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,
'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
'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
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
'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
'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.'