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Emily Inouye Huey explores Japanese-American history in YA debut

On the podcast: Emily Inouye Huey shares the inspiration for her debut, "Beneath the Wide Silk Sky."

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

The forced relocation of thousands of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II profoundly shaped Emily Inouye Huey's family. Uprooted from their home on the West Coast, her great grandparents and grandparents were forced to live in a Wyoming internment camp, which is where her father was born. Inspired by her family's story, Emily wrote Beneath the Wide Silk Sky, a heartbreaking and beautiful story of a Japanese-American teenager in the days leading up to and following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In this episode, Emily shares her writing and research process, some questionable publishing advice she received (add werewolves?!), and the evergreen call to preserve human dignity.

Book cover of Beneath the Wide Silk Sky. Image of a woman walking away imposed over the image of a woman in a kimono.
Emily Inouye Huey's debut is a historical young adult novel inspired by her family's history

About our guest

Emily Inouye Huey is the author of Beneath the Wide Silk Sky (Scholastic 2022). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. Besides books, her passions include education, the arts, the outdoors, and her family.

More about Emily:

Listen to our interviews with more Asian American YA authors:

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  • Transcript

    Georgia  

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and my guest today is Lesley alum Emily Inouye Huey, who is here to talk about her debut young adult novel Beneath the Wide Silk Sky, which comes out today. The book is narrated by Sam Sakamoto, a Japanese American high school student who lives on an island in Washington State. And it takes place in the days leading up to and in the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I really love this book and my conversation with Emily, especially learning about how her own family history inspired this story. So, here's my conversation with Emily. Welcome to the show, Emily

    Emily Huey 

    Thanks so much for having me.

    Georgia  

    So, I'd love to start with the inscription that is at the beginning, and it's written by your grandfather, "the dignity of man must always be preserved." So, can you talk a little bit about like how your own family history influenced this book?

    Emily Huey 

    Yeah, so my grandparents, and my great grandparents were alive at the time. And then uncles and aunts, they were all taken from the West Coast, forced from their homes and put in prison camps, essentially, for Japanese Americans during World War II. So, it's something that my family didn't talk a lot about. It, every so once in a while, my grandparents would mention something about being in camp, something that happened in camp, but it was pretty minimal. But it was very clear to me that there was this point in our family history, that had been a huge landmark. It's the reason we ended up in Utah, you know. And so I was interested in it. And that quote, that you read, comes from my grandfather's journalist at the time.

    Georgia  

    Oh, wow. So you had access to those? When you decided to write your book, was it you actually set the book before? As I said, the intro, like before the camps happen?  Why set it in that point in history?

    Emily Huey 

    Partly, I think, because there are some really great books already written about the camps themselves. But also, because I think I'm really interested in the moment when those decisions were made. And the parallels that can be drawn between that moment, and, you know, now, when we any, any now, we're always being faced with these questions of how we're going to define our society, what we will allow to happen under our watch. And so I thought that was really interesting. As someone looking back, and also, I felt like, it was a feeling I wanted to explore the idea of your hometown, these people who've known you turning on you, is a really interesting dynamic. And I was really interested in how it felt for my family. So in part, it was a practice that allowed me to try to understand my grandparents experience and how they thought because of what had happened to them better.

    Georgia  

    Did your grandfather's journal entries have anything about that time period?

    Emily Huey 

    Yeah. I think it was a real blow to him. He was just finished with college he had, he had finished college at Stanford University, and he had all these big dreams. And then this happened and everything was interrupted. And there was such vitriol towards Japanese Americans that he sort of knew many of his dreams were impossible. He was pretty diligent about recording what happened to them. And he also wrote entry, later looking back and trying to, you know, really document exactly what had happened to them. But, but those feelings, you know, that quote, the dignity of man must always be preserved is something he wrote out of feeling as if his dignity had been stripped. So yeah, hard to read.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think, you know, in the book, you it's young adult insight. Maybe there's still a misconception that young adult can't cover harder things. I hope not. But I feel like you really… She had a good balance of like character development and, and also like the reality of what they're facing. And so like Sam, your main character, she has this love for photography, she's really intelligent. And something you just said was like your grandfather, like when he saw this stuff happening that he's, you know, is kind of like, oh, there's some things that maybe wouldn't be possible now for him. I thought it was interesting that like, at one point, Sam says dreaming was against the rules, dreaming was dangerous. And that's even before war breaks out. And so, like she and her family deal with racism. On a daily basis, she's lost her mom. She's a poor Japanese American Farm Girl. So I was curious, what did you want people to understand about this community in this time period?

    Emily Huey 

    Well, I thought it was really important for people to understand that this discrimination and prejudice had existed well, before Pearl Harbor was bombed. That's, that's the big moment that people know about. But my understanding just from talking to my grandparents is that especially my grandmother's family, who lived in Washington, they experienced quite a bit of racism, even before Pearl Harbor was bombed. They had, you know, things thrown through windows and vandalism and things like that. And there were these laws that were put in place that kept Asian men specifically from becoming citizens, and, and other laws that banned Asians from being Chinese and Japanese, specifically, from coming to America. I think the Japanese band started in 1908, I think it was even more codified in 1924. But all the way back in 1908, there was this thing called the gentleman's agreement between America and Japan, that essentially meant that Japan wouldn't send any more men to America. So anyone who is here in 1941, to be taken, had been here for decades. And really, if they hadn't been banned, would probably have been a citizen. There were these other laws known as alien land laws that made it so if you weren't a citizen, you couldn't own land. And so all these different things are put in place because people felt competition from the Japanese, specifically, I think, in the farming community, they tended to like most immigrants, just put in more hours put in, you know, that extra work to try to survive, and that made them rivals, too to other farmers. And so there are these lobbying groups called things like the anti-Asiatic League and all those things played into this eventual lobbying that led to their incarceration.

    Georgia  

    And so when you decided to write you, you didn't you pick the, you know, a teenager, teenage girl to be your main character? Why her and you know, yeah, why, let's just why her?

    Emily Huey 

    It's been so long. I started writing when I was at Lesley. I took quite a break, had four kids, then came back to it. But I think I've always been interested in adolescence. I think that's a time when identity is such a big deal. And it's just an interesting time of life. I was a teacher. And so I thought that was really interesting. I also did not want to write about characters that were the same age and genders as my family members and have to deal with that messiness of trying to fictionalize it, but, you know, being so close. But yeah, I think one of the most important things for me was to write the story of someone who was going to be victimized, I mean, that's the history. But I wanted to show that character having their own arc, you know, having their own triumph in some way. Even though what would happen to them is tragic and sad, but still showing their strength that was important to me, and I feel specifically that girls at that time, has so few options and so many obstacles to having any sort of voice, you know, they didn't have the same opportunities that men did, or that white people did. And I just, I just, it seemed like the right character.

    Georgia  

    So Sam loves photography. And that plays a big part in the novel. What about photography was like specific that, that you wanted to have her character be, be able to communicate and through that medium

    Emily Huey 

    I guess part of the spark for me was these pictures we had of my family. There was this famous photographer named Dorothea Lange. And she was hired by the WRA the War Relocation Administration to take pictures of the Japanese American what they called the evacuation. Now we'd call it a forced removal, right. And she did not support it. And she took these really gritty pictures. The WRA quickly realized she was not taking the kind of pictures they wanted, that they wanted to use for publicity to show how kind they were being and things like that. And so they took her pictures, they impounded them. And they were, for many years, not viewable by the public. But later, they came to light. And they provided this truer account of what people experienced. And so my family was one of the families that she photographed. And years later, my aunts went to the Smithsonian looked up and saw a picture of their grandfather in the wild. And yeah, meant a lot, I think, yeah. When an injustice happens, there's something so important about it being witnessed, you know, people knowing the story, even though that's not enough to erase the injustice, at least we've got to acknowledge it happened. And so that's one of the powerful things I see in photography, and that ability to document what happens to you. And you know, now we have these smartphones and home movements that are based on what people have taken pictures of and videos of. And so documentation is important.

    Georgia  

    Were you when you decided to start writing? Were you always drawn to historical fiction, or was contemporary also on the table?

    Emily Huey 

    I think contemporary is still on the table. I'm a slow writer. So it takes me a long time to write any book. But historical fiction with its research takes a particularly long time. But it's what I'm most drawn to reading. And so I think it is probably my natural inclination is towards historical fiction. I'm really interested in the things it says. I think informative nonfiction is so great at giving us a breadth of knowledge about what things that have happened. But that historical fiction or narrative nonfiction, are particularly good at helping us know how it felt. And there's something about that that gets to us in a way that statistics never do. And so I don't know, it is something I just love.

    Georgia  

    We're in your process of researching for the book did. Did any details come out that changed like the course of your story?

    Emily Huey 

    Yes. I'm trying to think of some concrete examples. I really tried hard not to write any prejudicial act that I hadn't read in a specific account. I really wanted to be able to say these things really happened. There's not one thing in here that I made up that you know, wasn't someone's true experience. One that was a particular maybe surprise to me at the time, was I in.

    In the early period, I came across two accounts of women who are sexually assaulted in California. And that wasn't something I ever planned to write about. And actually, after I read it, those accounts, they kind of haunted me and I kept thinking for me to read two accounts in one day about this means that there are so many more accounts that have never been spoken about. But I was so sort of hesitant to write about it. I didn't know if I could do it well enough and had at the time was a teacher and knew how writing about those things makes it harder to bring into a classroom and things like that. But they just kept haunting me. And as I would read the news, throughout the next few years, things will just keep popping up about sexual violence, and how it's so inextricably tied to racism. At the same time, you know, I was dealing with these questions of mixed-race marriages being, you know, banned at the time, things like and that hypocrisy and just anyway, all those things kept coming in. In the end, I just felt like, I wanted to give a voice to those people who experienced those things. And it's pretty, it's sort of minimal. I mean, it's, it's off screen. But, but it is something I thought deserved a voice.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. Yeah. It is a really emotional book. I found, you know, I mean, there's just so many injustices that we've been talking about. But I also wanted to highlight that there were, there was a lot of joy to, like they were I mean, Sam, and when she's like, gets into her zone with photography, she's just so in, you know, she's so intuitive. It's really, it's cool to see. And then there's a little bit of a love story, because, you know, that's because its YA. But it's really, it's a really sweet, story. Were you consciously trying to balance out some of the harder things? Or was it just sort of a natural process to, to put in some of the lighter moments?

    Emily Huey 

    I think it was more natural. I think, you know, I think about the people that I've thought about, as I've written this book, one of them is my grandmother. She is just full of joy. She is She's not someone you look at and think she went through something terrible, you know, she's just full of joy and even when she talks about this period of time, she will pull up the funny moments, she also will talk about or would she's, she's gone now. But she would also talk about some of the awful things and just always say it was terrible, you know, but I think all people are capable of both joy and sadness. And any character that you're trying to write that is ground, you know, probably needs a little of both.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. So pulling back a little bit. I'm curious about your own writing journey. You said, it's this book, in particular has been a while in the making. So yeah. When did you? When did you know you wanted to write? And then how did you get to this point where you have a book

    Emily Huey 

    I wanted to write when I was a child, I loved reading, always loved it. But somewhere along the way, I got the idea that only certain people could be writers or whatever, you know, and so I didn't actually take a creative writing class to I think, my senior year in college. Even after that, I sort of maintained a distance from it, even though I loved it. I love that class so much. But then when I was a teacher, I took a night class just kind of on a whim, in creative writing, and I just kind of fell in love with it. And that teacher was, her name is Carolyn Williams, and she's wonderful, and she's changed many people's lives. But she told me, you know, you can do this, and you shouldn't you should keep going. And she suggested I do a master's program. Because, you know, I'd had two classes. She suggested specifically if I want to try it for children or young adults that I really should do a program that was cured that way. And that's when I applied to Lesley and did my master's program and had a wonderful experience. Just really, really, really wonderful. told lots of people they should go into it. And then I had a baby, my first baby at the end of my Lesley time, and I kept writing, but kind of in spurts and took a lot of breaks if you know someone in the family had a health concern or something like that. And really came back to it. I don't know what but a couple years before I finished the book I came back in earnest. And it's like, you know, this is something I want to finish. And honestly, I had some part of it was I had things to say, I was reading the news and feeling things and needed, you know, just like, all YA characters who find their voice, like, I was just a 30-year-old something who needed a voice. And so I finished the book and submitted it. And, and that's kind of my story. It's, it has been revised a million million times. And so it's taken quite a long time. It was, you know, kind of my first attempt at a novel, and so it was pretty dang messy. And even those million revisions, so, yeah,

    Georgia  

    Oh that's great. Was the process of getting published? You know, I mean, was that something that you knew how to do? Or I mean, maybe that's, that's probably a dumb question, how were you able to get to that point of getting, you know, signed, or whatever,

    Emily Huey 

    you know, Lesley had some great classes, those, that last year workshops, had some great classes on how to navigate this part. I never went to any of them. I never really thought I'd finish the novel. So I was just trying to figure out how to do a novel. But um, after I graduated, I started going to conferences, that was kind of my little way of keeping up some of that education, and also of building a community in this very isolated career. And so I think, I just kind of learned from those conferences and Googled how to how to send a query, you know, and, and I just, that's how I got my agent was a slush pile query. So, yeah.

    Georgia  

    So what kind of things are you doing to help promote the book now that it's out? This is a hard part, as I think the part that most writers are like, please leave me alone now it's, I can go write something else, you know, just read the book, why do I need to talk to you about it?

    Emily Huey 

    I, this is my first time going through this. So I'm learning it as I go. And doing the things people tell me to do. But it is a little out of my comfort zone. To be honest, it's hard for me, I'm not a natural at any of it. I really feel like I'm partly a historical writer, because I belong in a different age.

    Georgia  

    And well, now that your first book is out, are what other stories do you want to tell?

    Emily Huey 

    So I'm writing a next novel. And so that's my next thing that's like on my horizon, my process is to start about three and then see which one catches and then go with that. And I'm in the middle of that one. And is it a similar era or totally different?

    Emily Huey 

     It's after the camps is still semi based on my family. I also have a desire to write stories from different eras. Think there's part of me that is always about writing about my family at least tangentially I think they're my first community. But I don't think that necessarily means always writing about Japanese Americans. I think you can write about issues that your family has encountered, but in a totally different way. You know, I really have I had this idea that I want to write about this set in ancient Japan that I'm terrified of the research. So we'll see if I ever get around to that. And some stories from my mom's side and my I'm, you know, no one can see me. So I'm half Japanese and half Caucasian. I think her family's fascinating, too. So, yeah,

    Georgia  

    that's great. Do you feel like now that you have one book do you feel like more freedom to, to write? Or how has it changed how you view your own writing and your process?

    Emily Huey 

    I think getting through an entire novel is really helpful to understand how it all was put together. Not that I'm still completely if you know the terms plotter and pantser. I'm completely a pantser or a discovery writer, someone who kind of writes by the seat of my pants but kind of knowing this as you can eventually get to the end is very reassuring. And I do feel just like a little more sureness in going forward and into the messiness, and not being afraid. And trying to backtrack quite as fast, you know, I feel like, oh, no, you just have to keep going. And you may have to backtrack. But it's not time yet to find out, you've got to keep going and see, in a lot of ways, though, it's still exactly the same. It's still that wrestle with the page. I have, I don't even have a book out at the time that we're recording this. So literally, nothing has changed. I am still just wrestling with the page every day. And yeah.

    Georgia  

    What advice would you give? If you had one piece of advice to give to somebody who's working on a book? What would you tell them?

    Emily Huey 

    Think, right. Because it's what you want to do. You don't write because you love the process. There's a lot of things in this business that are outside of your control. I remember the first time I, at the very beginning of my creative writing journey, I went to a conference that I got a scholarship to. And they gave me a pitch session. I didn't even have a chapter to pitch, but they sent me to some random house editor or something. And I was supposed to pitch your book. And I remember saying, Oh, I'm kind of interested in writing the story of my family. And at the time, he said, this gives you a time. It gives you a sense of when this was he's like, Oh, historical fiction doesn't sell. You really need to add something supernatural to your book, you know, if you could add a werewolf or something that would make it a lot more marketable. And you know, at the time, that was what was selling, right. And he was trying to help me I understand he has been kind. But you know, I didn't want to kind of Werewolf Seuss story. I wanted to happen to my grandparents.

    Georgia  

    There's no, I cannot even remotely fathom this book having a werewolf.

    Emily Huey 

    I think that's, that's sort of the story of publishing, right? There's, there's cycles, there are times when your story will be in vogue and times when it won't, and times when, you know, people will get you in times when they won't. But if you love it, if you have something to say, write and write and finish. That's something that everyone told me to do. Just finish. And I resisted for years. But just do it and they're right, finishing is like a lesson in it of itself. So don't go back and rewrite that beginning as many times as it goes.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, you have plenty of time to do that after you get your book deal. You really really will. Well, that is great advice. Thank you so much for coming on the show to talk with me today.

    Emily Huey 

    Oh, thanks for having me. I love this community. Lesley is a special place.

    Georgia  

    Thank you for listening to my conversation with Emily Inouye Huey. Emily's debut is Beneath the White Silk Sky and it's available now. Check out the show notes for links to Emily's website and social media as well as a link to our low residency MFA in creative writing program and a transcript of today's conversation. We'll return soon with another episode.