LitFest 2017: Keiko Itoh on My Shanghai 1942- 1946

Author Keiko Itoh on writing a novel inspired by wartime Shanghai

The Shanghai International Literary Festival returns to M on the Bund this month with 30-plus talks, discussions and workshops over 12 days. Every day this week we're introducing you to one of this year's featured authors.

Japanese writer Keiko Itoh’s latest book, My Shanghai 1942 - 1946, is a novel partly inspired by the wartime experiences of her mother, who was part of Shanghai’s foreign community in the perilous 1940s.

Tell us about your book, My Shanghai, 1942-1946.
'It is the story of a young Western-educated, Christian Japanese wife and mother who lives in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, initially in privileged comfort among an international social set. However, as war progresses and Japanese control tightens, she witnesses mounting hardships among her Western and Chinese friends, and feels caught between loyalty to her country and to her personal values.

'The theme is a young woman’s moral navigation through a turbulent world, and the novel, written in diary form, revolves around the dramas of everyday life and personal relationships.'

How did you go about researching this book?
'As the book was inspired by my own mother’s wartime experiences, the first step was an interview with my mother. Then I tried to find out about the people she socialised with in Shanghai, which included of course Japanese people, mainly expatriates like my parents who lived in the French Concession, but also British Quakers, Jewish refugees, Chinese nationalists and collaborators, and German neighbours. I conducted interviews with anyone I could find who had lived in Shanghai during the war.

'I spent quite a lot of time at Friends House Library in London going over the minutes and correspondence of the Quakers in Shanghai. I poured over old newspaper microfiche in the Japanese National Diet Library and also looked up repatriation boat records in the Japanese Diplomatic Archives.'

How do you use your personal and family history in your books?
'Looking into my own family background has been the starting point of all my historical research. My mother was born in London in 1921, left as an infant, but returned again to spend her teenage years there. My grandfather was a banker and had been stationed in many different countries, including Britain.

'My first book, The Japanese Community in Pre-War Britain: From Integration to Disintegration, is a social history of the community, which included my grandfather and mother. Since my family’s next move was to Shanghai, my initial intention was to do a study of the Japanese community in Shanghai during the war.

'But the community was very big and most Japanese lived in Hongkou – not the social milieu of my parents. In the end, I focused on a much narrower Japanese community and ended up writing a novel. Because it is written as a diary, most readers assume there was an actual diary. In fact, my mother left no written records, and the everyday life depicted in the book is all made up. Once it became fiction, the main character, although based on my mother, very early on became a character of her own.'

What’s theme of your talk for the LitFest?
'I have the privilege of participating in a joint session with Betty Barr. We will be talking about two mothers’ contrasting experiences of Shanghai under Japanese occupation. Since Ruth’s Record is a real diary, and My Shanghai is a made up diary, I will talk about the differences: mine, rather than being a true record of events, used the diary format as a device to weave in historical facts to pursue the central theme of the protagonist’s moral dilemmas and her development from a naïve innocent into a self-aware, confident woman.'

Keiko Itoh is speaking on Tuesday 14 at midday. My Shanghai 1942 - 1946 (Renaissance Books) will be available at the event. Find full details here of this year's Shanghai International Literary Festival.

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