JANUARY 25, 2016
LIKE ITS AMERICAN COUNTERPARTS, my Japanese-Canadian family was interned by their own government in the horrible years after Pearl Harbor. Most of my Canadian-born grandfather’s family lost their homes in Chemainus, an island mill-town, when they were taken to a camp in the mountains of British Columbia. In just a few months, vibrant, long-standing Japanese communities along the West Coast were completely erased. When internment ended, no Japanese-Canadians returned to Chemainus. If not for two murals painted in the town in 1982 (one of which features my great-uncle Eddie Shige Yoshida, who formed an all-Japanese Boy Scout troop in 1929) the erasure would be nearly total, their experience forgotten forever.
And so I was intrigued when I discovered Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil, a crime novel set during this dark moment in history. I’d read books by internment survivors, like Joy Kogawa’s classic novel Obasan, but was curious about how McAlpine, a white contemporary writer, might engage with the injustice faced by ethnic Japanese in World War II–era North America. The slim novel was a thrill to read. It’s not just another historical mystery but an ingeniously structured metafictional noir of surprising depth.
Woman with a Blue Pencil is presented as a series of excerpts from three found documents: The Revised, an unpublished novella “handwritten […] on 102 sheets of WWII-era, GI-issue writing paper” by Japanese-American author Takumi Sato; letters addressed to Sato from the titular character, Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries; and The Orchid and the Secret Agent, a pulp spy thriller written by an author called William Thorne, published in 1945 by Wakefield’s press.
The Revised opens at the Rialto Movie House in downtown Los Angeles on December 6, 1941, the night before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Eleven months after his wife Kyoko’s murder, Sam Sumida, a Japanese-American academic, watches Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, hoping to absorb the detective skills of Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled hero. Sumida intends to do what the LAPD could not — find Kyoko’s killer and bring him to justice. But before he can even finish watching his movie, the entire theater goes dark. When the screen comes back to life, it shows a different picture, a cheery romantic comedy. No one but Sumida seems troubled, and when he complains to the manager, he gets a shock: The date is January 22, 1942; in a blink of an eye, he’s lost six weeks from his life. The Maltese Falcon has been closed for a month, and the US is at war with Japan.
As Sumida navigates a world that has suddenly become hostile toward his very existence, the letters of Maxine Wakefield reveal the source of his troubles. Takumi Sato, a novice author, has had his previously accepted, partially finished mystery novel returned by the publisher. Wakefield explains that after Pearl Harbor, it is “impossible” to publish a novel featuring a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese protagonist and a Caucasian villain. “The world has changed,” she writes to Sato. She offers the writer a second chance: rewrite the story with a different hero, now battling Japanese Fifth Columnists intent on destabilizing America from within. “Patriotism will sell in the coming period.”
We don’t hear how Sato feels about compromising his artistic vision — we only see his character through his fiction and his editor’s letters. We do know that Sato eventually agrees to Wakefield’s proposal: The Orchid and the Secret Agent, written under the pen name William Thorne, is the result. Sam Sumida becomes the wisecracking Korean-American private investigator Jimmy Park, an expert in Taekwondo and “Oriental languages.” He is a fervent nationalist, prone to jingoistic, racist comments about “Jap” spies. To Park, the Japanese are physically weak, but still sneaky and dangerous, “in the manner of night-crawling scorpions.” Park moonlights for the LAPD, infiltrating Japanese spy rings in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.
McAlpine is familiar with the tropes and archetypes that populate the crime fiction canon. One of his earlier novels, Hammett Unwritten, was a tricky story-within-a-story that imagined the real-life Dashiell Hammett solving the case of the Maltese Falcon. McAlpine is comfortable interrogating the mystery and thriller genre by writing within it, but with Woman with a Blue Pencil, he’s taking aim at something larger. He’s critiquing the art and artifice of writing, editing, and publishing.
The three strands of the novel change and inform each other; as the plots intertwine, events in one story impact the narrative in another. In The Orchid and the Secret Agent, Park shows up at the Rialto Movie House to discover that the same manager who spoke with Sumida in The Revised has been murdered, an ominous message in Japanese calligraphy on the office wall written in his blood. Park is soon recruited by a super-secret arm of the US government to infiltrate a shadowy network of Japanese assassins operating under the command of a dragon lady caricature named the “Orchid” — a stunning woman who bears a resemblance to Sumida’s murdered wife. In The Revised, Sumida returns to his Echo Park home to find it stripped of any evidence of his life. Instead, another Asian man, recognizable to the reader as Jimmy Park, is in all the photographs in the house. The letters from Wakefield move between the two fictions. Clunky exposition in The Orchid and the Secret Agent is later revealed to be the result of her edits; supporting characters cut from The Orchid find life in The Revised.
McAlpine effectively creates two distinct worlds with their own tone and color. The Orchid is all short, punchy sentences, full of heavy-handed, pulpy dialogue. (“‘You need only bring your love of country.’ ‘That, gentlemen, I bring with me everywhere.’ Jimmy answered.”) When Jimmy Park is in a reflective mood, he thinks about the evils of “Jap” spies and the beauty of America. Sumida’s concerns are more human: he’s alone in a city where Japanese-Americans are subject to curfews and the once-bustling Little Tokyo is a ghost town; there is no record that he and his dead wife ever existed. He meditates on memory, love, and loss in moody, ruminative sentences: “Sugitaru wa nao oyobazaru ga gotoshi. ‘Let what is past flow away downstream,’ his aunt said, being aggravatingly fond of maxims. But he didn’t want to let go, to move forward. The only movement he wanted was backward, and that was impossible.”
Some of the differences in language are political. Sumida is “Asian” in The Revised, while Jimmy Park prefers “Oriental” — a result of Wakefield’s blue pencil. In her letters, she tells Sato — who is now writing The Orchid while interned with his family in Manzanar — to further adjust his character so as not to challenge a reader’s possible prejudices: “Remember, you are writing for a general and very broad readership.” An arch manipulator, she praises Sato for his writing talent and then breezily suggests that he introduce “more traditionally exotic, ‘foreign’ elements.” She even goes so far as to frame Sato’s internment and forced withdrawal from UCLA as a “blessing in disguise,” since it gives him more time for writing. She encourages him, cheerfully critiques his writing craft, and pushes him to compromise himself.
Last month, Claire Vaye Watkins published the explosive essay “On Pandering,” in which she admitted to writing to impress, quoting James Baldwin, “the little white man deep inside of all of us.” As I read Woman with a Blue Pencil, I thought about this essay and a pointed response by Marlon James. James wrote that “writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman,” an archetypal female reader enamored with suburban suffering who supposedly drives book sales and, as a result, publishers’ tastes. For Sato, Wakefield is this imaginary reader personified, pushing him to compromise his voice and write for a “general and very broad readership” by removing any trace of the authentic experience of living under oppression.
Early on in the novel, Wakefield answers a question from Sato about the fate of characters “cut from never-to-be-written drafts.” Maybe they remain half written, relegated to background roles, she muses, or crumble to nothing like the paper they’re written on. Sato, the unseen protagonist of Woman with a Blue Pencil, has given us his answer in The Revised: the discarded and marginalized live on and fight their erasure.