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Speaking Up! Democracy, Justice, Dignity

A Much Debated Question

“Poetic license?…” appears to be the hot topic of the day, and is a much debated question. What liberties, and how much can a writer of something historical take in his or her representations? This is the question that was posed to our panel at the recent JANM conference in Seattle that Professor Steven Sumida of the University of Washington convened and moderated. I can neither speak for Joy Kogawa nor Naomi Hirahara, my fellow panelists, concerning the dynamics of this topic, but I do believe that all of us have faced this problem in one way or another in the course of our writing.

Juliet S. Kono (Photo courtesy of Tracy Kumono Photography)

In creating any one of my stories, I try my utmost to stick to the basic history of the time in question—especially concerning the places and major events of that period. I feel this is essential for writers to adhere to unless they have a different agenda or evident purpose, such as writing a satire or allegory.

When writing my novel, Anshū: Dark Sorrow, I tried, religiously, to stick to the historical incidents of the war with Japan in recounting, for example, its beginning with the surprise attack of Pearl Harbor, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the ending of the war, and so on. Because these historical aspects served as a framework for my novel, I felt I could not deliberately deviate from these facts for the purpose of my narration, especially when the history, in large part, guided this narration. It would have been unconscionable if I had.

Before going further, I would like to point out that writing fiction is a bit different from writing a memoir, where writing a memoir behooves the author to be much more careful about what is going on, historically. Paradoxically, however, there seems to be a fine line these days between fiction and non-fiction, especially the writing of a memoir in adopting many of the story-telling techniques found in fiction: dialogue, description, tropes, character development, figurative language, metaphor, etc. Non-fiction writers are also using “poetic license” to recreate the conflicts and tensions in much of the same way that fiction writers do, but with more of the truth—using actual names, actual incidents—the factual content more or less intact. In other words, whether true or not, stories cannot be told without the tools of good storytelling. Therefore, there will be touches of hyperbole, exaggeration, lying or the stretchingof the truth, what I call enhancements, in both fiction and non-fiction. Writers do this to get at the emotional truth or heart of the story. As writers, we are mediating reality when creating scenes or plotting the storyline or creating dialogue. The Rashamon effect, as Joy Kogawa had stated in her talk, is alive and well.

For example, take the writing of dialogue. Because human speech is filled with hesitation and inconsequential words, taken verbatim, real speech is often boring, even monotonous. The writer must then take this unpolished interaction into his own hands and create a conversation that is both snappy and immediate, so that it holds the reader’s attention. An element of artificiality does therefore exist in writing good dialogue.

Nonetheless, writers do attempt, in good faith, to stick to the “facts” when writing their historical representations—in creating the settings, the descriptions of clothing, the food, the language, and anything else necessary—to add credence to their story. The story must ring true. When I first began writing Anshū, I learned as much as I could about Japan in WWII by reading the books from my husband’s extensive library. I also had the privilege, as a recipient of the US/Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, to do research in Japan.

During my stay there, I read, studied, and traveled around the country to interview people about the war. I used this material to show how my protagonist got to each place—from Hawaii to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, for instance—and what the conditions were like at the time, what the family members did to survive, and recounted details of their activities. Because I was never in Japan during the war, and because many of the areas had been destroyed, razed, and had been changed exponentially after the war, extensive records themselves destroyed, I had to use much of my imagination in writing what I believed to have happened in Japan, as I developed my characters. Yes, I did take “poetic license” in this sense. And yes, I also did try to be precise. Except for the basic historical timeline, however, I essentially lied, you could say, to write my story based on the “facts” I had gathered and using these “facts” to get at the heart of the main characters’ motivations.

No story can be entirely correct in all of its facts. This is not to make excuses about accuracy, and of course it is never inconsequential. I am just saying that this is the way it is in any writing process. We, as writers, strive to be exact as possible. Publishers, copy editors, and editors help to check for errors in the words and facts within the text. They do it over and over again and do it in good faith. Slips will occur, however; it is inevitable.

This said, I will talk about a question a woman in the audience posed during the ending discussion of our presentation. The woman said that while I had talked about getting at the emotional truth and had used poetic license in doing so, “What about the facts?” had been her question. She said that I had talked about candy in the excerpt I read to the audience, but she was emphatic that no one had candy in Japan during the war, and that was a fact of the time, having herself lived there. I do remember talking to people in Japan who said that they lacked for nothing during the war, and if they did, there was the black market to get whatever they needed, which was exactly what I was trying to emphasize: the black market. While writing, a writer goes through a process of omitting and selecting certain words and ideas. Writers make composites of their characters, make up dialogue, and make certain compromises. In effect, I may or may not have made an improper representation, but I don’t really know.

In the same vein, I remember at another reading, something similar happening when a reader of my book became very upset when I used the word “machete” interchangeably with the word “cane knife” whenever talking about the cutting or harvesting of cane in Hawai‘i. The reader also felt that I had made a misrepresentation. According to her, no one used the word, “machete,” at the time.

I understand the dilemma of using what we see as the facts and correct terminology. What writer can’t? I do not know how a writer can get around the problem, except to say that writers strive to be diligent about their writing and their word choices. If a writer is afraid of making mistakes of this nature, he or she would not be able to write. It is crucial, then, for authors to do their homework, use people to help them find their errors, and to go over and over the text. And if something gets past the writer and editors, and if the error is not terribly egregious, the so-called error can be let go—in the name of fiction.


* Juliet S. Kono was a panelist in “Poetic License? Nikkei Writers and the Representation of History” during JANM’s National Conference, Speaking Up! Democracy, Justice, Dignity on July 4-7, 2013 in Seattle, Washington. For more information about the conference, visit

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© 2013 Juliet S. Kono

Anshu author conference fiction janm Japanese American National Museum Juliet Kono non-fiction novel poetic license seattle Speaking Up! writer writing

About this series

For the 25th anniversary of the Japanese American Redress legislation, the Japanese American National Museum presented its fourth national conference “Speaking Up! Democracy, Justice, Dignity” in Seattle, Washington from July 4 to 7, 2013.  This conference brought fresh insights, scholarly analysis, and community perspectives to bear on the issues of democracy, justice, and dignity. 

These articles stem from the conference and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives.

Visit the conference website for program details >>