This year’s Goldfarb Family Fund Fellowship recipient was acclaimed novelist and Emerson College creative writing professor Mako Yoshikawa who has recently expanded her practice beyond fiction. Established in 2000 through the generosity of writer, literary agent and former VCCA Board member Ronald Goldfarb, he fund sponsors a fully funded two-week fellowship and is given annually to the top creative non-fiction applicant. This residency is awarded each year during the fall scheduling period.
While at VCCA, Mako worked on a memoir about her father. Begun shortly after his death in 2010, she has been working steadily on it ever since. She is now nearing the end, wrapping up the final chapter and about to begin the editing process.
“It has been a real journey to write such a personal piece and also to learn a new genre. Writing a memoir is such a different experience from writing novels. I like being accountable and having this emotional honesty.” While at VCCA, Mako met another Fellow, also from Cambridge, MA, at work on her own memoir. It turns out the two memoirs are very similar. “We’re both delving into family histories and we had many wonderful discussions. My father and mother were both Japanese—very Japanese. They moved to the U.S. in their twenties and a lot the memoir deals with race and nationality; the other Fellow, Dolores Johnson is also writing about race. That was such an unexpected gift. Our conversations were so productive for my work.”
Mako’s father kept his Japanese passport and nationality all his life. “I think of my parents as accidental immigrants. Despite a stable and eminent position in the U.S., there was always this idea they would go back.” They did return when Mako was in second grade, but Mako and her mother and sisters all hated it and they came back to America after two years.
A brilliant physicist, Mako’s father was also bipolar. After a prestigious fellowship at MIT, he went on to teach and work at Princeton, the “temple of physics.” His field was fusion energy. According to Mako, it was a dream position. At the time, fusion energy seemed very plausible. Her father was a major figure in the field, but because of his mental condition, he alienated a lot of people. Eventually, his career, marriage to her mother and relationship with Mako and her sisters derailed. “It’s a really complicated story that I had wanted to write about for a really long time, but I couldn’t while he was alive.” Adding to the complication was the fact that after Mako’s parents divorced when Mako was a teenager, she rarely saw her father. They would occasionally exchange cards and once every five years or so they would meet. Her mother remarried and Mako became very close to her stepfather. When Mako got married in 2010 she wanted him rather than her biological father to walk her down the aisle. So she didn’t invite her father to the wedding. When he died the day before, she was filled with guilt.
At his memorial service, his colleagues talked about how wonderful he was citing his idealism, his generosity. “I felt stirred and proud and all those things and I also felt guilty about our relationship. I now believe they were whitewashing him in that way that one does in a eulogy. But hearing it, I thought I have to learn who my father is.”
Mako has written two novels One Hundred and One Ways (1999) and Once Removed (2003). For the first one, Mako drew on family history. “A lot of stories about my grandmother and my great-grandmother (whom I turned into my grandmother) in that novel, and my mother’s life too, are woven into the story. I’m writing about the same things in the memoir as well except of course without the veneer of ‘fiction.’ It’s been interesting to revisit the same events in this other genre.”
Mako’s mother, to whom she is very close, is also a writer. She’s been very helpfulserving as a sounding board and corroborating facts. “Memory is unreliable and there is this kind of self-doubt that happens. My mother’s really great; she tells me all these family stories and she also says she doesn’t have to read the memoir, which is a relief because it’s hard to write about someone when you know they’re going to read it. I often send her things to check on so I think of it as a collaborative work.”
The process of exploring family history has been challenging. “Some of it’s been so painful. It’s been freeing too, but hard. And messy. I think I have a grasp on something that happened in the past and then I think more about it, it transmutes, transforming into something else and I realize I hadn’t really understood it.”
While working on the memoir Mako has published five essays. “This has been really helpful because I’ve gotten feedback and the essays have served to break the ice, which is crucial. You feel so vulnerable writing a memoir, recounting something that actually happened and where the “I” is actually me.”
“Residencies are so valuable. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who want to do nothing more than work. There’s a great quote, I think it’s usually attributed to Noel Coward: ‘Work is more fun than fun.’ Not many people think like that. Artists feel this way and it’s so inspiring to be surrounded by those sorts of people in a place that honors that and which makes it possible.”