By Madison Maloney
Emily writes historical fiction for children and teens. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and is a former teacher.
Inscape: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from and what do you like to do?
Emily Inouye Huey: I’m from Provo, Utah. I went to Brigham Young University and actually worked on Inscape while there. I love the outdoors, writing, and doing things with my family. I’m really interested in my family’s stories, which influenced Beneath the Wide Silk Sky.
Inscape: It’s said that if you want to be a good writer, you need to read a lot of books. What are your favorite books, and how have they influenced your writing?
EIH: When I was a kid, I would go through phases of reading certain series, like The Babysitters Club or Goosebumps. My mom was worried that those were all I wanted to read, so she would require that I read three books from a list she had compiled for every one book I read in whatever series I was into at the time. This list included classics like Dickens and Black Beauty, poetry from the likes of Robert Frost, books that had won Newbery Awards, or any literature she found was good, important, and had variety. I also had a professor at BYU that required us to do a media fast, meaning we had to take time off from the things we were currently reading and instead choose something from a list the professor had. Reading a lot of different things that I wasn’t necessarily into really influenced me and my writing style.
Inscape: Your book is inspiring, and it’s made even more inspiring because it’s influenced by your own family history. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who has an important story to share but isn’t sure where to start?
EIH: I started on this path that led to Beneath the Wide Silk Sky before I ever wanted to write a book. The novel is about Japanese Americans during World War II, but most Japanese Americans didn’t speak about their experiences with discrimination until several decades later. There was an idea prevalent in the community that they needed to forget what happened and not speak about it if they wanted to move on and fit in with the rest of society. Because of that, I didn’t know many details about my family’s history. My grandparents would sometimes talk about how they met in a camp, but that was about it. So, my journey started because I really wanted to know more about my family’s story. I began learning the stories and recording them, and I did a research project too – all of which happened before I even thought about writing a novel. The book started when I realized I wanted to give voice to all the perspectives I had researched and discovered. For anyone who wants to write about something important to them, my advice is to give yourself space to try. I think a lot of times when you want to write something important you have a vision of the finished product, but at the beginning, it’s really hard to write anything close to that vision. I see a lot of people quit – myself included – because what they’re initially coming up with isn’t close to their ideal. You need to give yourself space to put something on the page though, as crummy as it might be, because then you can work with it and rework it and even start again if you have to. You’ll never get the vision, though, if you’re always quitting because it’s not perfect in the beginning.
Inscape: Do you believe there was ever a shift in the Japanese American community where people became more open to discussing what happened?
EIH: I think people have become much more open to talking about it due to a generational shift. In the 1980s, activists started agitating for redress – asking the government to admit to wrongdoing and apologize. It was a moment where people had their experience acknowledged and the wrongness of it validated, and that changed things. There’s also been a generational shift in how we deal with trauma; we now acknowledge that it’s not healthy to hide and internalize it. And of course, it’s probably easier for the children and grandchildren to talk about it than it was for those who experienced it themselves. I think most Japanese Americans now realize incarceration camps are important to talk about, so they don’t happen again. While I think it’s unlikely that we would see it happen to Japanese Americans again, it could happen to another group. In fact, we have seen it get too close, several times.
Inscape: How did you choose this particular time period, before Japanese American incarceration camps rather than during them, and what did the research for it look like?
EIH: One of the main things a lot of us don’t know about the history of the Japanese American experience is that Pearl Harbor was just a match that lit the flame for a barrel of gasoline already sitting there. People had wanted them out for a long time, to the point that there were politicians with election campaigns based on removing the Japanese. There are a lot of great books written about camps themselves, but I wanted to explore the before – how do we even get to a place like that? In terms of research, I always start with books, particularly children’s books. They are great for understanding the simplified ideas of what I’m researching as opposed to reading deep treatises on more complex concepts. From there, I move to adult books to get a more in-depth overview, and after that I round out my research with first-hand accounts and primary sources. When possible, I do interviews too, and for Beneath the Wide Silk Sky I also traveled to Washington so I could really get the setting right.
Inscape: The characters in your story feel so 3-dimensional – even the side characters. Was there a character whose voice you found easiest to write or a character whose voice took more time to find?
EIH: I believe every character comes from the writer in some way. Even for characters you hate, there’s still something you identify with. One of my characters is named Beau, and he’s someone who doesn’t stand up for his Japanese American friend. I have fears about being someone like Beau – fears about what I could be pressured to do in dangerous and scary situations. Writing Kiki was really fun. She’s not the nicest character, but she was really enjoyable to write and came to me quite easily. I loved Little Women as a kid, and in some ways, I enjoy Kiki the way I enjoy Amy, a character that Kiki may have come from subconsciously. My main character Sam was the easiest to write because I understand her the best, but I think there’s a little of me in every character. Some are easier to access, but they all come from me.
Inscape: This book has themes of bravery and cowardice, but more compellingly, the nuances of those traits – there are characters who wish to be brave but cannot find it in themselves to be so, like Beau, and characters who are tempted by cowardice but ultimately defeat their inner doubts, like Sam. What do you think causes those different responses? And do you see any world where a character like Beau is able to make the better choice?
EIH: One of the main reasons I wrote this book was based on the question of how we define ourselves, and what causes some to make terrible decisions while others make great ones. In this period there were a whole lot of responses to what was in some ways an impossibly challenging time, so it was important to me to have white characters who made good choices and white characters who didn’t, as well as Japanese characters who made good choices and Japanese characters who didn’t. In terms of the choices we make, our background experiences make such a huge difference, as well as the people we’ve been around, but really, it all comes down to personal choice and the things we choose to put first. At the time this novel takes place, 93% of Americans were for Japanese American incarceration – a shocking number – but those 7% who weren’t in favor are the people I’m most interested in. There were many cases of people who knew a Japanese American and realized they weren’t a scary, threatening “Other.” Rather, they were more similar than they were different. Even with that realization though, it all still comes down to personal choice. Beau knew what was right and didn’t do it, and that’s what makes him a tragic character. I think in the future though, Beau will make a different choice, and that he’ll eventually find the right path. He’s not a bad person, he’s just fearful and cowardly and made some really bad choices. But in the end, I think he’ll come to himself. For me, it would be hard to be an author if I didn’t believe people could change. What’s the point of being an author and sharing a message if you don’t believe people can change? I like to believe that we’re different people today than we were yesterday.
Inscape: I was surprised how satisfied I was with the story’s ending – it’s poignant and devastating, yet still hopeful. What made you decide to write it that way?
EIH: I couldn’t give it a Hollywood ending that didn’t respect the trauma and suffering experienced because I wanted to do right by the people this really happened to. I also wanted to leave readers pondering hard questions as opposed to making the ending tidy and comfortable. But this whole book is a love letter to my grandparents and my family’s experiences, so I also wanted to give Sam a triumph – a triumph that could be shared with every kid and reader who’s going through something hard. Sometimes you can’t change what’s happening to you, but you can still triumph in maintaining your identity.