An Interview with Are You an Echo? Author David Jacobson and Translator Sally Ito
by Janet Wong
by Janet Wong
I am half-Chinese and half-Korean, but my father’s closest friends were Japanese Americans, Nisei. I loved visiting Little Tokyo in Los Angeles when I was a child, picking boxes of mochi at Fugetsu-Do, leafing through paper at Bun-ka Do, stocking up on senbei crackers and Botan candy at Umeya, and listening to taiko drummers at festivals. When I saw Are You an Echo? (published by Chin Music Press) and its blend of images from traditional and contemporary Japan, I was transported to my childhood and immediately full of questions for author David Jacobson (DJ) and translator Sally Ito (SI).
JW: I’d like to urge readers to order Are You an Echo? in time for Japanese Culture Day, Bunka no Hi, celebrated on November 3rd. Can you tell us about that holiday?
DJ: Though originally established to honor Japan’s Emperor Meiji on his birthday, Bunka no Hi was recast after World War II to promote the arts and scholarship. Today, many schools hold culture festivals and art exhibitions and universities announce new research projects. Also on that day, the emperor announces the Order of Culture award to those who have made significant advancement in the arts or sciences. Which is why it is so appropriate that we celebrate Misuzu Kaneko at this time.
JW: Your book has received glowing reviews, most notably from Betsy Bird in School Library Journal— so I suspect that it is already on the wish lists of many librarians, teachers, parents, and poetry fans. What would you say to convince a person to order the book now, rather than continue to wait?
SI: Well, I am of the mind that if a book appeals to you now, you should get it immediately!
DJ: I think this book offers so much–Misuzu’s wonderful poetry, the story of her life, the rediscovery of her work after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Moreover, it’s accompanied by Toshi’s beautiful illustrations, which give an accurate depiction of bygone Japan. All this in just 64 pages, which you can read in 10 minutes.
JW: Do you have any recommendations for how a librarian or teacher should approach sharing your book with students? Are there, for instance, certain websites or multimedia resources that you would like teachers to introduce to students before (or immediately after) they read your book?
DJ: I think the book offers librarians and teachers a choice as to whether they share her life story, or just share her poetry. Any of the poems in the latter part of the book can stand alone for use on a “Poetry Friday.” For more advanced students, teachers can read the initial narrative section of the book, then ask their students how the inclusion of poetry within the narrative adds to the effect. How do the poems help you understand Misuzu? Does their inclusion in the story change how you read the poems?
SI: Chin Music has created a website for Misuzu Kaneko and her poetry. In addition to that, I also wrote an essay called “Forgotten Woman” which is on the Electric Literature website.
JW: I enjoyed reading your Electric Literature piece, Sally, and learning about how you discovered Misuzu’s poetry. As you noted, “her viewpoint on the world of living things was unique”; something that her poem “Big Catch” demonstrates well. “Big Catch” might be my favorite poem by Misuzu. Which poems in the book are your favorites?
DJ: One of my favorites is the last poem in the anthology, “Day and Night.” Sally suggested this, as she wanted to include one of the more philosophical and “challenging” poems. In just a few words, Kaneko poses questions that probably occur to many children: Where does day stop and night begin? Does time have a beginning and end? Illustrator Toshi Hajiri complements the poem brilliantly by envisioning a child jumping rope, which divides night and day.
SI: “Stars and Dandelion” is one of my favorites, as well as “Are You an Echo?”
JW: Sally: in your Translator’s Note, you mention that you and your aunt, Michiko Tsuboi, had begun translating Misuzu’s poetry even before David contacted you with the idea of collaboration. How do you think that your book might’ve been different from Are You an Echo?, if David had not been involved?
SI: Well, it wouldn’t be in a book if David hadn’t gotten involved! Michiko and I were translating Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry for ourselves to enjoy her work, sustain our relationship and for both of us, to improve our facility in English (for Michiko) and Japanese (for me). It was David who wanted to create a book about Misuzu Kaneko and her poetry and found us. I think now that Michiko and I have had our translations published in a book, we would like to publish more of our translations in the future. Ultimately, I would like to translate all 512 of Misuzu’s poems into English which have been published in Japanese by JULA publishers in their six volume anthology.
DJ: Though this question is not meant for me, I’d like to mention that one of the reasons I sought Sally and Michiko’s help on the book was because they already knew of Misuzu, and were so enthralled by her poetry that they were translating her poems just for the love it. Turning your question on its head, I’d say the book is very different because of their input. Sally and Michiko helped me extensively with the text of the narrative (which is why they get “editorial contribution” credit on the title page). And I helped them with the translations, though my role was more that of an editor and sounding board. We spent months communicating back and forth debating the tiniest details of the translations. It sounds cliché, but it was truly a work of love, on all three of our parts.
JW: Can you share with us a small additional nugget of information about the book?
DJ: The town where Misuzu grew up was once one of four major whaling centers in Japan, though its whaling industry had already declined by Misuzu’s time. The folks in that town had a long tradition, based on their Buddhist beliefs, of praying for the souls of the whales who had given their lives for the fishermen’s livelihood. Every year then and since, they conduct a whale memorial service, to remember the souls of the dead whales and perhaps to appease their guilt. That is the service that Misuzu writes about in “Whale Memorial.” But she brings yet another level of empathy, that of the child wondering how a child whale feels after its parents have been killed. The illustrator, Toshi, and I visited the temple where the service is still conducted, which is the one depicted in the illustration. At that temple there is a register of special Buddhist names that were given to the slaughtered whales posthumously. It is thought to be the only such registry in Japan dedicated to non-humans.
Note: Look for Are You an Echo? at Amazon and Indiebound or ask for it at your favorite local booksellers.
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Sylvia: Thank you, Janet, David, and Sally, for sharing so many fascinating details about the creation of this book and your deep love for Misuzu Kaneko and her poetry. It's so rare to see any bilingual poetry for young people published, much less Japanese and English poetry, so what a unique and special contribution this is in so many ways!
Now head on over to the Miss Rumphius Effect where Tricia is gathering all our Poetry Friday posts this week.
P.S. I forgot one important detail: I have a copy of ARE YOU AN ECHO? to give away! So please comment on this post below and I'll draw a name next week for a free copy of this beautiful book. Check back to see who the winner is because then I'll need your mailing address too! Woo hoo! Thank you, Chin Music, for donating this giveaway copy!