Welcome to our Indie Spotlight series, in which TNBBC gives small press authors the floor to shed some light on their writing process, publishing experiences, or whatever else they'd like to share with you, the readers!
Loren Stephens, author of the novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne, interviews her main character Noriko with the help of her translator, Mitsuko.
Noriko and I are walking through the bamboo forest in Arashiyama, a train ride from her home in Osaka. The verdant beauty of the swaying bamboo and the birds chirping in the trees makes this a lovely afternoon – quite a contrast from what she tells me.
Loren: So Noriko, thank you for treating me to a trip to Arashiyama, I’ve never been here before.
Noriko: Later we will go to the onsen for a soak in the indoor baths.
Noriko: It is customary in Japan even amongst strangers like ourselves. And we have our translator, Mitsuko to explain the rules to you.
I imagined the three little girls from the Mikado. Noriko is in her seventies, although she looks much younger and walks with a sprightly gait. In fact, she seems somewhat childlike in her observations about nature – the butterflies, the sun cutting through the thick bamboo, and the two Americans dressed as Rastafarians who were being trailed by a group of curious locals who had never seen anyone quite like them.
Loren: What was it like to live through the bombing of Hiroshima?
Noriko: As you know I was born there. I was at school and we were all ushered to the basement. I waited for an hour in the darkness until my father came and took me home on his bicycle through the streets that were filled with dying people. Black rain fell and our neighborhood was in ruins, but within six months things started to grow in our garden and I went back to school.
Loren: What did you hope to do when you graduated high school?
Noriko: I wanted to be a dancer and singer with the Takarazuka Academy but after all the music and acting lessons my father paid for, I shamed him by being rejected. They said I was too short, and my voice wasn’t strong enough. My best friend made the company which was like salt in a wound. I should have been happy for her, but I wasn’t.
Loren: So what did you do instead?
Noriko: I went to work at my sister’s tearoom in Namba, and I met my husband who was the manager. He was also a self-taught pianist, and we used to perform together just for ourselves – and for an occasional passerby. I remember one night, a beggar pressed his nose against the café window and watched as we sang together. That was our only real audience.
Loren: Did you want to have children?
Noriko: Not really. I was so disappointed that my dreams had been crushed, and I was afraid that something might happen to my baby after I had been exposed to what we learned was radiation.
Loren: But you ended up with a healthy baby boy?
Noriko: Yes, I surprised myself by falling madly in love with my baby son. My husband referred to our unborn baby as “our love child” because I became pregnant on our honeymoon. But soon after my husband was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so our life was turned upside down.
Loren: I understand that he forced you to give your son away. That must have been heart breaking. How could you have done that?
Noriko: I believed that by giving away my only son, the pressure that my husband felt about being a father, would be lifted and he would recover from his illness. During his confinement at a sanitarium, he was unable to work. The money that I had hidden in a glass jar under the sink disappeared; I thought about opening a checking account in my own name, but I never got around to it. I was too busy taking care of my baby and watching out for my husband whose mood swings were unmanageable. I held the fantasy that my husband and I might have other children although of course no child could ever take the place of my first born.
Loren: Where did your son go?
Noriko: My husband promised him to his sister, who lived in Montana with her Japanese-American husband. I had never met either of them and didn’t know anything about the small town where he was to live and be raised as an American. My husband thought he’d have a better life. He lacked confidence in me that I could be a good mother. Frankly, I was sick a lot of the time as well – exhausted from working to support us, and I wasn’t sure I could take care of both my son and my husband.
Loren: Did your husband recover?
Noriko: He died anyway, and I was left a childless widow in less than a year. I thought I might die.
Loren: What gave you the strength to go on?
Noriko: My religion. I am a follower of Tenrikyo – a sect that was established by a woman who believes that life is joyous, and that by sacrificing for others you will find happiness for yourself.
Loren: And is that what happened to you?
Noriko: Why, of course.
Noriko smiled and then laughed which I had come to recognize as a habit of Japanese who want to cover up their sadness.
Loren: Well, thank you for allowing me to interview you, Noriko.
Noriko: And now we go to the baths.
We changed out of our street clothes, sat naked on wooden stools, poured buckets of water over our heads, and then slipped into the tiled onsen for a relaxing soak. Three little girls from school in Arashiyama – Noriko, Mitsuko and me.
Loren Stephens is a widely published essayist and short story writer. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, MacGuffin, Crack the Spine, and the New Plains review among many. She has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. The memoir, “Paris Nights: My Year at the Moulin Rouge,” by Cliff Simon with Loren Stephens was named one of the top titles from an independent press by Kirkus Reviews. She is also the president and founder of the ghostwriting companies Write Wisdom and Bright Star Memoirs.