A Year in Reading: Roland Kelts

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As a half-Japanese kid growing up in the Northeast, I masqueraded quite successfully as another disenfranchised suburban Caucasian dude, angry more at being nowhere special than for any definable reason. But two historical phrases instilled unease: “Pearl Harbor” and “The Bataan Death March.” The former’s nasty ethnic stereotypes of the Japanese character—sneaky, cowardly, backstabbing—made me wary of my mother and half of my family, all of whom seemed otherwise sane and trustworthy to me. And the latter left me cold: How could such mindless barbarity even happen? One of these days, I used to think, I’ll be unmasked—as one of them.

Historical anecdotes have very significant drawbacks, of course. In the name of brevity and clarity, they reduce ambiguous human symphonies to palatable and memorable riffs.

But with hindsight and the power of narrative, writers have the power to unlock and conduct mystery back to life. Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman, in Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath, revive the rich choral horror of what seems banal at first: a sixty-six day march of American and Filipino POWS to prison camps in the Philippines, and eventually, Japan, beginning in 1942. By tracing the story of one very much alive American survivor, the now-artist Ben Steele, whose illustrations enhance the book’s capacious stories, and by interviewing American, Filipino and Japanese participants, the Normans beautifully tell a story about a nightmarish event. The Allied POWs were abandoned early on by President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, largely because the US was preoccupied by the war in Europe and willing to overlook the fates of 76,000 of their own; and the Japanese soldiers, emboldened by a military dictatorship and brutalized into madness by their commanders, successfully dehumanized their booty. The POWs were no different from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib: Spoils for the despoiling.

Tears in the Darkness and pal Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, about the inner workings of the Japanese mafia and its collusive relationships with the FBI, serve as adequate bookends to my reading year: two books about the dangers of masquerading as anyone but yourself.

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A Year in Reading: Roland Kelts


Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. He is a contributing writer and editor at A Public Space literary journal and Adbusters magazine, and a columnist at Japan’s Daily Yomiuri. He is also the editorial director of Anime Masterpieces, a screening and lecture series, and a professor at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University. His work appears in numerous publications in the US and Japan, and his forthcoming novel is called Access. He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.Just before I left Tokyo for another round of book tour events in the US this past summer, my friend Yuko handed me a copy of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Ostensibly a memoir, it’s one of those books I had subconsciously avoided in the past for reasons I suspect are entirely personal. I knew it had been critically lauded, and I’d even glanced at a few pages in a bookstore aisle, finding the prose fresh, arresting.I also knew that Flynn was chronicling in its pages a life of muted disappointment – and the deeper pain that comes with a trail of persistent bruises as opposed to a knockout punch. I knew the father was an alcoholic, a failed writer, and like most pretenders, increasingly pathetic. And I knew the son was shadow-boxing, cowering in an effort to find strength, and a self.I think I was afraid of reading it for the risk of recognition.But I finally did, thanks to Yuko. I read the book on planes, in hotel rooms, in taxis to and from airports. Each time I opened its pages, I did so with the admixture of helpless hunger and foreboding that is the condition of the addict. Flynn’s writing somehow captures the low-lidded wariness, the willful half-seeing yet all-knowing suspicion of a soul perpetually on the verge of tragedy, dangling from its ledge even, but never having the luxury of the fall’s full embrace.I finished the book with a queer sense of awe and trepidation. I was not comforted, but I felt like I’d survived. Even now, it’s hard for me to return to its pages.More from A Year in Reading 2008