In Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, David Mura explores the tension between forgetting and remembering. Mura, who has gained fame as a poet and spoken-word performer, now tries his hand at narrative prose with this complex novel about a man unearthing his past, the past of his family, and the truth of the history of his own community.
Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a novel by David Mura. Published by Coffee House Press (2008). $14.95.
The novel’s narrator is Ben O’Hara, a middle-aged husband and father whose has a lackluster academic career. He has been working for quite some time on a dissertation about the phenomenon of Japanese suicides. The topic is too broad for a single thesis, and yet he can’t seem to narrow his research. He decides one day to travel away from his family to California where he can conduct more research, but his journey has another motive as well: to find out what happened to his troubled-genius brother who disappeared in Nevada some years earlier.
As he makes his physical journey, Ben travels in memory as well, re-living his upbringing in Chicago with his brother and his parents. He conjures up images of his father, a distant man clouded in his own memory. Ben’s father was a “no-no” boy, which means that when he was in the Japanese internment camp, he refused to sign a contract forswearing his allegiance to Japan and promising to serve in the U.S. army.
The novel is full of colorful stories of Ben’s past, and nuanced reminiscences as an older man tries to make out the events seen by his younger self. Memories weave in and out like vignettes; sometimes hilarious, sometimes painfully disturbing, but always flowing with a drive toward discovering the truth.
Mura uses Ben’s thesis as a device to provide historical context for Ben’s more personal story. In doing so, Mura successfully opens up a moment in history that is usually misunderstood, but the historical context is never overbearing or didactic. The story always comes first, but Mura presents just enough information to address the issue of the Japanese-American detainees who spoke out against their unjust treatment, and the cultural backlash they received for their supposedly Anti-American behavior after the war.
In the end, this is a story about a man coming to terms with who he is and where he comes from. It’s about a man searching through the past to find that he has a lot to be proud of.
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.