Friday, November 7, 2003

‘Fire Horse’
captures the strength
of Asian women

Author follows memoir
"Farewell to Manzanar"
with an epic novel

Those who don't believe in astrology at least know their sign, whether Aries or Sagittarius or Pisces.

"The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman"
By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
(Kensington Books, hardcover, 330 pages, $23)

Those in Hawaii, with ties to the East, are also likely to know their Chinese astrological sign, whether tiger, dragon or goat. Within the 12 animal categories are subcategories defined by such earthy elements as wood, water, fire, air and metal.

It is the Fire Horse, "hinoeuma" in Japanese, that piqued the interest of author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and found its way into the title of her new book, "The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman."

The book -- following 30 years after "Farewell to Manzanar," Houston's memoir of life in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II -- is also set in an internment camp. It tells the story of three generations of women: matriarch Sayo, her submissive daughter Hana and spirited American-born granddaughter Terri, short for Teruko.

It is Sayo who is born under the Fire Horse sign -- occurring once every 60 years -- which to the Chinese was symbolic of extreme fortune, good or bad, but in Japanese society often spelled tragedy and ruin, as such women born under the sign were believed to be unmarriageable and deadly to men due to their headstrong, fiery temperaments.

"I'd heard about it in the family," Houston said. "Neighbors would talk, like, 'Oh, there's a fire horse woman.' It wasn't a big thing, but I wanted to write about a very strong Asian woman and show that it in America a person needed to have those qualities to survive."

Houston, a frequent visitor to Hawaii, arrived from her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., three weeks ago to visit with friends in advance of her book's release three days ago and her Borders Book Store appearance on Sunday.

Staying in Makakilo, she's been chowing on fried rice at Rocky's Coffee Shop in Waipahu, Zippy's and L&L Drive-Inn, saying that such places deliver all the "richness of life."


With talk by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of "Farewell to Manzanar" and "The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman"

Where: Borders, Ward Centre

When: Noon Sunday

Admission: Free

Call: 591-8995

THE IDEA FOR the novel, her first, came to her on another visit to Hawaii several years ago. Her husband, writer James Houston, was working as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, and she came over to work on an oral history project.

"I wanted to interview picture brides at Kuakini, and most of them, in the past, would not have told their stories because they were so personal, but at such a late stage in life, they just thought, 'Oh, what the heck.' They always said the stories were about someone else they knew, but they told the most incredible stories."

At that time, she envisioned the story to be about a picture bride arriving in California at the turn of the 20th century, with the ending timed to coincide with the bombing of Hiroshima, where the heroine was raised. For this timeline to work out, she had to fudge on the dates, as Sayo was born in 1876, when 1846 would have been the real Fire Horse year.

Five hundred pages later, Houston said, "I couldn't get past 1910."

With some soul searching, she realized, "I resisted getting into the Second World War."

Given the entertainment value of novels, she said, "I thought it would be irreverent, disrespectful, to write about something so traumatic to the Japanese-American experience, other than to write about it factually, as I did in 'Farewell to Manzanar.' "

Since "Manzanar" -- now in its 63rd printing from Bantam Books -- was published in 1973, it's become a staple on college campuses across the country. Houston and her husband received an Emmy Award nomination and prestitious Humanitas Prize for an NBC TV drama based on the book.

"I did a lot of speaking about Manzanar and was facing a new generation who still didn't know about (the internment). They'd ask, 'You mean that happened in America?'"

Houston realized then that the story needed to be told in another way, and that cleared the way for her to finish her novel. She said that nothing would make her happier than to leave readers with a sense of life in the camps, and the strength of women and of people in times of hardship.

"We can read about history in terms of numbers and statistics, but when we experience what it was like to live with things like no privacy, or what it was like to be in such a place as a teenager, at that age where you have crushes on people, it makes us realize we have so much in common."

THE BOOK WAS certainly worth waiting for, epic in scope and written in five acts, in the format of a kabuki drama. Houston said she felt this gave the work "a mythological quality and made the characters larger than life."

Ghosts appear in the book -- as they did to those sent to Manzanar, which was built over an Indian burial ground -- to add to the mystery surrounding Sayo's life story that is coyly revealed, page by page.

Although Houston feels strongly about the wartime injustice that caused thousands of innocents to be imprisoned, she is quick to point out the work is "definitely not a political book," although feminists will likely find a heroine in Sayo, who embodies intelligence, strength and softness.

"There are so many ways to be strong," Houston said, "and sometimes to be soft and kind and tender, to be civilized, is to be strong. I wanted Sayo to have all those qualities, which are qualities of the finest women I've known."

Although Houston envisioned a female following for the book, she says she's been surprised by the number of men who have read and fallen in love with "Fire Horse Woman."

At the same time, she realizes old chauvinistic attitudes persist. "There are some tremendous stereotypes about Asian women that have some men thinking, 'That's the kind of wife I want,' someone who can be controlled. But we've come so far in our jobs and careers, and I think we have to pay more attention to women as leaders, as nurturers, preservers of the environment and preservers of the planet.

"Not that I'm coming from an ardent feminine perspective, because I believe in the Buddhist idea of reincarnation and I don't know what I'm going to come back as.

"I might come back as a man, so I want to make it good for everyone."

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