I recently read Miss Gone-Overseas by Mitchell Hagerstrom, a novella set during WW II on a Pacific island. The narrative tells of a woman, Mieko, who has fallen on unfortunate times and has been forced to be a prostitute. This book is her journal, chronicling 1942-1944. Don’t expect lurid details as depicted in some pillow books, this story focuses on everyday life amidst the ongoing war.
Miss Gone-Overseas is concise and though only 128 pages, Hagerstrom expertly manages to construct a story without unnecessary literary tricks. I interviewed my friend, Ms. Hagerstrom, who published this book after years of holding back. She signed my copy “in memory of Joshua who helped with the birth of this thru his example: Do What You Love.” Mitchell didn’t know my brother, Joshua Hucklebridge, but his untimely death helped spur her into action and pursue what she loves: writing.
Q: Tell me what drew you to the subject matter.
I lived and worked on an island in Micronesia for 5 years in the 1980s and was totally captivated by the landscape, the people, and the culture. But none of my writing about it progressed beyond a short story – any longer than that and I would find myself painted into a corner and would have to toss the whole thing. A couple of stories will soon be out in an e-book collection hosted by my publisher, TOE (the open end). Overseas:stories
Then I came across a monograph detailing what was physically left from Japanese times (walls, foundations, concrete steps leading to nowhere) and that also gave the actual names of the many brothels – and something clicked! I was a single woman living there and I wanted a protagonist who was also a single woman. By going back in time I could also use my fascination with all things Japanese (having spent a magical childhood year in Japan). I was a great fan of Japanese fiction, in particular the classic book Snow Country by Kawabata with its hot-springs geisha, who were closer to prostitutes than Tokyo upper-crust geisha.
When I lived on the island, it had been under American “control” for some 40 years, yet the native culture seemed more influenced by the previous 25 years of being, in essence, a Japanese colony (although the entire Japanese population was returned to Japan after the war). I regret to say I never learned the native language, nor do I feel capable of “channeling” a native character. But this young Japanese woman seemed an absolute natural for me.
Q: The narrative takes place before any sort of women’s liberation, tell me what character traits make the heroine strong enough to survive without going mad like her madam.
Whatever doesn’t break one, makes one stronger. That, and having to adapt to change. Mieko (she’s named at the very end) goes from her mountain village to her husband’s family, from there to Tokyo, to Nagasaki, to a Pacific island – and all the while she is in control of nothing. But when an opportunity opens, she’s ready for it. Yet, someone else may not have even recognized the opportunity. She’s a smart cookie, and I note she’s the only one in the book keeping a journal. I think this makes her study things more closely and then trust her own judgment.
Q: Why did you choose an epistolary format for the book?
A journal format draws a reader quickly into another’s heart and mind. Since the writing is not meant for other’s eyes, we don’t suspect any guise or artfulness. She’s a simple mountain village girl, and we trust what she tells us. Since Meiji times Japan has had compulsory education for both sexes – so she can express herself clearly, though without the illusions to poetry one finds in 10th century pillow books written by upper-class ladies.
Having Mieko tell the story also freed me from writing the lurid details of her profession/job. Fortunately, she was not a “comfort woman” who was a slave in a government/military brothel. However, she was indentured to a commercial brothel – still, she had an interior life outside of the “nuts & bolts “ of her “day” job.
I’ve heard the book lacks a plot. But by setting the story during a war, I had no need of devising a plot – the war IS the plot. We Americans are pretty oblivious to that fact. Our ancestors, however, knew differently: like mine who lived in, say, the South Carolina back country during the American Revolution, or those on the frontier during Indian times, or even those in Texas during the Run Away Scape. For those, and for Mieko, the war was everything. Ask those now living in Iraq, in Syria, etc.
Q: Death and loss shape the heroine’s life, but she is quite matter of fact about it. Do you think that as a culture we now ascribe too much sentimentality to death/loss and do not view it as a natural part of life?
I have some old family letters written in the 1800s that tell of the deaths of infants, children, young women, oldsters. Those in the past do seem much more stoic. Perhaps because they don’t have the luxury of moping around the house. There are chores, others to take care of, life goes on.
I still get teary when James Taylor sings “Sweet Baby James” as it reminds me of my father who died in 1994. But I think excessive grief is just that: excessive. It’s a denial of reality. People who “don’t deserve” to die, do die. It’s the change that’s so scary – for those left behind, those still alive – we want everything the same, we want to be in control. Dying is letting go and the more we practice that in our daily life, the easier it’s gonna be when the inevitable happens to us. And one way of practicing is letting go of those who die before us.
Her last sentence has stayed with me since our interview. I have such difficulty letting go and knowing that I really don’t have control of anything except my reactions.
Are you waiting for something to change before you follow your dreams? Your job? Your relationship? Your education?
Stop. Don’t wait. Contribute. Do.
So you’ll never say, I wish I had…