono

Anshu: Dark Sorrow is Juliet S. Kono’s first novel. Her previous publications include two books of poetry, Hilo Rains and Tsunami Years; a collaborative work of linked poems with three other poets, No Choice but to Follow; a short story collection, Hoʻolulu Park and the Pepsodent Smile; and a children’s book, The Bravest ʻOpihi. The recipient of several awards, including the US/Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, most recently in the Imagine What It’s Like: A Literature and Medicine Anthology. In 2006, she won the Hawaiʻi Award for Literature.

Why did you decide to write Anshu?
My story began as a short story, but I found it too limiting because there was so much more I wanted to say about this not-so-very-likeable child—this girl, who like me, loved to play with fire—that I had to make the story longer. And longer. The initial thrust—I wanted to know what the ultimate encounter with fire could be for someone like the main character, Hi-chan, who had been obsessed with playing with fire, and the different kinds of fires she would face as she grew older—fires of sex, anger, desire, passion, hate—ultimately real fires as in the firebombing and the atomic bomb, resulting in having a need to change and awaken to Great Compassion . . . in other words, face true reality, the truth about life and death, and take this awareness to become a better, stronger, more compassionate person.

What research did you do for the book?
A lot! My husband has an extensive, wonderful, comprehensive library about World War II that covers the war between the U.S. and Japan. His books showed me the general scope of the war and its particulars, and what happened to the people of Japan during those years; the countless discussions we had about the war have been invaluable in my understanding and assessment about what was happening in Japan. As to the information I gathered—during my US/Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship, especially, I used the English language library at International Houses in Tokyo. In Kyoto, I utilized a library affiliated with Doshisha University. These libraries were a godsend because most of the books were in English. In addition, I talked with countless people in Japan and here and visited various museums, including the Museum of Tokyo that shows the extent of the firebombing; the museum about the atomic bomb in Hiroshima; the museum at Yasakuni Jinji, which houses a collection of letters that soldiers sent home, the uniforms they wore, and their stories. In creating Norio for example, I gathered and “appropriated” some of these facts and artifacts to create his character, trying always to give my own take and twist on what I gathered visually and/or from the blurbs on the displays.

How long have you been working on this novel?
I began the story in 1999 and I’ve been working on it since, writing and rewriting the book countless times like a crazy person, and I still feel parts of it—to the horror of people who worked with me on the manuscript—could be changed and tightened and reworked. I’m glad, however, that the book took me a long time to write. I felt unpressured, except by myself. There were days that I said to my husband, “Don’t talk to me today! Make your own lunch!” and sequestered myself in my room—in my pajamas. Wild hair and bad breath.

I wrote the messy, ugly first draft in Japan. Generously, Cathy Song helped me to shape it into fashion when I got back. She was so good in spotting and pointing out the bad, purple stuff and helping me to rework the manuscript: “This is B-movie dialogue! This is a B-movie sex scene!” We laughed over what I had written.

Early readers also helped out, but I think the manuscript was too raw, too screwed up, to be liked very much. The story was a lot longer, too. I realized it needed to be cut, cut, cut—but where? How was I going to do this? Until and unless I could delete a hundred or more pages, I knew it would not be any good. Writers love their own words; it’s an art to cut.

How many complete drafts did I write? Possibly ten or more drafts and innumerable, innumerable revisions.

Have your and your family’s experiences influenced Anshu and, if so, how?
I was a firebug when I was young, but that’s the extent of any “family” influence I can think of. I was obviously not alive during the period when Himiko was a young girl and I was certainly too young to know much about the war with Japan as a child. I heard of only one girl from Hilo who had been in the bomb, but I did not know the family or her circumstances, especially why she was living in Japan. Basically, I had to create my characters as composites of people I’ve known over the years, taking mannerisms from this uncle or that, basing facial expressions on family members or friends, even strangers, and characterizing them in this way. Because many specific places and general areas I talk about have changed, and because people in Japan are reticent about discussing the war—dismissing it as something in the past, saying that they all have to look forward—I had to recreate in the text what the lay of the land was like for the time I was writing about. I think this was the hardest part. Pre-war maps sketchy, street signs changed, names and language changed from Meiji Japanese to today’s Japanese, people having a kind of amnesia about the war, all of this making it difficult to envision what the surrounding territory was really like. Much had been destroyed during the firebombing, the subsequent occupation, and building of the infrastructure for the country.

How does your work as a Buddhist priest affect Anshu in particular and your writing in general?
I was born and raised a Shin Buddhist. This was the predominant sect in Japan at the time, as well as the predominant sect that came to Hawaiʻi with the immigrants. My grandmother and my mother were active helper members of Hilo Hongwanji Mission on Kilauea Avenue.

A large part of the citizenry in Japan during the war were Shin Buddhists or Buddhists ascribing to various schools or sects of Pure Land Buddhism, so it was almost natural for me to write from this perspective, the whole idea of “dark sorrow” or anshu coming from words expressed in explaining the Buddha’s sutras, especially his first sutra, The Larger Sutra. I tried to show the protagonist’s growth in a Buddhist way, her eventual awareness of the fragility and transiency of life, its realities, its suffering—especially as to how one’s ego, desires, and vanity can cause great pain to others and to one’s self.

I don’t know how much being a reverend in Jodo Shinshu has changed my writing very much except to say that I did cast a Buddhist perspective on things I wrote or thought about, mainly because of the subject matter. I don’t know if all my writings will appear to have this bent later on. All I know is that I still have much to learn about the Teachings, so it is hard to quantify or to say how much of the material was so informed—I hope because of my having learned all about the religion, more deeply, but I have to think about this, because, if you think you know something, you really don’t?

If there is a larger moral issue I wished to convey, it had to be the idea of peace. It may have to do with my belief that people can learn to become peaceful if they understand the four Noble Truths: all life is pain and suffering; suffering is caused by desire; the end of suffering is found in awareness; the way to awareness is the Eightfold path, what the historical Buddha delineated in his first sutra: right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right meditation. I guess I tried, very loosely, to show Hi-chan’s path and her struggles through these precepts.

Also, for the epigraphs written on each part, I used the four “seals,” what is generally known as the foundation of Buddhism, which explain the reality of life and the relativity of all things in order to explain the unexplainable, especially about wars, fire bombings, the atomic bomb, and equally, beyond that, any or all tragedy we face as sentient beings. I think it’s safe to say that the book and I took a long, spiritual journey together.

Something more?
I just want to thank all the people I worked with and those who helped and supported me through the years. My mother always used to say to do all things–fukui tokoro kara–from the deepest part of one’s self. My sentiment, exactly, in thanking all of you.

— Bamboo Ridge Press staff


Based on historical events, Anshu is a tale of passion and human triumph in the face of extraordinary adversity, spanning the cane fields of Hawaiʻi and the devastation in Hiroshima. A pregnant, unmarried Hilo teenager, Himiko Aoki, finds her Hawaiʻi Japanese American identity clashing with Japan’s cultural norms when she is sent to live with relatives in Tokyo in 1941 and becomes trapped there with the outbreak of war. When America drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Himiko finds herself adapting in unexpected ways just to survive.


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