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Q&A: Rona Jaffe Award Winner Asako Serizawa, MFA ‘01

Asako Serizawa MFA '01 won a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Award. Courtesy photo

Last month, alumna Asako Serizawa was one of six emerging women writers to win a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Award. Allegiance, Serizawa’s collection of short stories, follows World War II’s impact on four generations of a family.

Serizawa’s work has been published in Witness, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, and Prairie Schooner, and she has won two O. Henry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. Recently, she was a Fiction Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Emerson College Today asked Serizawa about her latest award, which comes with $30,000, and her work.

What does winning the Rona Jaffe Award mean, both to your career, and to you personally as a writer?

It’s still too early to say what the award might mean, career-wise, but I can say that it has reshaped the parameters of my daily writing life, expanding the horizon of what seemed possible. Now I can see the end of my current project and how I’ll get there. I still have to face the work, but there’s a vital easing of one pressure, the material one, which is superseded, but productively, by the other: the pressure to finish. The support is unquantifiable; that someone rooted for this project is incredibly lucky and bolstering. That there is an award like this is significant. Truly a lifeline.

You’ve written a series of stories that tell of the same set of events from different characters’ perspectives. What was behind the decision to break it up into separate stories, as opposed to containing them in one long story, or even a novel?

I hesitate to talk about the stories as a series because that implies something serial, maybe episodic, maybe even linear, where stories are loosely linked as in a chain. For this collection, I envisioned the stories as interconnected pieces, designed more like panels in a kaleidoscope to explore the multifaceted consequences of imperialism and war—particularly Japanese and American imperialism in the context of world history—and their enduring impact on our increasingly violent multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural world. So while some stories are written, for example, from the Japanese perspective and set directly around the Second World War, others are set at other times in various parts of colonial and post-colonial Asia and the U.S., including one set in the very near future, all of which are braided together by common themes. As a whole, the collection spans over a decade and juxtaposes four generations of a family, fractured and scattered by that war.

The project, in many ways, grew out of my interest in the relationship between history, memory, and storytelling – what it means to remember, forget, misremember, tell, not tell, even lie, and the ways these seemingly personal acts of negotiation can impact not only our collective memories but the collective world in which we live (and vice versa). So I wanted a form where individual pieces could exist autonomously and collectively. I wanted each piece to articulate its own distinct, circumscribed story but also be in conversation with one another, contesting one another’s assumptions and truths to call attention to the partiality of all our perspectives and the fraught, sometimes violent, ways in which we experience, interpret, understand, and pass on our personal and collective histories. I finally wanted the collection to invite readers to read the stories interactively, to juxtapose them differently, to see how the inflections, the “reality” of a story might shift through contact with the others. In other words, I wanted pieces that were more discrete, more mobile and invitational than what I felt chapters in a novel might allow.

Can we look forward to more stories in the series?

The collection will have a total of twelve, maybe thirteen, stories. I’ve written nine, with a tenth almost done. Six have been published. So I hope there’ll be others that will make it out into the world.

Have your stories been published in Japan, and if so, what reactions are you receiving?

This is an interesting question. I’ve never looked into publishing the stories in Japan mainly because I write in English. I have wondered, though, how they might be received if they were translated and published there. By “they,” I mean specifically the stories written from the perspective of Japanese characters. How might they be translated? How might they render in translation? How will they change in the hands of one translator or another (including my own)? Stories inevitably shift in the transit from one language and culture to another; what might be lost, gained, uncovered, or perhaps newly discovered in translation? And how differently might they be read, for example, in China compared to Japan, compared to the U.S.?

Given the political climate in Japan, and the tensions in East Asia—haunted in part by unresolved personal and national memories of the Second World War, exhumed and mobilized by these tensions—I would imagine that these stories will have a different charge there, perhaps touching off live nerves – or so I’d hope, though not without apprehension. For me, the question is always why I want to write the stories I’m writing and, by writing them, how I mean to participate in the larger discussions taking place around them. So I worry about my material. I worry about my responsibilities as a writer handling this material. I worry about the sensitivities I might wittingly or unwittingly explode. Then I imagine the stories migrating across the Pacific, and somewhere in the back of my head, a small voice also asks, what are their risks of co-option?

What did your time at Emerson teach you about writing and/or publishing?

Creative writing as a whole is very different now, and Emerson’s Creative Writing program is also very different now, I think. At the time, and this might be my particular experience, there was little emphasis on publishing, if, by “publishing,” you mean how and where one might publish as a fiction writer. I had little sense of what to do with my stories after I wrote them, and this suited me fine. It gave me space to write; it was a spacious program in that sense. It was probably the best thing that could have happened. That, and Emerson’s mandatory literature component, which is still pretty unique, I think, among MFA programs. It was Emerson’s main draw for me; I was interested in writing with a context.

Any advice for current Emerson MFA candidates?

Writing, and the needs and demands of writing, are so individual and shifty, and so much is contingent on what your writing goals are and what writing practice you can manage to adapt under your inevitably changing circumstances. It took me a long time to understand how I work best, what my real needs are (as opposed to the persuasive ones the mind is expert at inventing), and how I can get myself to open my document every day. Having a clear project has helped me. As well as figuring out how to contain and harness that fear one gets to know so well: the ruin of wasted effort, a desolate future. In other words: find a way to keep going!

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