PERSONAL: Female. Ethnicity: "Japanese American." Education: Attended City University of New York, Hunter College, and Sarah Lawrence College.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Creative Writing, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131.
CAREER: Writer and editor. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, assistant professor of creative writing, 1998—. Has also been a writer in residence at Mills College and has taught at Hunter College, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Institute of American Indian Arts.
AWARDS, HONORS: Henfield Award; American Japanese National Literary Award; Josephine Miles Award, PEN Oakland, 1997, for A Bridge between Us.
A Bridge between Us, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Invisible Gardens, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of Lovely in Her Bones. Author of short stories contributed to periodicals and anthologies, including "Krista Rising," On a Bed of Rice: An Asian American Erotic Feast, edited by Geraldine Kudaka and Russell C. Leong, Anchor Books, 1995. Editor, Blue Mesa Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Julie Shigekuni, a fifth-generation Japanese American, explores the relationships between four generations of women in a Japanese-American family in her debut novel, A Bridge between Us. Much of the book focuses on Nomi, a member of the youngest generation of the family. Nomi is at odds with her family, which includes her great-grandmother, Reiko, her grandmother, Rio, and Tomoe, her mother. In alternating chapters each of the four women tells her own story of betrayed love, cruelty, obligation, and the intense intimacy of family life. Reiko has grown up under a lie about her mother's reasons for abandoning her, believing that she was a Japanese princess who could not cope with life in the United States without the comforts of servants and other royal luxuries. Despite this maternal loss in her life, Reiko for the most part neglects her own daughter, Rio.
After a failed marriage, Rio returns home to find that her mother has remarried. As the story develops, the plot circles back to Rio's suicide attempt, which lends insight to the character's relationships. Rio's daughter, Tomoe, is a travel agent with traditional values who, along with Reiko, finds seven-year-old Nomi and Rio's personality to be selfish. As Nomi matures she attempts to shrug off the family influences that tie her and develop her own person. Sexually promiscuous to a degree, Nomi becomes pregnant and travels to Japan to give birth and understand her family's past. A reviewer for Booklist commented that in doing so, "she is . . . reenacting the journeys of all of her female relatives."
According to critic Lisa Shea, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, the manner in which the four women's narratives circle back on themselves allows each of their tales to enlarge the story and "give the novel unexpected heft." Shea remarked that "while Nomi's story could not exist without the specific tensions of her heritage . . . , the lesson one takes . . . is time-honored in every culture. No one makes you pay more dearly for becoming who you are than your own family; all you can do is ask them to forgive you, as you must forgive them, for the person you have become." A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the novel, calling it "visceral, rich in metaphor and intricately crafted," and added that "Shigekuni's impressive debut hums along with subdued grace."
In Invisible Gardens, Shigekuni's second novel, the seemingly perfect life of history professor Lily Soto is tainted by dissatisfaction, role confusion, repressed sexual passion, and obsession with death. Lily's husband, Joseph, is a successful pathologist, and her son and daughter are healthy and attractive—her young son, in fact, is still nursing. Despite the semblance of domestic and professional bliss, Lily experiences deep emotional turmoil. She has long had conflicting emotions about her mother, who died suddenly during Lily's final year of college. When her father, in deteriorating physical and mental health, comes to New Mexico to live with them, his arrival brings back an intense flood of memories of her childhood and her mother. To add to her emotional turmoil and midlife crisis, Lily begins a clandestine affair with colleague Perish Ishida, a physically imperfect, cranky, solitary academic who nevertheless manages to bring emotions and sensations to Lily that she can't get elsewhere—particularly at home. Throughout the novel, symbols and images of death waft around Lily's thoughts and actions. But even while her carefully constructed life seems to be crumbling at all points, Lily retains her intellect, and realizes that she must make important decisions about her family, marriage, and career.
"Shigekuni does an outstanding job creating an alliance between the reader and Lily by subtly delineating the motives behind Lily's actions," observed Irene J. Kim on the Jade Magazine Web site. "We are aware of Lily's thought processes, although we may not necessarily agree with them," Kim wrote. Reviewer Jeff Zaleski, writing in Publishers Weekly, called the book "mostly a taut, well-modulated tale," but also pointed out that readers of the book "may be a bit baffled by the resolution" that is unexpected and inconclusive. Despite his misgivings about the end of the novel, Zeleski remarked that "Shigekuni beautifully describes Lily's subtle sense of isolation in her marriage." Ellen R. Cohen, reviewing the book in Library Journal, declared, "This poignant story will be particularly appreciated by women." A Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that Invisible Gardens is "as sexy and brief as the love it describes."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1995, review of A Bridge between Us, pp. 801-802.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Invisible Gardens, p. 342.
Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Ellen R. Cohen, review of Invisible Gardens, p. 117.
Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2003, Susan Salter Reynolds, "That Was Joy Luck, This Is Now; Anger, Realism, and Irreverence Distinguish the 'Second Generation' of Asian American Novelists," p. E1.
New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, Lisa Shea, review of A Bridge between Us, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995, review of A Bridge between Us, p. 57; June 23, 2003, Jeff Zaleski, review of Invisible Gardens, p. 49.
Jade Magazine Web site,http://www.jademagazine.com/ (November 14, 2003), review of Invisible Gardens.
Newsday Web site,http://www.newsday.com/ (August 5, 2003), Susan Salter Reynolds, "A New Telling—A Cadre of Young Authors Reflects the Widening Mainstream of the Asian-American Experience."
Recursos Web site,http://www.recursos.org/ (November 14, 2003), profile of Julie Shigekuni.
University of New Mexico Web site,http://www.unm.edu/~english/writing/creative/profiles.html/ (March 5, 1999), biography of Julie Shigekuni.*