Happy Hour with Nobu

In writing Broken Dreams, the sequel to The Red Kimono, most of my characters have readily begun to tell me their stories—all except Nobu. Though I’ve perched at my computer countless hours trying to claw out his first chapter, after several writes and re-writes only two lonely paragraphs dangle on that big, white screen.

Staring at the hungry page, I’ve asked, “Nobu, why won’t you talk to me? What are you hiding?”

Then, it occurred to me. Interview him. Even better, invite him to happy hour. Pour him some sake. Re-establish some trust. Maybe that will get him to open up.

So in my mind, I invite Nobu to sit beside me in a place not filled with the usual noise of a happy hour—loud music, the chatter of people trying to be heard above everyone else. In my imaginary meeting place created especially to make Nobu comfortable, the only sound I hear is water trickling over rocks in the lush, green atrium near where we sit.

He is tall for a Japanese man, his height more pronounced because he is thin. His clothes are a little too neat and pressed, almost as if he just removed them from their packaging. In his dark eyes, I interpret a variety of emotions. Wisdom, some unwanted, perhaps. A little sadness, some resentment, definitely guarded. But, they also ask for a trusted place to hide.

I pour some sake into a tiny cup. “Thank you for joining me,” I say and hand him the warm drink. “What have you been doing in the decade since The Red Kimono?”

He draws a deep breath and stares at the waterfall. “When I left Tule Lake [internment camp] in 1945, I returned to California.” His gaze darts back to me. “Papa and Sachi remained in Arkansas. My decision to return to California created a bit of a rift in my family. As you might imagine, Papa wanted me in Arkansas with him.” He blows into the cup, then sips. “But I refused to run away from what we left behind in California – racism, fear.” Another sip. “Though we had nothing left to return to, I wanted to prove I could move beyond what we had been through during World War II.”

“Prove to whom?”

“I don’t know. Maybe only myself. Fortunately, my brother, Taro, felt the same way when he returned from the war.” He smiles his first smile. “He and I started a nursery together. In the past decade, we’ve made Kimura Brothers Nursery one of the largest in northern California.”

I want to dig deeper. Casually sipping my own sake, I proceed slowly so as not to alarm him. “How is your relationship with your family now? How do you and Taro get along in the business?”

His eyebrows rise slightly and he swirls the sake in his cup. “Since my nephew, Michael, was born four years ago, I find myself wanting to re-establish a connection with my family. He is so much like Sachi was as a child – inquisitive, full of energy and well, spunky. Sachi, Michael and Papa have come to visit Taro and me several times in the last few years, and I have gone to visit them in Arkansas once. I find it amazing how a child can change one’s perspective. Michael has no worries about the future, of how he appears to others. He enjoys each little moment without consideration of the past or future. I could learn much from him.” He quiets.

“And you and Taro?”

“Oh, we get along fine. But sometimes I feel like there is an invisible wall between us. We never talk about the war years, though they had a huge impact on me. And I know fighting as a Japanese American in the war had its effect on Taro. How could it not, with his family interned in America as possible spies while he risked his life in Europe? I often see a faraway look in his eyes. In the times we are quiet, when no words pass between us, his eyes speak a thousand things. Things so terrible, so angry, I am afraid to ask.” He gulps down the last of his sake.

I hold the bottle toward him. “More?”

He nods and pushes his cup toward me.

As I pour, I ask, “What about your mother?”

His eyes widen and he jerks out of his seat, turns away and runs his hand through his hair.

I’ve hit a nerve. I blow on my cup and wait.

The silence is thick and threatens to become impenetrable if one of us doesn’t speak soon. I decide not to take the chance. “Nobu? Is it something you can talk about?”

Without turning to face me, he begins to talk, so softly I have to lean forward to hear. “A letter.” He returns to the table for his drink, then turns away again.

“A letter? What letter?” My heart is beating fast and I am afraid of losing my grasp as I reel in what feels like a very big fish.

He inhales, long and deep. “When we were sent to Arkansas, Mama gave some of our belongings to friends for safekeeping until we returned. As you know, after Mama was released from Rohwer, she returned to Hiroshima to find her parents.” He picks up a pebble from the garden and turns it in his hand before tossing it into the waterfall.

I hold my breath, afraid the slightest motion will shatter his fragile momentum.

“When I returned to California, our friends asked if I was ready for them to return our family items. It was all we had left, so of course, I said ‘yes.’”

“So,” I whisper, “you found a letter there?”

“Yes. In a Bible.”

“A Bible? But . . . you and your family are Buddhist, aren’t you?”

“Yes. That’s why I was surprised to see a Bible. I opened it, and there was an inscription inside. ‘To Sumiko. Always, Hideo.’ Who in the world is Hideo, I thought. So I flipped the pages, searching for something, anything that might tell me who he was . . .” His voice begins to tremble. “. . . and found a letter . . . from Hideo . . .folded up inside.”

My brain begs me to ask what the letter said, but my heart aches for Nobu.

At last, he faces me, his eyes glistening. “It is yet another brick in the wall that stands between Taro and me—between my whole family and me. I know a secret that would destroy us.”

What is it?

“In the letter, Hideo asked about his son. His son . . .Taro.”

Taro is Hideo’s son?

I struggle not to gasp and instead, gulp my now-lukewarm sake. “Oh, Nobu. I’m sorry. Do you think you will tell Taro one day?”


I’m speechless. But I want to end my interview on a better note. After all, I hope that Nobu and I can meet again to talk more. I decide to close with a question I’ve asked others. “Is there anything you’d like to answer that I haven’t asked?”

He flashes a broad, wise smile and for the first time, I see how handsome he is. “Yes. Of course,” he replies. “Like many of the characters you have created, I know that I am a part of you. You should have asked me, ‘What part of you was created from me?’”

An interesting question. “Okay, Nobu. What part of you was created from me?” I am a little afraid of his answer.

He straightens and I can tell he’s shaken off the sadness of his last answer. “The writer. As with you, I write in my journal those thoughts and feelings I am afraid to share. Perhaps because I don’t want to cause someone pain, or perhaps I don’t want to anger them. Anyway, as you know, I often decide it best to keep such feelings to myself. Still there is a part of me many do not know. Maybe one day, after I am gone, someone will find my journals and will know who I really am inside.”

I shake the bottle of sake to see if there is anything left. When I find it empty, I open my eyes.

Nobu is gone. Though I still see the same two paragraphs on the page, I now know the story he will tell in Broken Dreams, even if it is only through his journals.

This entry was posted in Broken Dolls, Broken Dreams, internment camp, Interview, Japanese-American, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Happy Hour with Nobu

  1. Russell says:

    Great blog. I'm totally drawn in.


  2. Jan Morrill says:

    Thank you, Russell. It's the second interview I've done with one of my characters and it's surprising what you can find out with this method. Sometimes it makes me wonder about my sanity. 🙂


  3. Claire says:

    Great interview process. I really like that you're grammatically correct when talking with your characters. Prove to whom? I also love the question: “Is there anything you’d like to answer that I haven’t asked?” That's brilliant and his answer. Whew! Goose bumps. Broken Dreams promises to be as exciting and original as Broken Dolls. I can't wait to read it.


  4. Jan Morrill says:

    Thanks, Claire. I look forward to having a happy hour with all of our "star" characters. 🙂


  5. I talk to my characters too, Jan. But I've never thought of doing a formal interview with them. Have a great week.


  6. Madison Woods says:

    Jan, the accounting of your interview gave me goosebumps. I loved it.


  7. Jan Morrill says:

    @Cactus Country – I've found that doing a "formal" interview, where I actually write things down, keeps me more focused. When it's all in my mind, I tend to "stray." @Madison, thank you. I take goosebumps as high praise. 🙂


  8. Stuart Land says:

    Jan, terrific. I love your writing. It's so clear and personal. You actually listen to your characters, which I believe you do, even when you don' interview them. We are exactly the same that way. An interview was just done with my yesterday where I talk about writers block (essentially not letting your characters tell their story). In fact, I can't believe how many similarities we have. Our writing styles are similar, and I found a great connection to your story. Though I'm not Japanese, I have a primal attachment to the culture and the people. I've been close to that community while in San Francisco and LA , and know first hand stories of the period you speak about. I've been to Japan to stay with my girlfriend who lived in Chibuya, and know the gates to the temple in your photo. My film library has over 300 Japanese films. Meeting you is like meeting an old friend.


  9. This is beyond awesome. What a wonderful post! I know that there are several of my characters that I'd love to chat with over a pint of beer…!


  10. Jan Morrill says:

    @Stuart Land – thank you for your very kind post. Comments like yours – that let me know I "made a connection" – are what writing is all about!@Gordon Bonnet – Please let me know how your chat over beer goes! Some of my writer friends and I plan to have a group happy hour, where we'll each "become" one of each other's characters to be interviewed. Now THAT will be an interesting blog entry, so stay tuned. 🙂


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  15. Hideo, eh? I love your relationship with your characters. You bring them to life in this way. 🙂


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