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Sally Ito on The Emperor's Orphans and Family History

Sally Ito on the family histories that inspired her as she wrote her new book of creative nonfiction. 

Book Cover The Emperor's Orphans

In The Emperor's Orphans, poet and translator Sally Ito tells the story of her own family's history in Japan and Canada, and the wider story of Japanese-Canadians being "repatriated" to Japan during World War Two. In this list, she shares other stories of family history that inspired her on her writing journey. 


October is Family History Month, which makes for a perfect month to be launching my new book of creative nonfiction, The Emperor’s Orphans, about my family’s history in Canada and Japan. When I sat down to write this book, I initially thought I was writing about my family but it turned out my family was writing about (or to) me—either through the story-telling voice of my Nisei great Aunty Kay or the fastidious pen-wielding scribe of my Japanese grandfather, Toshiro Saito. These “ancestors” from the past shaped the writer-me into existence, leading me to discover who I am as a Japanese Canadian woman. 

There are some great creative nonfiction titles I read along the journey of writing this book that are listed below. Hope you find them and be inspired as I was by them. 


Book Cover Gently to Nagasaki

Gently To Nagasaki, by Joy Kogawa

About the book: This memoir by novelist Joy Kogawa is frank and revealing. Its focus is on the Pacific War and how it shaped her as a Japanese Canadian victim of a racist government policy that forcibly moved 22,000 Japanese Canadians from their west coast homes. Kogawa, however, looks at this war, in a global context—and also, in a deeply personal one—for the father whom Joy loved and who provided in some measure, comfort to the dispossessed, was also a pedophile priest. This memoir deals with sin—both private and public, personal and systemic, and grapples with the devastating consequences of it on both herself and the community she has been a part of and still represents as a literary figure to this day.


Book Cover The Concubine's Children

The Concubine’s Children, by Denise Chong

About the book: This was the first nonfiction book I read about Chinese Canadians and it was a fascinating account of a “concubine”—May-Ying, who is the grandmother of Denise Chong. This story investigates the murky past of an Asian immigrant woman’s life in the demimonde of west coast Chinatowns at the turn of the century in the calm, detached voice of a seasoned journalist and writer of nonfiction.


Book Cover Finding Rosa

Finding Rosa: A Mother with Alzheimers, A Daughter in Search of the Past, by Caterina Edwards

About the book: Caterina Edwards is the daughter of an Italian mother and British father who met during the war. While her mother suffers from dementia, Caterina begins delving into her mother’s past, to recover as well as discover who her mother was. She journeys to Venice and to Istria, the coastal area of Croatia, from where her mother came to explore that area’s rich history and her mother’s part in it as a child shaped by the indelible forces of war, occupation, and forced migration.


Book Cover Lake of the Prairies

Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging, by Warren Cariou

About the book: This memoir is about life in the boreal northwestern Saskatchewan town of Meadow Lake. Reading this, I got a sense of the shape and form a memoir could take as it explored the rough and tumble world of the small northern town while at the same time exploring its stark and scenic beauty. The overriding question is “how does one belong” to such a place? By the end of the book, Cariou finds out by discovering what has been kept hidden from him about his Metis heritage. 


Book Cover Detachment

Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, by Maurice Mierau

About the book: In 2005, Maurice Mierau and his wife, Betsy adopted two boys from a Ukrainian orphanage. This memoir is about that experience and, in particular, explores Mierau’s sense of himself as a father and a son to a Mennonite whose own traumatic loss of his father while still a child, eerily echoes the experience of his adopted Ukrainian grandsons. This book is about blending a family from one’s past into the future. 


Book Cover Mothertalk

Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka, by Roy Kiyooka 

About the book: Years ago, when I was still living in Edmonton, I remember hearing about the Kiyooka family that farmed where my great aunt lived near Redwater, Alberta. Out of this family came some fine artists, namely Roy Kiyooka, who was also a poet. In Mothertalk, Roy Kiyooka assumes the voice of his Japanese speaking mother and tells her story in a highly unconventional manner. (It is worthy to note here that Daphne Marlatt edited and completed the book as Roy was unable to finish it before his death.) In hindsight, I see now how this book served as a model for me on how to shape the voices presented in The Emperor’s Orphans


Book Cover Nocturne

Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother, by Helen Humphreys

About the book: You know how sometimes a book will land in your lap at just the right time in your life? Just after my great aunt died and a good friend’s husband died of cancer, Helen Humphrey’s Nocturne appeared. It was an immediately absorbing read, a balm to the grief I was feeling at the time. When my great aunt died, I too, wrote about her in vignettes based on what she told me about her life. We compiled these stories together as a family into a little booklet—my Japanese aunt translating the stories into Japanese, my architect brother-in-law providing the illustrations, and my graphic designer cousin doing the layout. These stories became foundational to The Emperor’s Orphans. 


Book Cover Paper Doors

Paper Doors: An Anthology of Japanese Canadian Poetry, edited by Gerry Shikatani and David Aylward

About the book: Sometimes poetry says things the best. This hard-to-find anthology of Japanese Canadian poetry published by Coach House in 1981 is a treasure trove of poems written by earlier generations of Japanese Canadians, including translations of Japanese poems by the Issei generation—the first generation of immigrants to Canada that came at the turn of the century as well as by Nisei (second generation) and Sansei (third generation) poets like Joy Kogawa, Roy Kiyooka and David Fujino.


Book Cover The Emperor's Orphans

About The Emperor's Orphans: 

During the Second World War, approximately 4,000 Japanese-Canadians were "repatriated" to Japan. Among those Canadians sent back to were members of author and poet, Sally Ito's family. As a Japanese Canadian child growing up in the suburbs of Edmonton, Alberta, Ito's early life was a lone island of steamed tofu and vegetables amidst a sea of pot roast and mashed potatoes. Through the Redress movement of the late 80s, the eventual Parliamentary acknowledgment of wartime injustices, and the restoration of citizenship to those exiled to Japan she considers her work as an author of poetry and prose, meditating on themes of culture and identity.

Later as a wife and mother of two, Sally returns to Japan and re-lives the displacement of her family through interviews, letters, and shared memories. Throughout her journey Ito weaves a compelling narrative of her family's journey through the darkest days of the Pacific War, its devastating aftermath, and the repercussions on cultural identity for all the Emperor's Orphans.

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