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'Fire' Sale: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's latest book tells the story of three generations of Japanese-American women.

Smoke, She is A-Rising

Fire horse women and picture brides are the stuff of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's 'Legend'

By Jessica Neuman Beck

Every local of a certain age has stories about San Jose when it was all orchards over the hill, but Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston does them one better: she has stories about San Jose before it was anything. The Legend of Fire Horse Woman (Kensington Publishing, 304 pages, $23 cloth) tells the story of three generations of Japanese-American women: Sayo, a picture bride from Japan; her daughter Hana, unhappily living in an arranged marriage; and Terri, Sayo's youngest granddaughter. Set in the early years of the 20th century in the Bay Area and Watsonville, as well as the Manzanar internment camp in eastern California in the 1940s, Legend of Fire Horse Woman explores the different ways people look for freedom, both in their personal lives and on a larger scale.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston is something of a legend herself. Her memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, has been lauded as one of the 20th century's best nonfiction books, and along with her husband, local writer Jim Houston, she organizes the Pacific Rim Film Festival in Santa Cruz. We caught up with her by telephone from Hawaii, where she was previewing some new films.

Metro Santa Cruz: How is it there?

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: It's so beautiful here. You think it's so beautiful you don't want to work, but it's the opposite. You feel so inspired, so happy to be alive.

What got you interested in the stories of picture brides?

Well, actually, many years ago when I was in Hawaii, I thought this would be a very good place to do an oral history project on the picture brides that came here in the early 1900s. I went and interviewed some of the older women. It was very interesting because Japanese women of that generation didn't want to talk about themselves. They would say, 'I knew a picture bride,' and they would tell these incredible stories. There was such a stereotype of Japanese women, even now, about being very submissive and quiet and weak in many ways, but these women were incredibly strong and they had very ingenious ways of surviving. So that was my first interest in doing a novel about a picture bride. And then I thought, well, I should probably tell her life's story until the bombing of Hiroshima. About four or five hundred pages of writing about this woman's life when she first comes here, I could never get past 1910. I realized that I was resisting getting into the war period and into the internment because I felt it would be difficult to write about such a historical event in Japanese-American history. It was difficult for me to cross that barrier. Then I got a little more brave and I went for it.

Why did you set it in the Bay Area?

I knew that there was a big Japanese-American community in Watsonville--it was the crossroads. Many, many Japanese immigrants would make contact, communicate through boarding houses and so forth. Besides, I heard my family talking about it. My parents had a ranch--the house is still there--in Watsonville. My father raised strawberries and apples in that area until that earthquake, I think it was in 1926. It shifted the ground and the well went dry, so he had to move on. If he hadn't, I would have been born in Watsonville, not in Los Angeles! You know the romantic scene in the book on what would have been La Selva Beach? I heard the stories growing up and I thought that would be a perfect love scene. Everybody thinks, "Oh, you're copying From Here to Eternity"--you know, rolling in the waves--but no!

I thought it was really interesting how you likened the situation with the Japanese-Americans to the situation with the Native Americans.

I read in the paper that the docent for Manzanar was this Paiute Indian, a man named Richard Stewart. When people would come to see the ruins, he took them around. He knew it like the palm of his hand--he knew where the bathrooms were, where the hospital had been, the graveyard. I knew that I wanted to have an Indian presence in the book, so I went to Manzanar and I spent some time with him. I said, "There's a part in my book where I have the stone that turns into a warrior. It's part of a vision that Terri has. Would that be plausible in a Paiute myth?" And he said, "Oh, absolutely! We have myths like that." He told me the actual myth about the warrior that turns to stone. And, boy, did I get chicken skin. He says there's a lot of stone in the symbolism of the Indians around there, because of course the mountain is made of granite. Then I knew I was on the right track, that anything I imagined would be all right because I had some help there, out in the universe.

'Farewell to Manzanar' was the story of your family's experiences during and after World War II. How much of those actual experiences did you put into 'Legend of Fire Horse Woman'?

There are key events in any Japanese-American communal history. The internment, the loyalty oaths, the riots and the conscription of soldiers--those are things I couldn't avoid. I couldn't get too much into it in Farewell to Manzanar because it had to be from my point of view. I was 7-to-11 when I was interned.

What do you hope your readers will come away with?

I hope they will know what the camp life was life, in human terms, that you don't see it like a photograph. How life had to go on within the camp, love stories, fights and so forth, the humanness of it. And just that they'll have some more knowledge of the Japanese-American sensibility--you know, how those women thought, and why they thought the way they did. The theme of liberation and freedom with the barbed wire, and the whole idea of women going through liberating themselves--that's a great metaphor, that you can imprison yourself. I wanted the book to have characters, you know, the three women characters, and also because I didn't want it to be a political book. I wanted it to have a stylized effect, so I patterned it after Kabuki drama. That's why there are five acts.

I really liked the character of Sayo. She seemed to take a lot of risks that most people wouldn't necessarily take.

Everybody likes Sayo, yeah. And you know, those women did take those risks. Everybody thought well, oh my God, they couldn't speak the language ... but some of those women were really wild. They took risks--to get to the States, they would smuggle themselves over from Mexico. There are incredible stories that some women told about how they didn't like their husbands. One woman tied her legs together so he couldn't sleep with her. Another one shaved her head. They did really outrageous things. It blew me away. I had such stereotypes about these women--they look just like your grandma, you know, and you'd never guess that they'd led these raucous lives.

What's your writing process like?

Jim, my husband, it's really a job for him. He gets up early and he's up there writing. I get up and I kind of do what has to be done to get the day together, to keep the family and the house together, and then I write later in the morning. If I'm really on a roll, I'll just keep writing. I could write for 10 hours one day and then not write for two days.

How long did this book take to write?

I'm embarrassed to say, at least 10 years. But I did not write on it all the time. I'd have to stop and write something for a magazine, or people would come up with some ideas for movies or something like that. I didn't just work on the novel, like I can now. It actually was correct--I wasn't ready. When I was trying to write it, I had about three drafts, and it's nothing like what it started out to be.

Do you feel like there's a void in your life now that it's done?

No, no! It's so freeing! I'm ready to go, working on another novel, and I want to make a musical out of the Manzanar story. It gave me confidence, I think.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston will read on Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave. 'The Legend of Fire Horse Woman' is available in bookstores everywhere.

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From the November 5-12, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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