Miranda Liu speaks to Asako Serizawa ’92 about the influences behind her critically acclaimed novel Inheritors.
Sometimes you read a book you just have to tell people about. That was the case for our high school librarian, Tracie Landry, when it came to Inheritors by alumna Asako Serizawa ’92. A unique work of fiction somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, “it has been my favorite book of the year,” Tracie raves, eagerly sharing with us about how she couldn’t put the book down. Ruth Harimoto ’77 (AP ’03–11) who works in the Health Center agrees. “The book was so intriguing that I couldn’t put it down. After finishing, I started at the beginning and read it again!” she gushes. “I have been recommending it to friends and family over and over again. It is a must read.” And not only did it receive praise from the ASIJ community, it also garnered critical acclaim from the likes of The New York Times, NPR Book Review and more. Ethan Chatagnier of The Kenyon Review calls Inheritors “powerful” and “intelligent,” deeming it “a book that deserves to become a crucial pillar in the literature of war.”
Part of what makes Inheritors such an interesting read is its unique method of storytelling. “When I learned about World War II in high school, everything was limited to this very linear sort of narrative,” Asako says of her inspiration to write the book. “There were no personal stories of those who lived through the war and the occupation. It made me want to know, what were those people’s actual experiences?” And so Inheritors focuses on just that, utilizing various narrators over the course of more than a century through non-sequential short stories that slowly illustrate a larger narrative about Japan and Japanese Americans through World War II to the near future, with its latest story set in 2035. “Historical fiction often shines a light on the experiences of a single narrator and a specific set of events, but the events in Inheritors’ interwoven stories emerge as light from a prism bent differently by each narrator’s life experiences,” Tracie expresses. “The overall result is both intimate and epic.”
The focus on different experiences of the characters—those who were raised in Japan, those who immigrated to the United States, those who were born in the US but struggle with their Japanese identity—spoke so strongly to members of the ASIJ community for a reason. Having grown up in three different countries before settling in Boston, Asako strongly relates with the struggle for finding one’s own identity as a third culture kid and the lack of sense of belonging in any country. Born in Japan, Asako’s family moved overseas when she was just one year old, heading to Singapore for her father’s job with a construction company. They were there for a decade before moving to Jakarta for another five years, and then back to Tokyo when Asako was in the middle of 10th grade.
“It was hard, I have to say,” Asako comments. “When I left a school for the first time in the middle of middle school to go to Jakarta, I was actually ready to make a change. I really wanted to move and have a fresh slate to be a new person. But moving in the middle of high school was pretty hard, because I had a core group of friends at that point.” While moving in middle school had felt like a chance to develop a new identity, moving away from the familiarity of her support group and making new friends in Tokyo proved challenging.
“It comes up in various ways, this idea of not belonging,” Asako shares. “The cultural aspect is probably the hardest, because I speak both English and Japanese fine, but there are cultural gaps because I didn’t grow up in either the States or Japan. I don’t have the cultural references. TV, music, radio… those are such a crucial part of forming bonds and building community with others, and if you’re missing that part, sometimes, it’s hard to make small talk or connect with others.”
But there were upsides, as well. “When I got to ASIJ, I found that some friends from Singapore ended up being there as well,” Asako reminisces fondly. “I saw them, and was like, wait, who’s this familiar face? So on the other hand, that sort of thing can happen, which is fantastic.” Connections (and missed connections) are another central theme of Inheritors, another aspect which has roots in Asako’s own experience.
But perhaps the largest impact on Asako’s inspiration for Inheritors was the way she came to understand Japanese history through the course of her education. “Because I grew up in Southeast Asia, there was obviously a lot of Japanese influence in that area, particularly those countries that were occupied during World War II. But I didn’t really know much about the history, partly because the education at that time was so Eurocentric,” Asako shares. She enjoyed the available aspects of Japanese culture during her time in Singapore and Indonesia, but it wasn’t until she came to ASIJ that she really gained a full understanding of how that culture had made its way to those countries. “It’s really when I came back to Japan and took the Japan Seminar course at ASIJ that I got to see history from that perspective,” she reflects. “Japan and Asia were suddenly in the front and center in class, and all of a sudden, I got a better sense of Japan and its context in the world.”
It was Japan Seminar that really got Asako thinking about the historical events that would become the basis for Inheritors. “It opened me up to thinking about Japan’s role in the world in a way that I hadn’t previously,” she reflects. “It’s interesting because in Japan, the Pacific side of the war is so prominent; it’s such a touchstone. There’s all this talk around it. And yet, my grandparents who lived through the war and my parents who lived through the occupation never told me their personal stories. They would talk about the war in general, you know, ‘war is bad’ and all of those things, but they never really elaborated. And so that silence became really curious to me.” The more Asako thought about the lack of personal narratives about World War II from those close to her, the more she realized what an important issue it was to her, both personally and in a greater societal context. She never got a real answer as to her grandparents’ experiences with the war, which made her feel all the more like the dearth of narratives from various perspectives of those who experienced the war firsthand was a gap that needed filling. “I think coming to Japan and realizing that there were very particular narratives about the war, but that it was so one sided and very limited to a very deliberate, particular narrative was an important point for me,” she shares. “So much of the material in English was western-centric, or America-centric. All that sort of combined to make me think, this war was so influential—it’s so much a part of the structure of our society and it still stands between so many people. It changed history. And yet there’s so little about it from certain perspectives.”
It was an issue that continued to stick with Asako long after she left ASIJ, through college, part of a PhD program in literature, and a switch to an MFA in creative writing. “I didn’t think I was going to pursue writing fiction as a serious thing,” she admits, looking back on that time. “My background is in the academic side of literature, but I got really burnt out. So for a few years after I finished my master’s, I didn’t write.” But it continued to bother her that the experiences of so many people like her grandparents never made it to mainstream modern audiences, and eventually, she felt that there must be something she could do about it. “And that’s how I came up with the project for this book,” she shares, “which is also when all the aspects of my education sort of came together. I could use my academic background as well as my creative interest to figure out a way to center the human experience while maintaining a sort of critical tension.” It was a unique approach, but Asako felt that her background made her the right person for the task, from her well-rounded study of literature and writing to her passion about the content. “All of those things came together in Inheritors as a work of fiction.”
But once she got started, completing such a long and complex work wasn’t an easy task. In fact, it took over 12 years from the starting point to publication, including all of the required research before she even began to write. “Part of the reason it took me so long was that I did a novel’s worth of research for each of the thirteen stories that make up the book, and then I spent so much time typing to puzzle it together,” she says. And it wasn’t just that the research was time-consuming—some of it was literally impossible at the time that Asako first began to work on the project. “There’s a lot of history, a lot of material that wasn’t available to me at first. And then as things became declassified and the internet expanded, it allowed me to access new information. So then as that came in, I had to kind of revise things and rethink things.”
It might seem difficult to stay motivated to finish such a daunting project spanning over a decade, but Asako wasn’t swayed from the task. Watching world events around her and considering how they tied back or related to World War II, she was all the more determined to finish the book. “All of these things going on in the world made me think how important this history was. That was a large part of the motivation,” she shares.
The other piece was a strong passion for the arts and the way they impact people. “Books and the arts were so formative to me, and I felt like this project was the best way I could use my strength to do something I felt passionately about,” Asako reflects. “I almost gave up many times, but ultimately, it felt really important to do it this way. Because you can read about things in the news, for example, but to really understand something, you have to go to the arts.” The power of literature to touch people’s emotions and move them to the core was what Asako wanted to harness in this project in order to bring an important message to the forefront of readers’ awareness. “It felt like if no one else is doing something, then I have to, and writing was something that I could do.”
Asako cites Shusaku Endo as an author whose works particularly influenced her. “He has such integrity,” she comments. “His ethical stance is so clear, and he’s also so compassionate. He writes to understand a situation, which resonates with me.” Endo is perhaps most well-known amongst Western audiences for his 1966 novel Silence, which served as the basis for the 2016 Martin Scorsese movie of the same title. His works are heavily inspired by his childhood experiences living overseas and then as a religious minority in Japan, often focus on the stigma, isolation, and the experience of being an outsider or foreigner. They also universally tackle the complexities of morality in life, themes which can also be seen in Inheritors.
Outside of Endo’s works, Asako also shares that she was influenced by her classes at ASIJ. “I took this English class at ASIJ that focused on modernist literature, which was my first introduction to existential thought. That was very formative in the way I look at the world and my own life, and I would say that was a huge influence that persisted in me,” she says, thinking back to her time in Tokyo. “Actually, I feel I was blessed with teachers at ASIJ, because all of my English classes were very formative, as well as the Japan Seminar.” Another class that was influential to the development of her writing style was, unexpectedly, French. “My French class was incredible,” Asako reminisces. “The teacher made us write these journal entries that were personal responses to what we were reading in class. But it was also a space where you could bring your own life into the writing, to write in a way that really put yourself into the material, and that was amazing to me.”
Back in her current home of Boston, MA, on the opposite side of the globe from ASIJ, Asako is working on her next project from the home that she shares with her partner, Matthew, who is also a writer. The couple work on totally different schedules, with him writing from 6am to noon while Asako sleeps, and then Asako writes from midnight to around 6am while Matthew is in bed. “It works out,” she shares with a laugh. “We occupy the house at different times, in different ways.” Their writing styles also differ but fit together well. “Matthew shares work all the time—we often talk about his work, while I tend to be more solitary, just because of the way I write,” Asako explains. “He produces drafts, whereas I write one draft slowly, brick by brick, and revise during the process. So we take about the same amount of time, but he’ll produce seven drafts, whereas I’ll produce one.”
Next up is a continuation of her work on Inheritors. “At the end of writing this particular book, I realized that there was so much about this history that I hadn’t touched on. And so Inheritors became one of four,” Asako shares. “I really hope this one doesn’t take another 12 years… hopefully half that time, or less!” While it’s unusual to see books in sets of four rather than the more common trilogy, Asako feels that format is an important element of the series unfolding in her mind. “The first one was sort of an overview, or an introduction to this history that spans time,” she comments of Inheritors. “But there are so many other components that I never got to talk about, or to approach from a different angle. I want to really get into some of the other themes that I think are present in this history, and then sort of circle back around to Japanese national myths. I’m planning it such that it kind of circles back to the first book—it kind of goes around and then comes back around.”
But even if it does take another 12 years, Asako is determined to make it happen. “My advice to anyone wanting to pursue writing is to really figure out what your strengths are, and what you really care about, and then to have the courage to do it,” she shares candidly. “There are a lot of obstacles to being a writer, but if you believe in it, and if you really want to do it, you can find ways of doing it.” Reflecting on her own perhaps unconventional trajectory, she adds, “I think that nowadays writing is so professionalized that you’re led to believe that there’s one way to go about being a writer and ‘make it,’ or whatever the term might be. But that’s not true. You just have to find a way to do it that’s your own.”
“I think people who go to international schools have a special experience, and you can really bring that unique perspective into your writing,” she continues. “You have the advantage of having lived in so many contexts; you’ve been constantly immersed in a certain kind of diversity.” It was definitely an integral part of defining who Asako is as a person and a writer. “There’s something unique about the international school experience. Of course it’s different from an immigrant experience, or certainly a refugee experience, but it made me feel an affinity to people who are displaced in one way or another,” she reflects. “I don’t have a national investment in any way—I’m interested in coexistence as a whole. And I think it’s because of the international school experience that I have this desire to really understand people and try to bridge these gaps between people. It’s a fact of life when you go to an international school that you live among lots of different kinds of people with lots of different perspectives. And I think that’s crucial in our world.” That sense of belonging, or not belonging, can be complicated but Asako recognizes that, “there are great things about the fact that you can be anywhere, really, because there is a sense of belonging wherever you are.”