In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Gen Del Raye
In “Home Burial”, your short story published in Volume 24, the speaker’s grandmother attends the funeral of a man she worked for whose job was to recommend men in the village to draft in the war. How did the idea for this story originate?
I had already written several stories involving the character of the grandmother, and in researching one of them I came across an interview with a man named Maeda Eiichi who had been put in charge of delivering draft letters in his hometown when he was just sixteen years old. This is the same age that my own grandparents were in 1945. They lived through the war in a village that is very similar to the one described in my story. My grandfather tried to enlist, which would have been tantamount to a death wish in the final year of the war, but failed the physical exam. It would have been someone like Yashima, the man who works in the village office in my story, who would have had the final say and, in effect, saved my grandfather’s life.
One of the strange things about reading first-person accounts of the war is realizing how young many people were when they were forced into taking actions that would dictate the course of another person’s life. For example, Tago Kyōtarō, who described his wartime experiences to the Asahi Shimbun in 2020, was only nineteen when he was put in charge of writing deployment orders for kamikaze bombers in his air division in Taiwan. Seventy-five years later, sitting at his writing desk at home, the weight of what he’d done was so large in his memory that he was able to recreate the exact wording of those deployment orders on a sheet of paper for reporters. I was drawn to the idea of a character who delivers draft letters because it seemed to be an example of this where the consequences were particularly personal and immediately apparent: the delivery person would have to walk up to a person who was often a neighbor or acquaintance and, after saying a few rehearsed lines, hand over the document that would upend their lives. In the interview with Maeda Eiichi, he estimates that he delivered the draft to around 60 people in his small village, and that only about half survived the war. This was a time when, as was made famous in Hanamori Yasuji’s long poem 見よぼくら一銭五厘の旗 (“Look Upon Our One-and-a-Half Sen Flag”), the running joke in the military was that a person’s life was only worth one and a half sen, the price of a postage stamp, because each dead soldier could be replaced with a single draft letter. The grim reality, of course, was that the military was exempt from the cost of postage and, in fact, draft letters were free.
The grandmother is also responsible in this process of war; she was the one who notified the village men, and she also notified the women when their loved ones were killed. You wrote the line “So much was asked of her” which is a simple sentence, but a very delicate and telling way to describe this character. Can you tell us a little bit about how you created such a complex woman who is pulled into many directions of servitude? What was it like creating her?
Thank you for this question. I’m glad the line you highlighted read as strongly to you as it did to me. My idea in this story was to explore the ways in which the very people who were most victimized by the war were often asked to become culpable in the suffering of others. So I think the complexity of the grandmother’s character has a lot to do with the complicated situations into which many people were placed during this time. As a survivor of the firebombing of Osaka in March of 1945, the grandmother in my story is intimately familiar with how the burdens of war have often fallen disproportionately on ordinary civilians. But when she flees the city to the relative safety of a small village in the mountains, and the man who ordinarily delivers draft letters in the village is immobilized by an injury, her status as an outsider makes her the perfect candidate to become his assistant.
One thing that surprised me in my research was how much control local officials had over the draft process. It was essentially left up to people like Yashima, the grandmother’s boss in my story, to decide which and how many of his neighbors would be fast-tracked for conscription, what roles they would fill, and how much persuasion would be used to convince boys aged fifteen to seventeen, who were allowed to join the military but exempt from the draft, to enlist voluntarily. This was a secret at the time, but has become widely known partly thanks to the work of Debun Shigenobu, a former draft-delivery person who has written and spoken extensively about the draft process. After the surrender in August of 1945, people like Yashima and the grandmother in my story were often forced to reckon with the ways in which they had been complicit in allowing the war to go on for as long as it did, but of course this complicity wasn’t limited to people like them; so many people allowed the war to happen and continue to happen whether through concrete actions like building balloon bombs (a type of bomb that was designed to target civilians) at munitions factories or through intangibles like publicly voicing their support of the war effort—one of the big differences with Yashima and the grandmother was that their complicity was harder to forget because the people impacted by their actions were easily identifiable and close at hand.
Every time I’ve read your story, in my mind I see a seed that ruptures and splits, and this slow unfurling of truth spills out. Your story requires patience from the reader because time moves both quickly and slowly, but it’s not a story that relies heavily on plot elements. Did you have to employ a lot of patience while writing and revising in order to achieve a consistent pace throughout?
I usually rewrite stories rather than revise them, and for this story I ended up writing several versions in different styles and from different points of view before I arrived at the final one. So in that sense this story required a lot of patience, and especially belief that all the failed rewrites would eventually lead to a story that works. I think partly because of how long I had been writing in the world of the story, a lot of the things that are revealed in this final version were already known to me, and some were things that I discovered in the process of writing them down. The pacing and tension of the story were things I struggled with, but I tried to believe that so long as I could convey how deeply the grandparents care about each other in the story, that this would do a lot of the work of keeping readers engaged and invested in the outcome.
Without going into too much detail for people who haven’t read your story yet, what does forgiveness for the grandmother look like?
I think the forgiveness she is afforded is always temporary, whether this is in the sense of the grandfather forgiving her or the grandmother forgiving herself. I wish it were different, but I think that’s her reality. On the other hand, there is the long history of kindness that the grandmother and grandfather have shared, the way that they have devoted so much of their lives to caring for each other, and this is a testament to the fact that if she hasn’t exactly been forgiven for what she did, she has at least become more than that version of herself in a deep-rooted and enduring way.
In the past two years, the world has experienced a lot of upheaval and turmoil. Has this impacted your creative process, and if so, how?
For various reasons having to do with the pandemic and also the vagaries of my citizenship, I haven’t seen my parents in person since January of 2020. And even my parents, who live in Japan, haven’t been able to visit my grandparents, who have been hospitalized for much of the pandemic, for nearly two years. It was a strange experience, to write a familiar setting in this story, from such a long distance away and during a time when, for much of it, I believed that I was barred from going home.
You also write poetry. How do these two genres intersect in your writing? When you have an idea for a new project, what makes you decide its form is better suited for a story or a poem?
My initial inspiration to write a story or poem tends to arrive in the form of a sentence. The form the piece takes often depends on the pacing of that sentence: if it needs to be read slowly rather than quickly, I will usually end up writing it as a poem. I love poems that are structured as stories, and prose that rhymes or (however briefly) holds and maintains a meter. I think poetry often has a wider scope than fiction, in that poems can address ideas and arguments about the world that can’t easily be reframed in terms of character and plot, although sometimes flash fiction, which I also write, can be a way to bring more of those poetic concerns into the world of fiction.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on finishing a short story collection that will include this piece. I’m trying to write one last story to complete the collection, although I started telling myself that a few stories ago now, so who knows if that will turn out to be true.
Gen Del Raye is half Japanese and was born and raised in Kyoto, Japan. Currently, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions, Best New Poets, and Poetry Northwest, among others. You can learn more about Gen and his work at his website.