Louise Steinmanâ€™s American childhood in the fifties was bound by one unequivocal condition: â€śNever mention the war to your father.â€ť That silence sustained itself until the fateful day Steinman opened an old ammunition box left behind after her parentsâ€™ death. In it she discovered nearly 500 letters her father had written to her mother during his service in the Pacific War and a Japanese flag mysteriously inscribed to Yoshio Shimizu. Setting out to determine the identity of Yoshio Shimizu and the origins of the silken flag, Steinman discovered the unexpected: a hidden side of her father, the green soldier who achingly left his pregnant wife to fight for his life in a brutal 165-day campaign that changed him forever. Her journey to return the â€śsouvenirâ€ť to its owner not only takes Steinman on a passage to Japan and the Philippines, but also returns her to the age of her fatherâ€™s innocence, where she learned of the tender and expressive man sheâ€™d never known.
What follows is a thoughtful look into the eloquent, creative mind of Louise Steinman as she explains what motivated her to write The Souvenir and shares stories about how the book has been interpreted by diverse audiences.
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____
When you found your fatherâ€™s letters, how much did you know about his experience in the Pacific War?
I knew next to nothing about the Pacific War when I discovered the letters. Iâ€™d never been interested in war stories, war films. Reading the hundreds of letters my father wrote from Luzon, I became obsessed with learning not just about my fatherâ€™s experience and how it had changed him, but with the entire history of the Pacific War, and with the phenomenon of war and how it irreparably affects combatants.
Your father was reluctant to talk about his combat experience. Why did you break that silence?
I wanted to know how my fatherâ€™s silence had affected the life of my family. I knew he was troubled by his memories. There were few taboos in my family so the admonition â€śdonâ€™t ask your father about the warâ€ť stood out. Just before I found the letters, I dreamed of seeing my father. It was powerfulâ€”chilling. He was angry at me because I wasnâ€™t listening to him. Reading his letters and writing about his experience was a way of listening and understanding what heâ€™d been through in combat. It was a healing experience. I consider The Souvenir a posthumous collaboration with my father; writing it was my way of honoring him.
What was most surprising in your fatherâ€™s letters?
I was surprised at how lyrical and emotional the letters were. My dad never wrote more than a shopping list that I could remember! In his letters he poured out his soul to his wife. He was so expressive.
Secondly, I was shocked at some of the racist language my tolerant and liberal father used to refer to the Japanese enemy. That discovery led me to study more about the racist nature of the Pacific Warâ€”on both sidesâ€”that led to its extreme brutality. My dadâ€™s language came out of the war propaganda at the time. John Dower writes in his landmark study, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War: â€śAs World War II recedes in time, it is easy to forget the visceral emotions and sheer race hate that gripped virtually all participants in war.â€ť
It was a huge undertaking to find the family of the Japanese soldier. What compelled you?
In war, combatants and civilians are dehumanized. When someone is dehumanized they no longer have a face, a family, a history, a reason to be alive, or a reason to allow them to be left alive. In contrast, once I knew that my fatherâ€™s enemy had a name, was indeed a human being, he became human. When I learned the nameâ€”Yoshio Shimizu– written in Japanese calligraphy on the flag, it brought a shade to life. I was not just in possession of a flag, I was in possession of a name. That name belonged to a person with a family and a history. The possibility that I might actually make contact with that family and that history ignited both my imagination and my determination.
One vet told you that if you returned the Japanese flag, â€śyour father would be rolling over in his grave.â€ť What would your father have thought of your returning the Japanese flag to his enemy? What did your siblings think about it?
My dad mentioned in five different letters how much he regretted sending home the flag, he even said it was â€śthe worst mistakeâ€ť he made during the entire war. Thatâ€™s a strong statement! He told my mother he would apologize to her in person, that he wasnâ€™t a â€śsouvenir hunter.â€ť My gut feeling was that the flag didnâ€™t belong to me; it didnâ€™t belong to my family. I believe my father would have approved of my returning it. My siblings were in agreement.
Why do you think that reconciliation often falls to later generations?
I interviewed a number of Pacific War vets for my book. Several of them had fought in Luzon, some in the same long battle (Balete Pass) in which my father fought. As I learned more about the brutality that the Japanese inflicted on both their enemies, POWS, and the civilian population, I could understand the bitterness these veterans still feel toward their former foes. The Japanese officers taught their troops contempt for anyone who surrendered and that contributed to the horrendous brutality of the conflict.
I didnâ€™t suffer as those veterans suffered. I didnâ€™t lose close friends the way my father and other veterans did. I didnâ€™t starve like the Japanese villagers in Suibara nor did I suffer the living hell of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Tokyo firebombings. As Donald Shriver points out in his book, An Ethic for Enemies, the process of reconciliationâ€”rehabilitating broken human relationships– is long and many-sided. Meeting the Shimizu family in Suibara to return Yoshioâ€™s flag was one vital hopeful step on a long road to understanding our mutual history. When I was last in Suibara, one of the Shimizu elders was showing one of younger generation the flag Iâ€™d brought them. The reconciliation process continues.
Schools have chosen The Souvenir as curriculum reading. Why is this book important for students to read?
One college professor who recently taught the book wrote me that adapting the book to her curriculum worked because â€śThe Souvenir is relevant, challenging and very human in its approach.â€ť The Souvenir takes a personal approach to history and suggests that the reader could do the same. The book is an immersion and introduction into the history of the Pacific War as well as a cautionary tale about the ongoing effects of combat and the transgenerational transmission of trauma. The narrative of returning the flag raises a lot of questions in studentsâ€™ minds, as it should. One student I met told me that her stepfather thought my returning the flag was just dead wrong. She listened to his argument, then told him she â€śrespectfully disagreed with him.â€ť â€śYour book not only helped me find and define my views of war and peace but put an understanding in my heart that I did not have before,â€ť she wrote to me afterward.
We are currently at war in Iraq. How does this change readersâ€™ interpretation of The Souvenir?
My fatherâ€™s generation came home from war and immersed themselves in the efforts to rebuild their country, to start families and careers. They also carried their unexplored war trauma into their postwar lives. My father carried his war with him for nearly sixty years. Every day now, young men and women are returning home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan with life-altering injuriesâ€”psychological, physical, and moral. The Souvenir reminds us that their war wonâ€™t be over any time soon. It suggests that weâ€”the communityâ€”need to grieve with and listen to these former soldiers as part of a national healing. The Souvenir can be a vehicle by which a community is able to come together with veterans to talk about our current war. This is what happened this past spring in Eugene, Oregon when the book was part of a community reads program. People needed to talk about Iraq, they needed a way to talk about Iraq. I believe it was a very powerful experience for all who participated over several days of reading, panels, community dialogue.
Youâ€™ve been involved in outreach to war veterans and their families. What sort of response have you received?
I facilitate a writing workshop for veterans at the Los Angeles Public Library. We follow the precepts Maxine Hong Kingston established in her â€śVeterans of War, Veterans of Peaceâ€ť writing workshops. We do sitting and walking meditation together. We write together. We listen to each otherâ€™s writing and we give feedback to one another. We try to do this as mindfully as possible and thereby we create a sense of trust and safety. â€śTell the truth, and so make peaceâ€ť is the motto of the workshop.
There is a great sense of relief in sharing stories that must be told but which are difficult to tell. Iâ€™ve been very moved at the grace and generosity the veterans extend to one another in sharing their writing. One young womanâ€”the sister of an Iraq vetâ€”wrote about how profoundly her much-loved brother had changed when he came home, and how that affected her and the rest of her family. He would never be the same. She needed to tell that story.
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____
Louise Steinman is a writer and literary curator. She has a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts from San Francisco State University and a B.A. in Literature from Reed College. She studied writing and performing arts at Naropa Institute. The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Fatherâ€™s War, was first published 2001. The book won the 2002 Gold Medal in Autobiography/Memoir from ForeWord magazine and has been the selection of all-city reading programs in San Jose, CA and Eugene, OR as well as the all-freshman reading program at Penn State University. As Cultural Programs Director for the Los Angeles Public Library, Steinman has curated their award-winning ALOUD lecture, performance, and author series at the downtown Central Library for fourteen years. Steinman lives in Los Angeles with her husband, sculptor Lloyd Hamrol.