'Of White Ashes' novel explores Japanese-American internment, Hiroshima bombing through fiction
Here & Now’s Celeste Headlee speaks with authors Constance Hays Matsumoto and Kent Matsumoto. Their novel “Of White Ashes” tells the story of a romance between two Japanese-Americans, one who was confined in an American internment camp during World War II, and the other who was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. The novel is based on the experiences of Kent Matsumoto’s parents.
The cover of “Of White Ashes.” (Courtesy Loyola College)
Book excerpt: ‘Of White Ashes’
By Constance Hays Matsumoto and Kent Matsumoto
Airborne. No turning back. The steady hum of the engines permeated the metal cocoon charged with the choreographed energy of flight attendants executing their routine along the aisles. Ruby studied the diverse faces on the plane, knowing that when they landed her physical appearance would blend with the masses. She’d be one of them. At times like this, Ruby wondered why some people found comfort among others who look alike. For her, being surrounded by mostly Japanese faces was a painful reminder.
Flight attendants served drinks. Passengers relaxed into their seats and inhaled deep drags of nicotine. Their journey would be long, and soon the cabin would fill with the fog of cigarette smoke and a cacophony of snores, crying babies, and quiet conversations.
Ruby twisted her pearl necklace, thinking she should have asked for tea to settle her queasiness. Breathe Ruby. You’re not a child anymore and haven’t been one for decades. Reach for the joyful chapters of your life. Don’t let those other chapters dominate your thoughts and ruin this trip. This is important. It’s not about you. But as her fingers rolled from one pearl to the next, her thoughts drifted to the moments that strung together her young life. So long ago.
Those memories had become a part of her. She placed her hands over her stomach to calm the familiar discomfort spinning within—a torment trapped in her body like a black pearl inside of the grip of an oyster. A piece of her. Enduring. Marking her past.
The string gave way and pearls spilled over her lap.
Namu Amida Butsu
March 1939 – Waimea, Hawaii
The students in Ruby Ishimaru’s fourth-grade class listened to morning announcements and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Boys threw spitballs and girls passed notes to one another. Ruby sat alone, distracted and indignant at not being allowed to stay home for the birth.
A good student, she was often the first to raise her hand. Not today. She fidgeted all throughout arithmetic and spelling. Instead of following the text during reading, she gazed at the alphabet written in her teacher’s flawless cursive on the blackboard and baby names flowed through her imagination. The sharp lines of K for Kenzo. The graceful strokes of M for Marguerite. The simple curve of C for Chiko, her father’s given name. Her gaze drifted through the cracked window to endless miles of sugar cane in the distant hills and back to the schoolyard where the crooked trunk of a kiawe tree stood. She daydreamed about teaching her new baby brother or sister not to touch its thorns and hoped the baby wasn’t hurting her mother.
“Father, may we stay home from school today?” Mari had asked their father earlier that morning. His forehead furrowed and he didn’t respond to her sister, who was fourteen. Ruby knew not to ask again.
After a few minutes, their father spoke—his tone dismissive. “The midwife is on her way. Go to school and pay attention to your studies. In a few hours you’ll have a healthy brother to celebrate and love. You will see him the instant you get home.” He shooed them out of the house. “Now go,” he said, returning to the bedroom from where a soft, steady moan escaped.
- • •
The jarring dismissal bell sounded. Ruby reached under her chair and grabbed the ties of the furoshiki wrapped around her now empty wooden bentō box. She and Mama had selected the
print fabric from the general store’s limited stock—blonde girls in smocked dresses petting kittens, fair-skinned boys in knickers and neckties playing ball with a dog, a mother scooping ice cream for her children. No one on the fabric looked like her. Today, she didn’t care.
Ruby dashed into the sunlit schoolyard to meet Mari. The girls held hands as they ran downhill past the wood-sided community center, shutters open to the tropical breeze. Breathless, they raced past the Waimea Sugar Mill toward their simple house next to the Buddhist temple. Their father served the temple, ministering to the plantation-family congregation, most of whom were Japanese. Along the path, clumps of ginger flowers grew wild, nourished by abundant sunshine and rain. “They smell yummy,” Ruby said. “You pick one bunch for the baby and I’ll pick another for Mama.” The gifts cost a precious few seconds before they rushed the last distance home.
They found their neighbor, Mrs. Moriwaki, sitting on the front steps and wiping tears from her face. Mari gripped Ruby’s arm, as if to stop her from moving forward. The flower bouquets drooped from their hands as the girls stared at the woman, and she at them, her face ashen in the afternoon light.
Excerpted from “Of White Ashes” Copyright © Constance Hays Matsumoto and Kent Matsumoto, published by Loyola College.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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