Wena Poon on life and death in occupied Kyoto

by Suzanne Kamata

Special To The Japan Times

As a child living in a tiny apartment in Singapore, Wena Poon listened to radio plays broadcast in a variety of languages and watched TV — everything from Chinese sword-fighting operas to popular American series such as “M*A*S*H.” “There was nowhere to go outside,” Poon says, “so I just sat around. It was an audio-visual childhood.”

Kami and Kaze, by Wena Poon.
Sutajio Wena, Fiction.

Now a writer and Harvard-educated lawyer, Poon lives in Austin, Texas, with her Australian-American husband. Though the stories in her first collection, “Lions in Winter,” took place mostly in her native country, her novel “Alex y Robert,” about a young American woman who wants to be a bullfighter, was set in Spain. The book was published to acclaim in Britain, where it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. A short story she wrote based on this novel was later nominated for France’s Prix Hemingway.

The novella “Kami and Kaze,” published in February, takes place in Kyoto during the American occupation following World War II. The main character is an American named Kate, who takes a position in the public-health department of the American Army. On her first day, she is assigned a Japanese driver. Their relationship unfolds in sharply written, understated scenes, as Kate deals with an immediate public-relations disaster — 68 Japanese infants have died after receiving an inoculation against diphtheria administered by American medics.

Poon, an avid photographer, has included images, mostly taken by herself during a stay in Kyoto. One photo, however, is of a rat drawn by her grandmother. It was through this grandmother that she heard stories of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during WWII.

She learned that her pregnant great-grandmother died “very tragically” and that her great-grandfather was bayoneted by Japanese troops, buried alive and left for dead. “He somehow pushed his way out of the earth and crawled home,” Poon recounts.

Poon has dedicated “Kami and Kaze” to her great-grandparents “to show that as an artist I did not take the easy road. I wanted to acknowledge my family’s suffering and then turn around and write a novel about how Japanese civilians also suffered. I wanted to do something surprising, something a Chinese novelist wouldn’t typically do.”

Poon’s grandmother told her about the horrors of war, but also “strangely uplifting things. Once, Japanese soldiers broke into a house in her village to ‘requisition’ supplies. When they saw a Buddhist altar in the house, they fell silent, prayed before it and left without molesting the inhabitants. What does this say about our cultural connections? Are ‘they’ really ‘the enemy,’ or are we just friends thrown together in a terrible predicament? As a novelist I’m interested in this aspect. This is what doesn’t get told.”

In spite of her sensitivity to people of other cultures, and her efforts at research, Poon has occasionally riled other writers. She says, “I was once criticized publicly by an Asian-American writer for writing from the point of view of a non-Asian. She had never read any of my books, but when I mentioned writing the Spain novel “Alex y Robert,” she was enraged. She said, “How can you look at your face in the mirror every morning and forget you are Asian?”

She has also been criticized for her interest in Japan by right-wing Chinese expatriates in the United States.

When asked to expand upon her connection with Japan, Poon says, “Growing up in Singapore, Japan was just one of the cultures that we naturally absorbed, along with British and American culture.”

Her interest in Japan expands beyond history. Recently, at the age of 40, she has begun to study the Japanese language. She’s also a fan of anime, manga and the antics of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. In Austin, she wears clothes by the Kyoto label Sou-Sou every day as an act of rebellion against “strip-mall America.”

“The Adventures of Snow Fox and Sword Girl,” released this month, is the first in a trilogy, which Poon calls a “sophisticated fairy tale in Kurosawa costumes.” It features a sword-fighting orphan who adopts the name Sei Shonagan because it sounds like a cross between “dragon” and “shogun,” and becomes personal guard to the Emperor. “It’s a novel about diaspora, culture and gender,” Poon says. “But it can be enjoyed just as a fun manga-like read.”

Currently, the prolific Poon is working on another Japan-related “pacifist” novel called “Chang’an,” “after the fabulous, cosmopolitan city in Tang Dynasty China on which Kyoto was modeled.” The story is told from the point of view of Hayashi, a Japanese man born and raised in Manchuria, who becomes a medical officer in the Imperial Japanese Army.

According to Poon, “Hayashi is a role I created in order to answer my own question, ‘What does it mean to look exactly like the enemy?’ What happens when the very few barriers between two tribes are completely pared away? Could you really still shrilly point the finger at each other and say, ‘You’re not human; you’re my enemy’?

“I can tell this idea is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But a lot of other people are also going to smile, identify with and celebrate this idea.”

  • zer0_0zor0

    So she is a lawyer that writes fiction?

    What am I missing here?