The Arc of Identity: A Conversation with Mako Yoshikawa

By Quyen PhamMarch 14, 2024

The Arc of Identity: A Conversation with Mako Yoshikawa

Secrets of the Sun by Mako Yoshikawa

MAKO YOSHIKAWA does not shy away from ugly feelings in Secrets of the Sun, her new memoir-in-essays. In the wake of her father’s unexpected death on the eve of her wedding, Yoshikawa considers the ways we grieve the people who have harmed us and the complicated impulse of forgiveness. Her relationship with her father, long strained by episodes of his violent abuse and bipolar disorder, is juxtaposed against her guilt over their estrangement and the tenderness of childhood memories. Weaving together past and present, Princeton and Tokyo, Yoshikawa embarks on a quest to understand a difficult man, often returning to one central question: was he a good person, underneath it all?

There is no simple answer to that question, no singular history or person to unravel, but in the asking, Yoshikawa discovers new depths in herself, her capacity for feeling, and her writing practice. Each essay in the collection is a time capsule, capturing a moment in her ever-shifting perspective on her father, who seems by turns to be a brilliant fusion physicist, a womanizer, a cross-dresser, and a lonely child. His death, rather than meaning the end of their relationship, marks its continuation under different terms.

I interviewed Yoshikawa via Zoom. A novelist by trade, she discussed her writing process when approaching nonfiction, what it means to feel relief in the face of death, and the difficulty of writing about such personal territory.


QUYEN PHAM: A few of the essays in the memoir have been published throughout the years, so maybe we can talk about the process of making them into a book. Did you always envision these essays as part of a larger whole, or was there a particular moment in your writing process when the final form of the book became more apparent?

MAKO YOSHIKAWA: It was such a big topic, and it was a big deal for me to write exclusively about my family, to write such a story about my father, who is kind of a public figure, and also my sisters; my mother was okay with it. But, because it was so complicated, I didn’t think I wanted to write a whole book. I was okay with just publishing one essay. It was published in The Missouri Review, which is a good journal, but it doesn’t have such wide access. So, I said, “That’s okay. It’s going to be private, and it’s going to be out there, and my sisters won’t know about it.” Then it was selected for Best American Essays, so it became more public, and my sisters found out, and I realized there was more to be told in the story. After that essay was published, I really started to think, I want this to be a book. But because nonfiction was new to me—“My Father’s Women” was the very first piece of nonfiction I published—I wanted to do it slowly, to just keep writing essays.

With nonfiction being new to you, I really admired the way you created yourself with this introspective yet bold voice, which really stands out in “Force Equals Mass Times Acceleration.” I’d love to hear about the difference between how you approach narrative in your fiction versus in your nonfiction.

I have a background in literary criticism and a PhD in literature, and so in some ways, I thought, when I started writing creative nonfiction, This is perfect: I get to combine my love of books with a kind of archival research, rigorous thinking, and my love of creative writing. That was really great. I don’t know if that still rings true, because now I just want to write fiction again. But I could think abstractly about myself, if that makes sense. I was able to look at myself as I was writing, in some ways, as a fictional character, even as I was writing about some of the most personal things that have ever happened to me. It was important to me that I write this as creative nonfiction rather than fiction, that I owned it.

Did you feel like you had that sense of ownership over the story when you first started writing, or did that come to you over time?

It was there from the very beginning. The “I” was very squarely me. I was trying very hard to be honest, to think about exactly how I felt about my father and how my thoughts about my father have made me who I am. It was hard to look at that. I tried to be objective, to not go easy on myself, and that is what I mean about owning it.

I’d like to talk about the essay “Pressure Equals Force Divided by Area” (originally published by Lit Hub as “A Monster No Matter What”), where you write, “Maybe I could feel pity, if not grief and love.” And I found that moment so powerful because, as you said, it was honest about the ugly feelings we grapple with when someone dies. It seems that we are often expected to forgive or excuse misconduct after they’ve passed, or if they’re ill, and your work is nuancing these expectations. Were you asking questions like that on a personal level, or was there a central concern you had while you were working?

It was hard because there’s so much written about domestic abuse, and what I wanted more than anything else was to forgive my father. I wanted to be able to say, “He was sick; he was complicated. This doesn’t mean he was a bad person.” But in some ways, this is actually not something that is condoned. Forgiving somebody who’s abusive—it’s almost like you’re victimized, you’re in thrall, you’re still being oppressed. So, I felt it was almost considered wrong to do that, but it was still something I really wanted. As a child, I just adored my father, and I wanted to get some of that back. I felt like I got an understanding of my father at least.

In some ways, there’s an element of forgiveness, but it’s so complicated. Forgiveness might be too strong. I pity him, and I have much more sympathy for him now. This was one of the big things that I learned while writing this book, in some ways what we all learned after COVID-19: what do we value? For me, that’s my friends; my relationship with my mother, sisters, stepsisters, and stepfather; and maybe my marriage most of all. These relationships have been so important to me, and my father never had that. Whether he could not or he never let himself, I feel immense pity for him, and that helps me in my relationship with him.

What you mention about grasping for that tenderness makes me really curious about the vignettes we get between some of the essays. There are these pages that just feel like snapshots of time, often from your childhood. I’m wondering how those came to be in the memoir, when you wrote them, and how you decided where to place them.

Thank you for asking that. Those came in at the very, very end. The book had been accepted for publication, and the editor and I were talking about it. She said, “Your father is not there on the page that much.” And I don’t think I could have written those, what I’ll call interludes, until I finished the book. It was hard for me to let myself remember good moments until the book was done and I’d gone through this quest to understand my father.

That makes a lot of sense. On the topic of memory, your memoir does address instances of domestic violence and how they affected you and your family over time, and I noticed that, as opposed to lingering on those scenes, you often mention them in passing as part of the fabric of the larger story. But there were particular exceptions when the abuse was very present, and I am wondering how you made the decision of which memories to stay with and which to pass by.

I actually had a lot more of those moments, and I would often go back to them in the narrative. But after talking with my editor, I went through and cut them because they were overwhelming the story. I think those scenes are more powerful if they come fewer and further between. I also felt like it was probably pummeling the reader, because it’s hard to read that over and over. I was trying to create a balanced portrait of my father, and even if our relationship was complicated, I didn’t want readers to write him off. So, weaving in those tender moments and having fewer of the violent moments became important to me.

Let’s talk about that balance a bit. As you’ve mentioned, Shoichi was a complicated man, and your memoir takes us on this journey through these ugly feelings of guilt, anger, and shame after his death. I’d love to talk about how you knew when to stop writing, and how finishing the book actually felt for you, given that it was such an emotional process.

Before answering, as we’re talking about ugly feelings, I think one of the most important is relief. I felt some relief that he had finally died. Of course, the circumstances of his death, right before my wedding, knocked me flat. But I want to be honest when I say that I had been waiting a long time for my father to die. He was such a difficult presence in my life, and a part of me had been looking forward to it. To have it happen right before my wedding threw me, and I felt so guilty, which really spurred on the journey. But as for when it came time to close things off, I kept writing these essays and discovering more. I was doing all these interviews with his stepdaughters from his second marriage and the girlfriend he had before he died, and then I thought about his work and wrote an essay about that, then about his cross-dressing. As I was writing all these essays and publishing them, I found out he had a sister. After I finished that interview and wrote it up, I felt so different. I knew that the quest was over, but it still took a long time to keep writing and shaping the book after that moment.

A lot comes up in that final interview you conducted with Shoichi’s sister, and maybe we can talk about how you manage the personal and political in this book. On the one hand, we have an incredibly intimate portrait you draw of your father. On the other, his life, and in a way yours, was marked by intergenerational trauma and war: in particular, the US Army’s firebombing of Tokyo and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m thinking a lot about “Work Equals Force Times Displacement” and how that essay was a beautiful unpacking of how he chose to become a fusion scientist and the history behind that choice. Do you think your own perspective was shaped by your particular orientation toward the United States or Japan?

I was surprised by the extent to which political and social forces came into the picture as I was researching, like how much racism affected him. I really felt ashamed when I delved into that topic because, for most of his life, my father had gone on about how racist America was, how people looked down on him for being Japanese, how difficult that made things for him at the lab. I had just dismissed all of that as part of his paranoia. One of his bipolar symptoms was that he had a lot of conspiracy theories. But the fact is that I was born here, and when I lived in Japan with my family in second and third grade, it was so hard for me. I was treated like a foreigner. I was so homesick and just wanted to be American and to believe that my father hadn’t faced so much racism, but the truth is that he did. Having come to the America so soon after World War II, there’s just no question. I feel a lot of guilt around that. And you’re right that everything he experienced as a child in Japan probably did spur his desire to use the atom for peaceful purposes and become a fusion scientist.

I finally learned from his sister about their childhood, what they lost, and their father’s abuse. And I don’t want to say that his father was abusive because of the war, because that seems to absolve him of blame. But my father’s childhood was tragic in different ways. He suffered from malnutrition to the point that his stomach swelled. That was horrifying for me to think about. He had such a difficult, lonely childhood, and maybe it did mean he wasn’t able to show his love for us.

Yes, history still moves through us in these surprising ways. I think this connects to a lot of the things we’re talking about alongside the memoir-in-essay as a form. I observed throughout your book an arc of identity in how you uncover parts of yourself by diving into the gap between what you believed about your father and what you came to understand about him. That created such a strong tension because you construct yourself so much as your mother’s daughter in the beginning, but important parallels emerge between your life and your father’s. Did you have this dynamic in mind from the beginning, or did it emerge during the process?

It wasn’t part of the plan, but it was inevitable. Researching my father, I had to look at myself. The quest to understand my father was so much about understanding why I felt the way I did. I looked hard at my own preconceptions and blind spots. There were ways, particularly with racism, that I was willfully obtuse. I did not want to believe that he had faced that much racism. That was so stupid because, of course, I face racism, and it had to have been worse for him, being of a different generation, being in America decades earlier, and having a thick accent. Not being born and raised in this country. It turned out that this quest to understand my father was one to understand myself. Yeah, I love that, the arc of identity.

You mentioned before that you spent a few years in Japan, and that span of time is covered in the memoir as well. I was interested in how this collection moves so fluidly through time and space as you’re conducting this investigation. We go from Princeton to Tokyo, homes of the past and present. Did you find that these shifts changed your approach to your writing, say, if you were writing about something that happened decades ago in New Jersey versus an interview you recently conducted in Vermont?

I don’t think the time period I was writing about made a difference, but it made a difference when I was actually putting stories down on paper. So, I could be writing about my childhood, or when I was in my twenties, and it didn’t make a difference. It only made a difference what stage I was in during my quest to understand my father as I was working. My perspective on him was so different the deeper I got into the story, as was my perspective on myself. Looking at so many facets of his life and what he’d gone through, inevitably, irrevocably, the way I began writing about different periods of time became vastly different.

That makes a lot of sense, absolutely, since we might retread similar time periods throughout the memoir, but different aspects of the story become apparent in each essay. That makes me curious about the ordering of the collection. Was it chronological in the sense that they are ordered in the same way you wrote them?

I think it was actually pretty much the way it is laid out in the book. It’s funny, but I wasn’t actually going to write about the wedding. I thought, I’m just going to leave that out, because in the end, I was so deeply ashamed that I went through with the wedding after I found out about my father’s death. And that was just so terrible that I thought, The reader is never going to forgive me; I’ll just leave that fact conveniently out of the narrative. And so that was actually one of the last chapters I wrote because I thought, again, I have to be honest. I have to take responsibility for what I’ve done. So, I wrote that much later, but everything else pretty much went into the book chronologically in the order it was written, except maybe “Pressure Equals Force Divided by Area.” After writing all those essays, I wrote the wedding chapter and then the interludes.

I could definitely see that you were wrestling with your guilt on the page, but it made a lot of sense to me why you would make that difficult decision, so I think it ended up feeling like the right starting point for the memoir, though it was written near the end.

Yes, it was a tough call to go through with it, and it was difficult to write about. But now that I’ve written it, you know, I feel fine with everything.


Mako Yoshikawa is the author of the novels Once Removed (2003) and One Hundred and One Ways (1999). Her essays have been published in Lit Hub, Harvard Review, Southern Indiana Review, Missouri Review, and Best American Essays, among other places. She is a professor of creative writing and directs the MFA program at Emerson College. She lives in Boston and Baltimore.

LARB Contributor

Quyen Pham is a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, where they study diaspora and poetics. Their fiction has been published in various journals, and they hold an MFA from UC Riverside.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!