David Mura, author of memoirs Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory, writes an eloquent first novel that explores the generational effects of the Japanese American internment camps. The story is framed around Ben Ohara, a middle-aged itinerant historian who uses the writing of his dissertation entitled “Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire” to journey through memory as a means of inner reconciliation. As Ben revisits the causes of his depression, the early death of his father through suicide, family secrets kept by his mother, and the sudden disappearance of his astrophysicist brother Tommy, he is able to piece together the psychological consequences of his parents’ experience in the internment camps and find closure through the study of history.
Mura writes an intricate first person perspective that allows readers to delve into Ben’s mind and experience a childhood of dual cultures. From the bedtime stories of Paul Bunyan and Urashima Taro, to Ben and Tommy’s obsession with Batman and Godzilla, Mura includes a recognizable yet unique aspect of cultural interrelations. Mura does include Japanese terminology within the text; however, his provision of definitions incorporates a smooth transition between languages:
“When I think back, it seems strange that I didn’t quite know what the word hakujin – white people – meant, though I sensed it referred to outsiders, people not like us” (27).
Although Ben is capable of academic language, his narration exudes a casual tone that not only sets him apart from his genius brother, but also allows readers to immediately view Ben as a regular guy. Ben is a reliable narrator who expresses his thoughts fully throughout his psychological quest.
By focusing on the generational consequences of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Mura leaves readers with a teleological observation of history. Although fictional, Ben’s story reflects a time that is not of the past, but of the present. Ben’s world is our world, inhabited with cell phones, parent teacher conferences, Bull games, and episodes of Law & Order. Like the plot of “Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire” Mura’s dedication “For the legacy we all share” encompasses a merging of past and present, demonstrating the strength that can be found through both.