Mori, Kyoko 1957–
Mori, Kyoko 1957–
PERSONAL: Born March 9, 1957, in Kobe, Japan; immigrated to the United States, 1977; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1984; daughter of Hiroshi (an engineer) and Takako (a homemaker; maiden name, Nagai) Mori; married Charles Brock (an elementary school teacher), March 17, 1984 (divorced). Education: Rockford College, B.A., 1979; University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, M.A. 1981, Ph.D., 1984. Politics: Democrat, feminist. Hobbies and other interests: Fiber arts (knitting, spinning, weaving), running, birdwatching.
ADDRESSES: Home—Cambridge, MA. Office—Department of English, Harvard University, Barker Center, 12 Quincy, Cambridge, MA 02138. Agent—Ann Rittenberg, 14 Montgomery Pl., Brooklyn, NY 11215.
CAREER: Saint Norbert College, De Pere, WI, associate professor of English and writer-in-residence, beginning 1984; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Creative Writing; writer.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, Associated Writing Programs.
AWARDS, HONORS: Editors' Prize, Missouri Review, 1992, for poem "Fallout"; American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, New York Times Notable Book, Publishers Weekly Editors' Choice, Council of Wisconsin Writers Best Novel, and Elizabeth Burr award for best children's book of the year, Wisconsin Library Association, all 1993, all for Shizuko's Daughter; Paterson Poetry Center Best Books for Young Adults, Council of Wisconsin Writers Best Novel, American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and Children's Books of Distinction Award, Hungry Mind Review, 1996, all for One Bird.
Shizuko's Daughter, Holt (New York, NY), 1993.
Fallout (poems), Ti Chucha Press, 1994.
The Dream of Water: A Memoir, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
One Bird, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught between Cultures (essays), Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Stone Field, True Arrow, Holt (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of short stories to books, including When I Was Your Age: Original Stories about Growing Up, edited by Amy Erlich, Candlewick Press (New York, NY), 1999; contributor to periodicals, including Apalachee Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Crosscurrents, Kenyon Review—New Series, Prairie Schooner, and South-East Review. Contributor of poems to periodicals, including Missouri Review, Paterson Review, American Scholar, and Denver Quarterly. Contributor of articles to Writer.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel; poems.
SIDELIGHTS: In several of her prose works, award-winning novelist and poet Kyoko Mori poignantly describes the devastating pain that haunts a young person who must deal with the death of a beloved parent. After coping with the suicide of her mother when Mori was still a pre-teen, she was then forced to watch her once secure way of life become drastically altered through the tirades of a selfish, patriarchal, and unfeeling father and an insensitive and equally selfish stepmother. This abiding sense of loss, which deprived Mori of both family and community and which has imbued much of her written work, would eventually prompt her to voluntarily give up yet another tie with her youth: her country. Attending an American college on a scholarship program, she felt more in sync with the relaxed, less emotionally inhibited culture of the United States than she did with the strictures in place in Japanese society. Since her college days, Mori has made her home in the United States, where she has written and published several critically acclaimed novels for young adults, the poignant memoir The Dream of Water, and Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught between Cultures, a book of essays.
Mori was born on the main island of Honshu, in the city of Kobe, Japan, in 1957. Located near mountains and water, "Kobe is a very beautiful, sophisticated city," she once noted, "but it is also close to nature." The daughter of an engineer and his wife, she was born with both hips displaced, and spent her first year in leg harnesses to correct her gait. Fortunately, that condition was corrected and Mori was soon able to accompany her mother on walks in the mountains and enjoy the visits to the country home of her grandparents that the family made before she began school. She was inspired with an early love of reading and a love of beauty by her mother. A sensitive and creative woman, Takako Mori made a cultured home for her children, reading to both Kyoko and her younger brother, Jumpei, from the time both children were small. Tragically, Takako committed suicide when Mori was twelve, a victim of de-pression and, perhaps, the repressive Japanese society that relegated women to a subservient status in relation to their husbands.
While, like most Japanese children, Mori had an early exposure to a few English words and phrases, she began a serious study of the language and its literature when she was twelve. She was immediately struck with the emotional content of much Western writing in comparison with the restraint of its Japanese counterpart; English would be her major in college and she now writes exclusively in her adopted language. "In my teenage years I read a lot of English books in English," she explained in an interview for Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA). "Before then I don't remember that much what I read, because I don't think that in Japan they really have books written for teenagers. You have to read 'literature'—some 'Great Book' by some guy who died fifty years ago or something. And that was fine; I liked some of that. But to be thirteen and to be a girl and to read that is not necessarily a good experience because [much of Japanese literature] was so male and with such different aesthetics than my everyday life." While she was drawn to the beauty of the language she was exposed to in the books she read in school, Western books such as Jane Eyre and Anne of Green Gables captured her imagination.
In her junior year of high school, Mori was given the opportunity to study at a school in Mesa, Arizona, for a year as an exchange student. "It was a revelation for me," she once commented. "For the first time in my life I was away from the social constrictions of my society. In Japan there is so much pressure from family. You can't do … [certain things] because it will bring shame to your family." After returning to her home, Mori decided to intensify her studies in English; during her first two years of college in Japan she majored in the subject. "After my year in the United States, I began to think of English as my writing language. So much of Japanese aesthetics is involved in not saying what you want to. To talk about yourself in Japanese is considered rude. So English became a much better language for me as a writer." Her focus on writing in English became so intensive that Mori decided to finish her college education in the United States. She earned a scholarship to Rockford College in 1977 and graduated from that school two years later. She went on to complete her master's degree and Ph.D. and establish a career as a writer and educator.
Shizuko's Daughter, Mori's first published book, was released in 1993. Based on a group of short stories that she wrote for her doctoral dissertation, the book tells the story of Yuki, a young girl who returns from a music lesson one day to discover her mother dead by her own hand. "People will tell you that I've done this because I did not love you," reads the suicide note Shizuko leaves for her daughter. "Don't listen to them. When you grow up to be a strong woman, you will know that this is for the best." During the six years that follow, Yuki must learn to deal with the changes in her life that follow her mother's death: the remarriage of her father, the gradual estrangement of grandparents, and her deep feelings of responsibility and guilt over her mother's unhappiness. Calling the book a "jewel," New York Times Book Review contributor Liz Rosenberg felt Shizuko's Daughter to be "one of those rarities that shine out only a few times in a generation. It begins and ends with a dream, with a death, yet it is not dreamy or tragic."
Shizuko's Daughter wasn't intended to be a young adult novel to begin with. But as Mori began to revise and edit her initial manuscript with the advice of her editor, she realized that conforming it to certain conventions of the genre ultimately made it a better novel: "Because the way I had it before, I time-skipped around a lot. Straightening that out made it a more straightforward book, which is what it needed to be."
One Bird, which Mori published in 1995, is even more concise than the author's first book. In the novel, fifteen-year-old Megumi watches as her mother packs her suitcase and leaves the house of her husband, Megumi's father. Unable to go with her mother because to do so would be neither "appropriate" in Japanese society nor financially possible, Megumi is forced to deal with the vacuum left by her mother's abrupt departure, a vacuum that her distant father avoids filling by staying with an out-of-town mistress for long periods of time. During the course of the novel, her emotions and reactions shift from those of a little girl to those of a young woman through the support of a woman veterinarian whom she meets while attempting to care for a small bird. Ultimately, Megumi is able to creatively find a solution to her problem, a solution whereby she and her mother can spend at least part of the year together. "Kyoko Mori's second novel … is so lively and affecting that one imagines its readers will be too engaged by its heroine's situation to notice how much—and how painlessly—they are learning about another culture," according to New York Times Book Review critic Francine Prose. Noting that the book is filled with "small, radiant schemes and glints of observation," Prose added that One Bird shows that teen feelings and attitudes toward life are universal.
As Mori once noted, writing for teens requires that authors rely more on character and plot than on imagery and style. "Both [Shizuko's Daughter and One Bird] had to be more straightforward, and in a way I think that this made them better books, because sometimes it is so easy to rely on your ability to write and, when you get to some crucial moment in the narrative, try to get through it through fine writing and strong imagery. And I see this as something that I am tempted to do because I am also a poet."
"But I think what you do well is also your downfall," Mori added. "And I think that when you're a poet as well as a fiction writer, there is always the temptation to do something poetic at a crucial moment. Writing for teens, you're not allowed to do that. You have to be straightforward and direct in developing the characters and manipulating the plot."
One Bird and Shizuko's Daughter are essentially the same story, seen from different points of view, according to Mori. "One is a tragic version of the story about an isolated teenager and the other is a more humorous version," the author explained. "In One Bird, I think there is an inherent sense of humor and resilience that Megumi doesn't take herself that seriously, not in the way that the teen in Shizuko's Daughter has to take herself seriously." Mori characterizes the books as "two flavors of the same thing," admitting that "maybe I needed to do that to grow up. I think that even though I didn't write those books to grow up, it became a process of that. When I first wrote Shizuko's Daughter, it was a way of admitting the pain in my life perhaps. And then when I wrote One Bird, it was a way of being able to look at that same story with more irreverence. And humor."
In 1990, with the manuscript for Shizuko's Daughter circulating among publishers, Mori decided to go to Japan on sabbatical "because it was the only foreign country where I speak the language," she once explained. She planned to keep a journal, out of which poems normally sprang, and then begin work on a new novel. While she was in Japan, visiting parts of the country that she had never seen as a child and spending time with beloved relatives, she thought to herself, "I'm kind of gathering material and waiting for that novel to form." Finding the time to keep a journal record of her thoughts and reflections was not difficult: "I couldn't sleep in Japan because I was jet-lagged," Mori recalled. "I kept waking up; I couldn't fall asleep,… but in a way this was good because it gave me a lot of time to write. In the middle of the night I can't sleep; what else am I going to do? I can only read so much."
After returning to her home in Wisconsin and writing several poems based on her experiences in her native country, Mori realized that an autobiography, rather than a novel, was to be the literary outcome of her trip. "I knew in Japan that the trip was so specific to my family that I couldn't see how I could write it as a novel," the writer explained. "I would be translating these facts in an uncreative way rather than transforming them. So I decided that I would do this as a nonfiction, autobiographical narrative." Mori realized from the start of her new project that she had a wealth of literary models, including The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, that read like novels but are nonfiction. The result of her creative efforts was The Dream of Water: A Memoir.
In The Dream of Water, the reader is drawn into the narrator's reality, but that reality is as compelling as a work of fiction due to Mori's ability to imbue her relatives and her setting with qualities that transcend the mundane and everyday. Each person she meets on her trip is linked to past memories, and past and present interweave on both a physical and emotional plain. Her beloved grandfather is dead, and she is left with only memories and the journals a relative saved for Mori after his death. The house where she lived when her mother committed suicide is gone, replaced by a parking lot, and yet the memories that empty space conjures up render it almost ghostlike. Called "deeply private" by Booklist contributor Donna Seaman, Mori's memoir unfolds with "dignity and cathartic integrity, chronicling not only her struggle with grief, anger, and guilt" and her growing understanding of the differences between Japanese and U.S. culture, but the author's ability to ultimately "finally feel at home in both worlds."
"I always wanted to be a writer," Mori once said. "When you're a kid, though, you have all these different aspirations, from the firefighter all the way to the great composer, all at the same time. While I had a series of these dreams, being a writer was always on the list. So every year it would be a different list, but the recurring one was that I wanted to be a writer." In grade school she did a lot of writing, but it was actually her mother and grandfather who inspired her to take her writing seriously. "My grandfather wrote journal entries every morning," Mori recalled, looking back at the visits she made to her grandparents' house as a young child. "When I would go and stay with his family, he would get up and write in his diary. And that really inspired me. Writing was a serious thing. It was something my grandfather did every morning." Mori, who now teaches creative writing at Saint Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, considers herself to be a fairly disciplined writer. "I'm not disciplined all the way in my life," she admitted, "but there are three or four things I'm very disciplined about: running is one of them, and writing. Those are things that I don't have a hard time getting to."
A poet as well as a prose writer, Mori's craft follows certain stages, beginning with thoughts jotted down in journal entries, then poetry, and finally into prose. "I don't see the poems as just a process," she explained; "I see them as finished products. But once I do about ten poems, I start thinking, 'There's something I could do with this.' There's a collective thought that kind of forms in that process that leads me to do a longer prose project." Such is the process that Mori has used with each of her longer prose works. "The only time that I really think about audience is in terms of developing the plot as well as the imagery, so it has more to do with technique in the end than with the story itself," the author added.
Until Mori started teaching creative writing, she believed anyone could write, on some level at least. "And that's still true," she admitted. "I think that anyone can write better than he or she is doing now. But as I teach more I start thinking that talent really does play a valuable part in this. There are kids who, without trying, write something so much better than the kid who is trying so hard who is a good student. It really has to do with the way they can see."
"But some of the most talented students are not the best disciplined. [While] I think I can motivate them to be disciplined because they have something to work with, they have to put something out there before I can give them direction." She maintains that the better English majors, those who "read and analyze things and write clearly in an expository manner," don't always write the best stories or poems. "They just don't seem to have the 'eye,'" she surmises. "And that, to me, is much more frustrating than working with a talented but undisciplined student whom I have to nag by saying, 'Your rewrite is due in a week,' because I can usually get that student to do it. And if it's two days late, it's okay."
In 1998, Mori published a series of twelve essays wherein she contrasts living in the Midwest and living in Japan, titled Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught between Cultures. She produced Stone Field, True Arrow, her first novel for adults, in 2000. The book tells the story of Maya Ishida, a Japanese-American who left Japan as a child to live with her distant, academic mother in the U.S. Maya, who is married to a school-teacher and works as a weaver, begins to re-evaluate the events of her past and her present relationships after she learns of her Japanese father's death. While Library Journal's Shirley N. Quan felt that the novel "appears to carry one too many story lines," a Publishers Weekly reviewer found Mori's text "graceful in its simplicity of language." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Jeff Waggoner praised Stone Field, True Arrow as a "quiet, heartbreaking novel that has as much to say about art as it does about longing."
In addition to an active teaching schedule and a daily schedule given structure by her disciplined attitude towards running and writing, Mori continues to produce books, poems, and short fiction. In 1999, she contributed the autobiographical short story "Learning to Swim" to When I Was Your Age: Original Stories about Growing Up, a collection for young adult readers.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, "Poets Remembered," p. 794; December 1, 1997, review of Polite Lies, pp. 590-592; June 1, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Shizuko's Daughter, p. 1717; July, 2000, Michelle Kaske, review of Stone Field, True Arrow, p. 2008.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1993, p. 291; January, 1996, p. 161.
English Journal, September, 1994, p. 87.
Horn Book, May, 1993, p. 291.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1997, review of Polite Lies, p. 1628.
Library Journal, July, 2000, Shirley N. Quan, review of Stone Field, True Arrow, p. 141.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1993, Liz Rosenberg, review of Shizuko's Daughter, p. 19. February 5, 1995, p. 13; November 12, 1995, Fran-cine Prose, review of One Bird, p. 50; March 8, 1998, p. 19; November 5, 2000, Jeff Waggoner, review of Stone Field, True Arrow.
Publishers Weekly, January 25, 1993, p. 87; November 7, 1994, p. 54; November 3, 1997, review of Polite Lies, p. 71; August 14, 2000, review of Stone Field, True Arrow, p. 329.
School Library Journal, September, 1997, Patricia Lothrop-Green, review of The Dream of Water, p. 129.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1993, p. 217; February, 1996, p. 374; August, 1997, Hilary S. Crew, review of One Bird, pp. 173-176.
Wilson Library Bulletin, January, 1994, p. 117.