We Create Our Own Monsters: Talking with Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

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I read Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s recently released novel, Shadow Child, in preparation for a panel I moderated at Chicago’s thirty-fourth annual Printers Row Lit Fest (PRLF). Shadow Child is a captivating mystery that centers around Lillie—a Japanese woman, American born—who comes of age during World War II and lands repeatedly between deadly rocks and hard places. Through the narrative of Lillie and her daughters, Hana and Kei, Rizzuto explores the scars, shadows, and hauntings of war, internment camps, natural disasters, racism, and other injustices.

Shadow Child is brilliantly written, resonates eerily with current events, and left me with questions beyond the ones I had time for at the PRLF, so I was thrilled when Rizzuto agreed to interview and entertained more questions. I was equally delighted when, on a recent visit to New York, Rizzuto welcomed me, at the last minute, into her home where I got to gawk at the cavalcade of books and sculptures that lined her walls, feed on her homemade granola and yogurt, and spend several hours lost in conversation with her about fatal diseases, ecstatic dancing, and everything between.

We tackled the ways in which Shadow Child examines trauma, identity, and monsters.

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The Rumpus: Hana and Kei’s mother, Lillie, escapes a number of traumatizing circumstances throughout Shadow Child. Can you talk a little about trauma and erasure and how these impact Lillie, but also her daughters?

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: How does one talk “a little” about trauma? I’ve come to realize that the investigation of trauma is the focus of my artistic life. I first started writing because I “discovered” a very personal connection to a hazy, historical trauma—the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II—which was that my infant mother was one of those American citizens of Japanese ancestry who was labeled an enemy alien, stripped of her citizenship, and imprisoned for being a potential threat. She was three months old. What I wondered then was, how does this wholescale national trauma affect us? How did we let it happen? How did we let it sink out of the national consciousness? How do we Americans—me, American, because I did this, too—define ourselves as if this illegal incarceration never happened? How does a national act manifest as a personal trauma, and how is it passed down?

That’s background. But those questions about a seventy-five-year-old America are very relevant now, and I have been unable to shake them. In the character of Lillie, in Shadow Child, I am looking again at global acts of war and racism, and how they affect individuals, and how those are passed down. I am also looking at personal trauma, in the stories of Kei and Hana, and the human tendency to attack each other, and ourselves.

Lillie suffers deeply from events that are not directed specifically at her: natural disasters, acts of war, acts of racism, inhumane policies. They are so implacable that she is stripped of any power to protect herself. Hiroshima, for example. People were vaporized. The city burned to the ground. Everything was lost. It is not possible it fix it, or to fix anything within it. There is no justice, no one to appeal to. Lillie has to let go and figure out how to take the next breath.

Erasure is a theme that comes up in Shadow Child in many different guises (for what is a shadow after all?) but in Lillie’s story, erasure is both the cause of so much of her suffering and the way that she escapes. Her identity is constantly at issue: her citizenship, her ethnicity, her family (her role as a daughter, wife, mother), her loyalty, even her sanity. Often these changes are foisted upon her, and she is powerless as a result. She takes back her power when she chooses who she is going to be, and that includes what she herself is going to bury in her past and try to forget.

Whether that is actually possible, though—that’s another thing.

Rumpus: What would you say your primary characters—Hana, Kei, and their mother Lillie—want most? Individually and/or collectively? What are their biggest obstacles? What are their greatest fears?

Rizzuto: Just like us, they want to be loved. To be seen, and safe. To have the right to exist. Beyond that, they want the right to self-determination and choice.

Lillie’s obstacles, as I said, are writ large. They are external: racist, nationalistic, sexist, warmongering policies and events. Hana and Kei don’t face quite the same epic landscape, but they also start with more to lose. Their childhood is unique, and idyllic; in many ways they have everything I just mentioned because they have a unity—they have each other, and their mother, in a bond so close that doesn’t even require language.

Their greatest fears? Being erased. Losing each other.

Rumpus: The character Koko is unlike any other character I’ve happened upon in a book—an amalgamation of the two girls. To read a chapter from her point of view was just fascinating. What inspired this character and what had you hoped to convey to the reader by way of her in particular?

Rizzuto: I wanted the reader to have the experience of what the girls had and what they lost. To be so close to one that no words, no labels, no differences exist. There is a fluidity to their childhood; they are “we” and so, on the page, they are written as “we,” as interchangeable.

As the book progresses, Koko’s situation changes, as does her relationship to herself. The point of view of the chapters changes when this happens, to reflect the judgements the girls have to deal with, the contrasting labeling of others, the complete (in their minds) inability to be anything that the other one is.

I’m fascinated with identity. As a person of mixed race, who presents as white but has a strong identification with the Japanese American side of my family, I am constantly confronted with the chasm, really, between how I think of myself and how others see me. Nationality, ethnicity, appearance, cultural norms, disability/ability, gender, etc. etc., are some of the categories we have already created to make short-hand assumptions about each other. I wanted to cancel all those out and investigate how our identities are formed.

Too often, I think, we let other people tell us who we are. And then we try to live up to their definitions of that role. The “perfect daughter,” the “good mother” come to mind. Or we reject the role, because it’s heinous: My mother, who started off her life as “enemy alien,” was welcomed into her husband’s family by his younger brother who called her “little yellow-belly slant-eye.” But even in reacting against it, we are still giving those labels power. To take this identity projection a step further, sometimes we label ourselves and don’t even know it. Absorbing the scorn of a mother who called us “thunder thighs” and believing we are fat, no matter what the mirror says and long after we have completely forgotten her voice and replaced it with our own. Or sometimes we see a role that could be filled, a role that will bring us approval, and we change ourselves to be that thing.

Koko navigates all of this, and I was trying to write her chapters in such a way that the reader has to experience it with her as she does.

Rumpus: In literature, the portrayal of monsters typically represents or enacts a society’s fears. How would you say monsters operate in your novel—and to what end?

Rizzuto: Shadow Child has lots of monsters, hauntings, ghosts. But that is not where the real peril comes from. My monsters are the guilt and sorrow kind. They rise out of despair, helplessness. They are a manifestation of “dis-ease”; and they are invisible. Hidden.

I have often said, even in this conversation, that we create our own reality. So it follows that we also create our own monsters. Sometimes, they are inside us, in the acts, or feelings or impulses that we don’t want to admit to. They are born out of our decisions, and how we choose to deal with things beyond our control. They remind us that the past is not easy to erase and ignore. They are also—just as trauma is in this story—inheritable.

There is one moment—I’ll try not to make this a spoiler—when one of the characters realizes that the monsters can be wielded, controlled; that she can choose to evoke this notion of the monster and it is quite a powerful thing, though of course, it doesn’t go as planned. Very little in this novel goes as planned.

Rumpus: In Shadow Child, Hana draws monsters she, Kei, and her mother are afraid of, to “save us from them.” She says, “once I had leached them of their danger, I locked them into a carton with hearts on the lid and a flimsy tin lock and stowed it underneath my bed.” Do you feel writing has this kind of power—to protect or save us from the monstrous?

Rizzuto: Yes. In the novel, Hana can’t see the monsters. She experiences them primarily by eavesdropping on her mother’s hallucinations, and through a life shaped by her mother’s unexplained fears and phobias. She has to be willing to be in the same room with them, so to speak. By giving them shape and tangible parameters she can come to understand them and therefore be able to banish them, or to assure her mother when she is having one of her spells.

Writing can give us—both the writer and the reader—the same kind of intimacy with the monstrous. As overwhelming as it is, there is an outer edge, and beyond that, there is a space in a story or a life that has not been invaded and will stay untouched. I think in almost all cases, a written story with a monster in it is going to offer some nuance, some resolution, some distance from which to understand it. (I wrote something similar to that, about how trauma works in fiction, for Electric Literature).

In my own life, I have written out my own monsters, real and imagined. I have also written through them, and through my own pain (I did the last two weeks of editing on Shadow Child in eighteen-hour days in the two weeks before my father’s funeral). If you can stay in that space, of transmutation, the end product is a reminder that we survive.

Rumpus: Are there questions you ask yourself or principles you adhere to while writing to portray people and scenarios as authentic, complex, and nuanced as you do?

Rizzuto: All my writing, fiction or not, is rooted in real events, so to begin with, I do a lot of research. I talk to people—interviews and talk story are a big part of my process—so right there, there are many different perspectives and experiences and interpretations of a topic. It’s important to me to get as much information and as many different versions as possible. I love being surprised. I love the little human details, like the kid who was suspended for breaking down a door in school.

As a writer whose main topics have been Japanese, Japanese American, and Hawaiian history and themes, I am also well aware that these are not topics that flood our books, media, and entertainment. There is a chance that one of my books will be the first time a reader is encountering the kinds of people and events that I am writing about. That puts several burdens on me that I try always to remember.

The first is to be as accurate with the facts as I can be, keeping my own shortcomings and the fallibility of memory in mind. I don’t want to be rewriting the basic facts of history, not to mention that the whole point of incorporating history is to explore the effects on individual people. I write about places I am familiar with, where I have been and lived, and where I feel a connection.

The second is to make sure that my characters are true to their times, gender, ethnic and cultural identity, and not to water them down for readers who are unfamiliar. (My readers have gotten themselves into a fairly complicated plot, so I trust they can follow me.) At the same time, to make sure they don’t fall into stereotypes, I always remember an older gentleman I met in a retirement home when I was researching my first novel on the Japanese American incarceration camps. He said, “Write a potboiler. The loyal, long-suffering internees are boring.” He was right, of course. Humans are complex creatures, and characters are much more interesting when they are flawed.

The third is to do everything I can to make sure that I am not co-opting someone else’s story as my own. This was relatively simple in my first two books, but in Shadow Child, there is very little that is popularly available about the town in Hawaii I was writing about, and the story of Hana and Kei (though it is anchored to real events) was not in any way representative of the people in the actual town. Plus, there are plenty of people there who still remember the tsunami and can tell their own stories. So for that reason, I didn’t name the town, in hopes that an interested reader might do their own investigations and find some local writers and local stories. Or better yet, visit. The volcano is still erupting.

But in the end, I create characters who interest me, who grapple with issues that concern me also. I like to fall in love.

Rumpus: You weave together such a masterfully intricate story. What works—with a similar quality (weaving together a masterfully intricate story)—have impressed you or had an impact on your writing?

Rizzuto: I love multiple narrators. Michael Ondaatje is a master at that, and The English Patient is still one of my favorite all time books. Julia Alvarez’s In The Time of the Butterflies was another early inspiration. More recent favorites are Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, which is incredibly rich. Three books, three Hugos: you cannot beat that.

Rumpus: And the inevitable question—what’s next for you?

Rizzuto: I have no idea. But something with monsters, for sure!


Amy Danzer manages several master’s programs at Northwestern University, including the MA/MFA in creative writing program. She directs NU’s Summer Writers’ Conference. On the side, she writes book reviews and interviews authors for Newcity. More from this author →