I miss the occasional lunches I enjoyed in Winnipeg with writers Sally Ito, Joanne Epp, and Sarah Klassen. I always came away warmed by their friendship and stimulated by our conversation, which sometimes continued later via email exchanges.
Reading Sally Ito’s recent memoir, The Emperor’s Orphans (Turnstone, 2018), shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at the Manitoba Books Awards this year, felt like an extended and wonderful such lunch. The Emperor’s Orphans is full of colourful characters, stories, and ideas that elaborate on the role of writing as “a becoming of oneself through language.” This “becoming” has particular currency for Ito as Japanese-Canadian. “I write to find my cultural identity,” she says.
The memoir is a multi-layered exploration, both in genre (diary excerpts, poems, essay, and storytelling) and in people and places. So rich and complex are the layers, in fact, I longed for a family chart to help me keep names and relationships straight, as well as a glossary of Japanese words! This is a minor critique, however. One can simply sink into the complication that is any personal or family story and observe the way being shapes and shifts. Identity, as her series of essay-like chapters demonstrates, isn’t linear as much as overlapping circles, turning ever deeper into legacy and geography, into past and present meaning.
Born to a Japanese couple in Alberta and growing up mainly in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Ito’s life and genealogy tugged between Canada and Japan. Some members of her fore-family immigrated to Canada and then returned to Japan, others remained there, yet others moved from their first Canadian home in southern B.C. to an internment camp and then to the flats of southern Alberta. Her story includes the challenges of immigration, race, assimilation, but also the reality of Canada’s insensitivity and injustice to her citizens of Japanese descent at the time of the Second World War.
Her dual loyalties, she says, have led to an interest in translation. Via translation, she shares the writings of her grandfather Toshiro. “He brought into consciousness everything he observed in words,” she comments. His writing, however, was not about identity, for he was Japanese “through and through.” She, however, was “hybrid.” In high school, she began to write. She realizes she was, in this way, beginning to piece out her hybrid identity. “I felt the frisson of the creative energy and clarity words can give to an otherwise unexpressed thought or feeling. I became hooked on writing to find out what it could tell me about myself and the culture I felt I was so much in jeopardy of losing.” Despite growing up in Canada, she was “looking for the motherland.” In 1982, before university, she went to Japan for a year, for in Japan “was embodied the loss of what I felt was missing all these years in my life in Canada.”
Some years later she would return to Japan for a time with her own family. The last chapter of the memoir describes what she admits as perhaps quixotic efforts concerning land in her grandfather Saichi’s name (he immigrated to Canada as a young man), a quest bringing together “a remnant of the fringes of the family tree.” Although this didn’t work out in terms of the land itself, what she gained was “the land of story.”
I found this book fascinating, and recommend it.