In Between the Lines: A Conversation with NEA Literature Fellow Asako Serizawa
NEA Literature fellow Asako Serizawa is not bound by cultural stereotypes or borders; she has created her own lane as a Japanese woman writer with a world view. Born in Japan, she spent her young adult life in international schools in Singapore, Jakarta, and Tokyo. Growing up in between cultures, Serizawa has always been driven to bring a global perspective to her work. As she acknowledged, “We all have history between us and we have to confront it and wrestle with it. How do we coexist? Is that really possible without sweeping things under the rug?”
Serizawa’s debut book of fiction, Inheritors, won the PEN/Open Book Award and the Story Prize Spotlight Award. She is excited to use her fellowship from the NEA to work on a tetralogy revolving around World War II and Japanese imperialism in the context of world history.
Now based in Boston, Massachusetts, Serizawa received an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and is currently participating in a writer’s residency in Italy. We talked with Serizawa about her origin story as a writer, what drives her creative writing process, her plans for upcoming projects, and what advice she would give to the younger version of herself.
NEA: What is your origin story as a writer?
Serizawa: I always enjoyed reading—I wrote little stories for my brother when he was sick—but I didn't really think that I was going to be a writer at all. I was in graduate school for literature and everybody was 10 years older, and they were so much more focused. I was right out of college and burnt out and thought “Okay, I need to take a break.” So, I got into an MFA program and started creative writing there. Then I had an idea for a project where the critical and the creative came together in this way that made so much sense to me… in terms of doing it in this creative way because then I wasn't bound by these disciplinary borders that are in academics.
NEA: What is the meaning of the title of your first book of fiction, Inheritors, and how does this title expand to a universal understanding of people inheriting stories, history, culture, etc.?
Serizawa: We tend to think of our time period as being separate from other times or other contexts. You inherit so much; not just your family stories, it’s more than that; you inherit a whole history, and that may not even be the whole story. The thing about inheritance is there's a sense of the stuff that you inherit from the past, but it's about what you carry forward as well. The first book is part of a tetralogy and it introduces that idea of all the different ways in which we inherit and pass on culture and history, familial and collective.
NEA: How did you gather the tools to write your first book of fiction—Inheritors? How did your parents, grandparents, or other family members contribute to your storytelling?
Serizawa: In Japan, World War II is a ubiquitous topic that comes up in the news, but in terms of personal stories, my family never spoke of it. There was this silence. I also grew up in international schools that were British-based, so it was more of a colonial education where [the] emphasis was on Europe—not Asia. When I went back to Japan in the middle of high school, I started to get more of this history and I got really curious about the ways in which institutions and other things conspire to silence certain stories. Essentially, I grew up in countries where Japan was an imperial power, yet I didn't know so much about this history and the extent of what the Japanese military had done in these countries. It was really horrifying to me. I got really curious about how a very particular story about a certain history justifies certain actions and how to bring the people back into focus and the lives that are affected.
NEA: Can you tell us about the projects that will be supported by your NEA fellowship?
Serizawa: The NEA is amazing and I can't even describe how amazing the grant is! There's a little bit of vulnerability when you're beginning a project and then the NEA came around and that felt like a really big green light. I’m working on a tetralogy. The first book was Inheritors, which looks at the Pacific side of World War II in the context of Japanese imperialism and imperial history, but also more from a world history context. The second book takes this to the continental side, to look at European and Japanese imperialism in China in particular. It’s going to be from a different angle, and I’ll get to talk about different aspects of the war that I didn't get to flesh out in the first book. One of the things about the NEA [fellowship] is that it's going to enable me to go to these places and actually do some research, which is really exciting. It takes a long time to research and I’m a really slow writer, so time is something that I just can't get enough of.
NEA: In what ways do you envision impact of your storytelling within Asian diaspora communities?
Serizawa: There's a long history where Asian cultures have been objectified, exoticized, or fetishized. All of this racial violence [against the AA and NHPI communities] has been happening and it has a long history. It's supranational, in the sense that it's not a national issue, and it’s also structural and systemic. These books, hopefully, will help to write against these kinds of stereotypes, and also write against the narratives that are told about [AA and NHPI] people. The books as a whole will hopefully also show that the Asian communities and Asian American communities are huge and diverse.
NEA: What challenges have you faced as a Japanese woman writer?
Serizawa: No one quite knows what to do with me because I don't write in Japanese, so I’m not a translated writer. At the same time, I’m not Asian American either. I think the placement is hard and there isn't enough language to position myself within the landscape. There's a lot of people like me—where it's more of more of a diasporic or transnational situation or position, and I think that there is a place for this, but it doesn't quite exist yet.
NEA: What is your super power as a writer?
Serizawa: Bringing global perspective. Because I’m not really bound by a national culture and I’m in this in-between space. I grew up with people who were from all over the place; I’m not anchored down by cultural references. In that way, I feel freer to write from that in-between space. Growing up with so many people, we all had to get along despite the fact that we didn't have a common culture between us, or even a common language. English was a second language for most of us, yet we could figure this out, and we could create our own culture. That's such a valuable thing to bring to the table—we were able to coexist in these ways, and see each other as humans first. How do you do that? And yet, it was possible, and that's something that I’m perpetually trying to recreate, or pursue in some kind of way that doesn't sweep things under the rug.
NEA: If you had to pen a short piece of advice for your younger self, what would you tell her?
Serizawa: Be more patient and be okay about charting your own course. Do the thing that makes the most sense without trying to bend yourself to fit some kind of role, narrative, or shape that's already existing. If it doesn't exist, then create it. Know what it is that you are creating and understand the shapes that are around you, and then figure out how it is that you want to interact with these shapes and how you want to write against these shapes in a way that's productive, constructive, and potentially healing.
NEA: Finish this sentence. The arts matter because…
Serizawa: Sometimes that's the only way that we encounter other people and other cultures. Other histories come from cultural forms, including art.