Table of Contents
Dedication goes here, if any.
“Mood Indigo,” by Ellington, Mills, Bigard. Copyright 1931 by Mills Music, Inc. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved. Used with permission. A poem of BashÅ from
The Narrow Road to the North and Other Travel Sketches
, by BashÅ, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasi (Penguin Classics, 1966), copyright Â© Nobuyuki Yuasi, 1966. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Book, Ltd. “Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two” from
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
, by Raul Reps. Reprinted by permission of Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., Tokyo.
ALSO BY RICHARD WILEY :
Festival for Three Thousand Maidens Indigo
Take Your Roof With You
A BAMBARA PROVERB GOES THUS: “GO TO THE VILLAGE where you don't have a house but take your roof with you.”
Richard Wiley's literary strategies often recall that proverb to mind. Mostly, for many of us in non-European societies, that is, on the receiving end of unsolicited visitations, the roof of the intruder who appears to have embraced that ancient exhortation is usually made of impermeable tiles or corrugated iron sheeting. This is not what the Bambara had in mind. Obviously, those ancients envisaged the airy, light-filtering fibre thatch rather than the ponderous and presumptuous, a mobile dwelling of alienated baggage. The latter merely inhibits penetration of light and, thus, of illumination. The Frenchman AndrÃ© Gide is one exception that comes readily to mind. The roof that he took with him on his journeys through Africa did come close to being a refined thatch variety, even when his impressions are negative and the rendering of some of his encounters nonflatteringâcertainly it is impossible to deny that his
Travels in the Congo
is an elegant work of travelogue that matches the best in the literature of discovery.
Yet a new generation of non-African, non- Caribbean writersâthe latter being of the “return-to-roots” school of yearningâappears resolved to followâalbeit through a straightforward fictional routeâthe footprints of AndrÃ© Gide. One such is Richard Wiley, white, American, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. This writer has seemingly set out to redress the
time-dishonoured agenda of the foreign intruder whose “roof ” is the ponderous, prefabricated variety, an agenda which promotes the mental impenetrability of frontiers and cultures by a distortion of differences rather than a creative delineation, even celebration, of such differences. Not for a moment, however, does Wiley take refuge in those other tempting optionsâto obscure those differences or exoticise them. It suffices for him that he elicits them in a narrative accessibility which, at the same time, offers a revelation of a common humanity, a humanity with all its uncertainties, foibles, dubious pasts, and petty egos at work, avoiding judgment that derives from a culture that presumes itself superior, or else the norm, against which all others must be measured.
For those who are not familiar with the person in the writer, Richard Wiley has set himself a specific missionâto produce a novel drawn from a milieu in which he finds himself for long enough to set up his roof, observe, and interact. The writer in him homes in, naturally, on an actual event that forms part of a crucial historic or cultural experience of that milieuâin Japan, Korea, Alaska, and, most recently, Nigeriaâthus transposing the traditional role of the explorer as narrator with that of the writer as adventurer, a different cast of mind from the earlier mentioned colonial imperators, and closer to the albeit condescending and libelous Joyce Cary. A difference between Cary and Wiley is the avoidance of stereotypes. It all began when Wiley found himself assigned to Korea as one of John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps volunteersâa far call from the more familiar colonial expeditioner who invaded prostrate domains, tarpaulin roofs at the ready, but also with an uprooted home-away-from-home, complete with bathtub, linen changes, silverware, and a virtual army of domestic staff, often forcibly recruited natives in the manner of Stanley, Livingstone, or John Speke.
In what I like to consider a one-man mission of “literary reparations” to denigrating literature from that list, Richard Wiley appears not necessarily to integrate but to insert himself
unobtrusively, a watchful eye and empathising listener, into alien identities, operating through plain, credible protagonists such as Teddy Maki, the Japanese-American musician conscript in
Soldiers in Hiding
, the most seductive and compellingâin my viewâof his works so far. That preference can of course be traced to my own calling as a dramatist, but it is difficult not to succumb to the measured pace of that Noh drama vehicle that conveys and climaxes this story of identity, alienation, cruelty, tenderness, the moralities of loyalty, and ritualised cartharsis, bringing each character to a confrontation with his or her inner self, a progression towards inevitability. It is a rite of exorcism, one that ultimately reconciles individual selves with realities that have been shaped by a shared experience of disruptionâthe sudden, shattering intrusion of war. It is the often overwhelmed, human scale of such convulsions that is subtly delineated in
Soldiers in Hiding
From an address at the Writers Forum,
Brockport, New York, 1997.
Excerpted with the author's kind permission.
WHILE LIVING IN TOKYO IN THE EARLY 1970S I MET A MAN named Tib Kamayatsu. At the time he was around seventy years old, a second-generation Japanese from America who had come to live in Japan before World War II and been drafted into the Japanese army. He was a musician, had been famous in his earlier yearsâsome still recognize his nameâand rarely visited America. I thought Mr. Kamayatsu's story was magnificent and strangeâan American drafted into the Japanese army!âa dilemma worthy of a stage play, but his walk was heavy, not so much with the mantle of tragedy on his shoulders as with a muddled sense of bitterness and boredom. He rarely talked about this experience of fighting against his countrymen, which, to say the least, had piqued my curiosity. I tried several times to engage him of an evening, thinking sake might loosen his tongue, but it only made him maudlin, an odd aggression bubbling up from somewhere, and I could get no war stories out of him. Later I discovered that he wasn't unique, that some two dozen other second-generation Japanese-Americans had also been trapped in Japan in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and slipped on Imperial Army uniforms, hoping they might survive because they looked Japanese and could speak the language, and also hoping, I am sure, to escape into the peaceful years at war's end, unnoticed. They got caught on history's horns and were gored by them, but they weren't traitors, most of them, they were simply in search of adventure in the land of their fathers, in search of love, maybe, or
merely doing what we all ought to do in one form or another, seeing the world.
And Mr. Kamayatsu took whatever truly happened to him to his grave, leaving me to imagine a story of my own.
Soldiers in Hiding
was first published twenty years ago by Atlantic Monthly Press, in 1986, accepted by an editor of surpassing good taste named Joyce Johnson. I had been writing the novel for six years before it was accepted, seeing it shrink from a six-hundred-page narrative opus told by multiple first person narratorsâI was under the influence of Akira Kurosawa's
at the time and wanted to express the unreliability of the eyewitnessâto the slimmed-down two-hundred-pager that it is today. I think I thought, back then, that it was up to me to recast literature itself, not only by good storytelling and a perpetual honing and molding of the English language, but by adhering to the kind of sleight of hand trickery that many of my age, swooning over Joyce or Kafka, thought might pass as true experiment, when often it was only a copy of the true experiments that had gone on before them. We were scientists with beakers that didn't belong to us, my fellow young scribblers and me, and I was like Mr. Kamayatsu, hiding in a uniform not my own, not a real writer but a conformist to the passing literary fashion of the times. Ah, the folly of youth! Ah, the hurdles we have to lumber over only to get to the point where we can be ourselves!
I returned to America in 1974 but put off beginning
Soldiers in Hiding
until I had completed what turned out to be my second published novel,
. I'd been mulling what I had learned during both my five years in Japan and my two years before it in Korea, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer: how those years had turned me from a complacent college boy, as stuck in American culture as a fat chimney sweep in a narrow chimney, into someone who saw the world through a wide-angle lens, saw it in terms of its myriad languages and the realities housed within them, at once different from my American reality and the same. I was a poor language student, near the bottom of my
group in Peace Corps training, but I had persevered, and was toward the top of it when our time there was done. I don't think the Koreans learned a thing from me, by the way, except perhaps to wonder at my antics and to try to guess my age, but what I learned from them, and from the Japanese too, when I moved across the Sea of Japan to Tokyo, is that the very structure and grammar of language seems to dictate the way we look at the world, quite as clearly as road signs dictate which avenues we may drive down, which we may not, and how fast we may go. In other words, until I left America I believed the world to be a fixed and solid thing, unaltered by the eyes that saw it, and when I returned I believed the world to be amorphous, a house with many rooms and walls that language and culture could easily shift, vastly altering its look.
But one cannot stay with a novel, plugging away for six long years, one cannot change it from thick to thin, then back to thick, then back to thin again, on such a theory alone, oh no. During the time I worked on
Soldiers in Hiding
, obsessed with writing the best book I could, I was also obsessed by labyrinthine Japan. It was a conundrum to me, on the one hand shallow and trite, its own obsession with America during the decades after the war defining the word “banal,” yet on the other still deeply imbued with beauty and grace, its culture the beneficiary of 250 years of near isolation from the “modern” outside world, formed by the constant pressure of having to rely on its own invention, in much the same way as a diamond is formed by pressure from the center of the earth. At the surface Japan was positively goofy, its popular culture, like ours, determined to seek the lowest common denominator, with silliness and quick surface laughs on every face, yet one could also stroll to the corner market to buy five eggs, and leave with them wrapped in such exquisite simplicity that they hung from a weaving of dried bamboo leaves like a single throat swallowing five times. The place was both mundane and sublime, tasteless and tasteful, clumsy and delicate, and at every turn it captured me. Zen, that ubiquitous draw for every young
seeker, drew me. Kyoto, with its temples and gardens,
in whiteface on narrow streets, became, for me, something to ponder not just of an instant, but of a lifetime, and Tokyo, where the postwar Japanese spent more on entertainment than on national defense and education combined, was my playground and watering hole.