In the last few days, I’ve been working on a scene in Broken Dolls that centers around the celebration of Obon, a Buddhist custom to honor one’s ancestors. It has brought back many memories of when I was a teenager and danced in my first bon-odori.
I remember first being awed by the beautiful assortment of kimonos. Women and girls wore every color and pattern imaginable. And when they danced, their long sleeves floated beside them like kites in a breeze. As I followed my beautiful mother, trying to mimick her grace, always a split second behind as she dipped and rose, clapped her hands, I felt like an awkward albatross among beautiful cranes.
I’d already felt out of place, even upon arrival at the celebration. I watched all of the petite Japanese girls and wished I weren’t so tall and gangly. I admired their coal-black hair and wished mine wasn’t a mix of reddish-brown. And when I heard them speak Japanese in their soft, feminine voices, I felt unworldly with my dull Okie-tinged accent.
They are still vivid memories to me – that desire to fit in and be like everyone else. It would be easy to blame it on the folly of being a teenager. But it seems even today, people fear differences and are most comfortable with that which is the same.
As I write Broken Dolls, my characters – especially Sachi and Jubie – speak to me, and I’ve seen how joy can come from accepting and learning from differences. In the 1940’s of Broken Dolls, America fears Japanese-Americans and is racist against its African-Americans. But these two little girls, Sachi and Jubie, are unafraid of their differences. Their relationship begins with what they have in common, the deaths of their fathers, when each experienced prejudice and fear in their lives. In their forbidden friendship, they share their differences. Jubie teaches Sachi about the meaning of Juneteenth and Sachi invites her to celebrate Obon. Sachi teaches Jubie how to dance in a kimono, and Jubie teaches her the Jitterbug.
I’ve envied Sachi’s and Jubie’s innocence – wisdom, perhaps – that allows them to find each other’s hidden treasures. And I’m grateful that in my real world, sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a few of my own.