Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire (book)
Creators: David Mura
First novel by acclaimed poet and memoirist David Mura that explores the impact of wartime incarceration—and the silences about it—on a Japanese American family in Chicago after World War II.
Protagonist Ben Ohara is a Sansei forty-something community college history professor in Chicago in the novel's 1999 present. He is vaguely unsatisfied with his professional life, having never finished his Ph.D and struggles to finish a book he's been working on for years titled Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire . Though happily married with two young sons, he also struggles with the legacy of his difficult childhood, his parents (both now deceased) and their secrets, and especially survivor's guilt over his brilliant but troubled younger brother Tommy, who had disappeared into the Nevada desert ten years before never to be seen again. When a postcard from Tommy suddenly appears—sent from Japan in 1989, it had apparently been lost in the mail—Ben is moved to go to Los Angeles, ostensibly to do research on his book, but also to further investigate Tommy's disappearance and his own family's history.
The narrative subsequently moves back and forth between past and present, recounting his travels and pithy summaries of his research on suicide along with Ben and Tommy's Chicago childhood: an often absent father and a determined mother who often quarrel, growing up in a bad part of town, being bullied by the only other Sansei kid around, interactions with more affluent relatives, and a descent into petty crime that ends up sending Ben into a juvenile facility and reform school. After his father's suicide, his mother remarries a bland white former veteran who served in Japan; while Ben straightens out and becomes a good student, Tommy becomes an astrophysicist, but also a drug addict, gambler, and womanizer and relations between the two as young adults become strained.
Behind much of the family drama is his father's status as a " no-no boy ," the implied reason for his instability and difficulty in holding down a job and of conflicts with other Japanese Americans. As a child, Ben is fascinated by stories his uncle tells him about serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and lies to friends that his father had been a war hero. As the story goes on, Ben becomes more interested in Japanese American history and learns about various aspects of his family history that his parents never told him. As is the case with many works—as well as in the community in general—"no-no boys" and draft resisters are conflated, though here Mura does this intentionally, making the point that Ben never does figure out which category his father fell into.
Though Mura is about the same age as Ben and both grew up in Chicago, other elements of the story are not overly autobiographical, as Mura's father was too young during the war to have faced the dilemma of military service while being in a concentration camp. But he told interviewer Alexs Pate, that "[w]hat I suppose I do share with Ben is a sense that there was a vast silence in my childhood surrounding the past of my Nisei parents and the legacy of the internment camps."
Acclaimed as a poet and memoirist, Mura has published four books of poetry and two memoirs. He is also a playwright, critic, and performance artist.
For More Information
David Mura website: http://www.davidmura.com/famous_suicides_of_the_japanese_empire.htm .
Publishers website: https://coffeehousepress.org/products/famous-suicides-of-the-japanese-empire .
Pate, Alexs. " Q&A: David Mura on Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire ." IMDiversity, Oct. 20, 2012.
Beronā, David. Library Journal , July 2008, 65. ["Despite the distinct stories about suicides and the Japanese internment camps, the novel is more like a patchwork of fiction and historical facts that does not hold together well."]
Cheuse, Alan. Chicago Tribune , Nov. 22, 2008. ["… sections of it were absolutely delightful, though others meandered much too much."]
Crystal, Viviane. Historical Novel Society , Feb. 2009.
Kellogg, Susan. Discover Nikkei , Nov. 27 2008. ["It is refreshing to have a story trace the direct psychological effect of incarceration in the camps during WWII, but from a different perspective than what is normally heard."]
Korfhage, Matthew. Willamette Week , Oct. 14, 2008. ["… his book contains a few too many nods to the readers, a few too many self-consciously helpful sidebars about our country's shameful treatment of Japanese immigrants in the past century."]
Publishers Weekly , June 23, 2008, 35. ["... while the novel's first half vividly recounts Ben's childhood in Chicago's rough Uptown neighborhood, the second half sees the narrative losing energy as it becomes more contemplative and big family secrets are blandly revealed. Mura writes beautiful sentences, but the story becomes more slack just as it should be intensifying."]
Seaman, Donna. Booklist , Sept. 15, 2008, 25. ["Memoirist... and poet Mura manages rather spectacularly to bring a light touch to his intense first novel...."]
Upchurch, Michael. " Up Against an Unfathomable Family History ." Seattle Times , Oct. 9, 2008. ["The book is multileveled, multifaceted and filled with period detail that will strike a chord with anyone of Mura's generation (he was born in 1952).]