The Truth About Death And Dying by Rui UmezawaThe Truth About Death And Dying by Rui Umezawa

The Truth About Death And Dying

byRui Umezawa

Paperback | October 7, 2003

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Yasu was simply crazy. But no crazier than the rest of the war.”

Rui Umezawa’s first novel weaves in and out of the lives of three generations of the Hayakawa family, starting during World War II in Japan and ending in present-day Toronto. The story is tragic, hilarious, lyrical and universal, tracing the legacy of war and the past on one family’s fortunes and memories. Film director Atom Egoyan says: “This ambitious debut creates a dense world of overlapping events -- from the smallest details of domestic life to the grandest scale of atrocity and horror. Rui Umezawa presents this unique world of cause and effect with a carefully harnessed sense of despair, yearning and beauty.”

Maimed physically and emotionally, Shoji Hayakawa leaves the devastation of post-war Japan and moves to the University of Milwaukee to teach physics. His father, Yasujiro, was the doctor in the village of Kitagawa, and an outspoken pacifist in dangerous times. Shoji and his wife Mitsuyo still recall their wartime childhood: bartering for food, evacuation to the countryside, returning to the burnt remains of the cities. Transplanted into suburban America, Mitsuyo’s mother will watch life through the windows, marvelling at how absurdly people act even when they have everything they need: food, water, clothes, and no bombs.

Shoji has two sons, Toshi and Kei. Toshi is a gentle boy but sees the world with an abnormal intensity. Objects seem to speak to him. He has to lock himself in a closet to concentrate on his homework, and lies face down in the school corridor with his forehead pressed against the cool linoleum to calm himself. Exuberant but noisy, he is stopped from taking piano lessons. He is an embarrassment to his mother and to his angry brother Kei, who leaves for Canada to build a career as a rock musician. Mitsuyo, so demanding of Kei, considers Toshi insane and never expects anything of him. Yet Toshi, full of imagination, finds humour and wonder in the world.

Quill and Quire called The Truth About Death and Dying an extraordinary first novel that “falls somewhere between Thomas Wolfe and Monty Python.” The absurd sense of humour, the unforgettably comic scenes -- such as Yasu emerging naked from the bathroom clutching mushrooms, or dancing in the bomb shelter -- are inextricably entwined with tragic memories. With the dark shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Pearl Harbor always present, this novel examines how our sense of what is normal and what is crazy can be skewed, especially in times of war.

Of the passages that take place in wartime Japan, the author says they “owe most of their details to what was told to me by my parents, and to Japanese movies and comic books set during World War II. I grew up with stories of the war and pacifism, both at home and in the Japanese media. My father was never conscripted to fight, because he excelled so much at science and the government felt he would be more useful in a lab than on a battlefield…. My father would often recount, however, having to run and take shelter from bombs while going to university in Nagoya. For the rest of his life, he refused to watch war movies, because the whistling sound of bombs falling frightened him terribly.”

“When I think about Japan in relation to the Second World War, more often then not, I’m remembering people who were treated like animals in Japanese POW camps. Or the Chinese who suffered tremendously at the hands of the Japanese military in places like Nanjing or Manchuria…. However, one of the things I think the book illustrates is this: Japanese wartime atrocities were unforgivable, but at the same time, Japanese civilians like my father were suffering too.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Rui Umezawa won a scholarship to study in Beijing at a time when he had no idea what he wanted to do in life. “It was the best thing to ever happen to me, because seeing things like the Great Wall and the Potala Palace in Tibet made me realize how wondrous life can be. I wasn’t as aimless when I got back to Canada. I wanted to do and ...
Title:The Truth About Death And DyingFormat:PaperbackPublished:October 7, 2003Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385659091

ISBN - 13:9780385659093


From the Author

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?Well, it took some time before I realized that this was my calling.However, I’d known since I was an undergraduate that writing would be a big part of my life. My major was comparative literature with a focus on critical theory, so for a while I thought I would be an academic writer, publishing in journals or writing books on literary theory. I focused on deconstructionism for my MA thesis, and by the time I finished, I pretty much deconstructed my urge to pursue literary studies further. But I’d also started to really enjoy the writing process. I travelled a lot, so I went into journalism thinking I could combine writing with my newfound sense of adventure.What I didn’t understand until later was that good journalists are reporters first and writers second. True journalists love to dig up stories. They love chasing ambulances. They know in their heart that they are serving the public when they invade other people’s spaces. While there are many excellent writers among journalists, good writing skills take a back seat to their relentless drive to get the story.While I never considered myself a bad journalist, I discovered over time that I was ultimately a writer first. The time I enjoyed most was when I was formulating the text and committing it to paper. The point became moot eventually, because personal reasons forced me to leave the field of reporting and get a “real” job. It was then that I started writing fiction.I might add that after getting my first short stories rejected by magazines and literary journals, I didn’t think I was going to make it as a fiction writer and gave up for a while. Ironically, immediately afterwards, I found my letters and e-mails to friends were getting longer and longer, as if I needed some outlet for my urge to express myself through the written word. That’s when my wife told me that if I was going to spend so much time in front of the computer anyway, I might was well keep writing to be published. That, I guess, was the moment of epiphany. I was a writer.2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?I don’t know if this begs to be told, but the first few pages I wrote materialized as a result of my father passing away. It was a very painful and confusing time for me, and I felt that describing the last few hours of his life on paper would help me sort things out. I left it alone for some time after that, but eventually came back and started experimenting by keeping the scene and the situation the same, but plugging in fictional characters in lieu of members of my family. The story evolved from there, delving into both the past and the future of these characters. Although edited and rewritten countless times, the opening chapter of The Truth About Death and Dying retains much from those initial few pages written after my father’s death.3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?I think the central theme for me at the time of writing was family. Like many writers, I am very interested in how personality and character is shaped through interaction with those closest to us. I find it fascinating how you can almost lose track of where the individual begins and ends. Other themes that I think are strong in the book include race, war and mortality. Being a visible minority, race is always something of which I am aware. I also wanted to look at war from the point of view of the victims, as well as illustrate how conflicts that seem far away, temporally or geographically, can still affect us all. As for mortality, Toshi’s idea of what happens to us when we die was inspired by a comment I once read in Wired magazine by Stanford University physicist Andrei Linde, who said:“According to the branch of physics called quantum cosmology, the universe is best represented as a pattern called a wave function that does not depend on time. But then why do I see the universe evolving in time? The answer may be that as long as I am observing the universe, the universe breaks into two pieces: me and the rest of the universe. And it turns out that the wave function for each of these separate pieces does depend on time. But if I merge with the universe, my time stops.”This intriguing notion greatly influenced the structure of the book.4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?Oh, I don’t think I can name a favourite. I’ve been in the heads of all of them. Lived and breathed from their respective points of view.5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?I’m still a believer in deconstructionism, so I wouldn’t want to steer my readers one way or another (which probably means I should not have started filling out this questionnaire, but oh well). I’m excited by the power of the written text to evoke countless reactions in different people. I’m thrilled, for example, with how the book designer came up with such a strong cover based on something I wrote. I would not want to intervene in the process and risk losing the immediacy of the reading experience.6) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?Wow, good one. There are two things I always try to incorporate into my work. The first is the mixing of tragedy and humour. There are so many instances in life when something extremely tragic is infused with a touch of laughter. Someone cracking a really good joke at a funeral is an obvious example, but I think all of us can recall times when we saw a glimpse of humour during a difficult situation. So, in this respect, I would hope my book creates the same effect as those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Irving, David Sedaris when he’s at his best, or a typical short story in Harper’s magazine.The second thing that I like my work to have is an evocative ending -- a moving last scene, a good closing sentence. I want the ending to resonate and linger in my readers. The final scene in Crime and Punishment is something I think I’ll carry with me for all my life. The same goes for the last image in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. More recent examples include the closing chapters in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee. The films of Ang Lee always end with a beautiful long shot slowly fading away. I would be most happy if my book can have the same sort of resonating effect on its readers.I think these things are important to me precisely because I enjoy them so much in other people’s work.7) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?If I had the talent and discipline, I would love to be a musician. Music is the most visceral form of art other than cooking. But while good food can send a tingle up my spine, I’ve never been moved to tears by cooking as I have been countless times by music. Again, I would be very happy if I could write a piece of text as poignant as a beautiful piece of music. It’s no accident that one of the main characters in The Truth About Death and Dying is a musician.My wife and kids top the list of my other passions. I’m also a martial artist, which influences the ways in which I view life. Occasionally, I perform as a storyteller, which helps me get a better feel for character and points of view. I love movies, good food and drink. I like tinkering with the computer. I like to run. In fact, I could go on and on about ways in which I like to pass the time.8) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?The Bible, but only if I could collect royalties off of it. Wow, what a difficult question. It’s like being asked whose clothes would I put on if I had the choice.

Read from the Book

SHOJIToshi’s father died with tubes sprouting from his body. Shoji had always been thin, but now, he looked ready to break. He lay unmoving, but certainly not at peace. His chest rose and fell regularly, in time with the rubber-and-metal pump whooshing and shushing beside his head. From the bottom of his baby blue hospital robe, his bare legs protruded like bread sticks. They were terribly uneven because of some freakish accident during the war, a very long time ago. Too long to remember. The right leg was straight and unblemished, the left twisted and scarred. When Toshi pictured his father in his mind, Shoji was always limping.Toshi let free a sigh as heavy as the world. A nurse hovered at the door. The staff had noticed that whenever the lumbering young Japanese fellow was left alone in a room for longer than a minute, every monitor would start making loud noises. They never knew that the commotion sounded to Toshi like a call to arms. It gave him fabulous goosebumps.Rainwater was tapping on the windows. There were days in Milwaukee when it felt as though the rain had been falling forever. After the family doctor had told them about Shoji’s cancer, the remedies started coming from all directions: Chinese medicine, prayers, ads in tabloid newspapers and friends calling to say they knew someone who was cured just by eating lots of oranges. Or was it grapefruit? Oranges or grapefruit. Who knew which? Or was it all just baloney?“But Toshi,” Shoji said one night after a supper of beef kidneys braised with garlic and shallots, “I’ve been a scientist all my life. Even now, my dreams are of witnessing the glory of galaxies moving away from each other.” He still had his appetite then, and other than his deformed leg, Shoji was perfectly proportioned, lean but not too lean, and he had square bones. Toshi had noticed long ago that women smiled a lot around his father. His mother was flinging dishes into the dishwasher. Mitsuyo was doing everything more forcefully now. It was a dark, empty nothing outside the window. Clouds masked any galaxies that might have blossomed overhead.Shoji said something about Doppler shifts that Toshi didn’t understand, but he squinted and nodded thoughtfully. He put a finger to the cleft of his chin. His father was smiling and crying at the same time.“A scientist,” Shoji said, shaking his head. “All my life, I wanted to be nothing else.” Toshi sighed, his big shoulders wilting.His father wasn’t interested in much about anything after he found out he was dying a slow and horribly painful death. Most days, he read in his study and hardly said two words beyond what was absolutely necessary. He didn’t even pardon himself when he went to the toilet to vomit. He never excused himself, and, even though he always closed the door, the bathroom wasn’t soundproof, so Toshi and Mitsuyo weren’t spared his suffering. Not completely. Never completely. Even when Toshi covered his ears and started singing “This Old Man” so loud his voice was hoarse the next day.There was one instance when Shoji came to life, and that was to yell at his wife. He was sitting at breakfast. Mitsuyo was ladling him a bowl of clear broth brewed from bonito flakes because by then he couldn’t ingest much else. She was wondering aloud why all these terrible things were happening to them.“To us?” said Shoji, his voice hoarse and frostbitten. “To us? When did you catch a terminal illness? This is happening to me, and has nothing to do with you.”This was hardly fair, and Toshi thought hard about telling his father so. Toshi recalled how one day, when he and his younger brother were still in elementary school, the wind was gusting, and they saw a baby robin fall from a tree in front of their house. As soon as it hit the ground, it began flailing its wings in that pathetic, hyper-panicked way that frightened animals have.Before Toshi and Kei could get to it, a neighbour’s dog, a huge black Rottweiler, materialized out of nowhere and took the baby bird in its mouth. They heard the muffled sounds of tiny bones being crushed. Kei screamed at the dog and threw a book at its face, which made it drop its prey and run off. But the baby robin was already dead. Whatever small flicker of light that had made it cry for food or its mother had flown from its tiny chest. Toshi felt a fragment of his heart break away and fall to the ground. His brother looked like he might never smile again.“You crazy kids go inside!” yelled Old Man Garber in his thick Polish accent that sounded like gears grinding. He stood across the street on his porch, his thin, pale arms behind his back. What little hair covered the top of his head was neatly combed to one side, but his shirt-tails hung over his pants. His spine was petrified in an arc at his shoulders, making him hunch over. He had to look up in order to look ahead. An ugly grey cat named Mongoose sat by his ankles and licked its privates. “Big storm is brewing!”The dimly lit foyer of their house was as quiet as an abandoned church when they returned with the dead bird. Mitsuyo had gone to the corner store on Oakland for some peanut oil. Shoji was home, though, in his study, behind the columns of paper, so they cried out for him. When there was no answer after a few tries, they went to find him.“Why did you bring it back here?” was the first thing their father asked them when he saw it.Kei’s face was wet with tears, like grass in the morning. “I thought you could help us bury it.”Shoji looked at him as if he had just suggested they stuff it and put it on the mantel. “Bury it? Are you mad? It’s dead. Put it in the garbage.” And with that their father turned his gaze back down to the jumble of mathematical calculations that filled his note paper.Kei wouldn’t stop crying as they buried the bird in the flower garden out back. The daffodils were in bloom. Even though Kei was crying, Toshi could hear him swearing under his breath. “Fuck you,” he said. “Fuck you.” The words sounded funny coming from such a small kid. And it was odd that anger was burning so brightly behind a curtain of tears. Kei was angry and brooding as far back as Toshi could remember. Brooding, handsome and intelligent, like their father. Toshi had been always aware of life’s unfairness in such matters.Toshi couldn’t blame his father for not understanding, though. Like Old Man Garber, Shoji hadn’t seen. Kei and Toshi had been too close, and that’s why death had affected them so.Just like how Shoji’s death was affecting them now because they were too close. So, in truth, the cancer wasn’t just devouring Shoji. It was eating away at everybody around him. But this was hard for Shoji to see, because he was the main course.“And one more thing: I’d most appreciate your not asking ‘why this’ or ‘why that’ any more, if you’d please,” Shoji said. Mitsuyo didn’t say a word as she dragged her feet upstairs, massaging her greying temples, looking as forlorn as a rotting piece of wood drifting aimlessly at sea. Despite her thin frame, frailty didn’t suit her. Neither did the black-and-yellow sweater she’d thrown on that morning, but she was beyond caring. Her hair said she just didn’t give a flying shit as thin, coarse wisps reached out in patches like weeds. “It’s bound to drive all of us mad!” Shoji still kept yelling in the kitchen, to no one in particular.But now that he was lying on a hospital bed, now that all he did was stare at the ceiling as if the emptiness fascinated him, Toshi could tell his father was ignoring his own advice. It was very apparent that Shoji was asking himself why, and that this was driving him crazy, just like he said it would. His eyes didn’t move, and his breathing was regular, controlled by the cold, metallic pump by his head–his indifferent surrogate lung. But you could tell he was upset. He was thinking to himself, Why? Why? Why?From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. In The Truth About Death and Dying, the author allows the characters to do their own storytelling, rather than using conventional characterization; we enter the consciousness of many characters as the story moves back and forth throughout their childhood and adult lives. Characters die but then reappear in the narrative. How did this affect your reading of the story and your perception of what happened?2. “Catastrophes were happening all the time, beyond anyone’s control. The most anyone could do was try to manage the manner in which they reacted to the catastrophes. Their reactions defined them.” Discuss this in relation to some of the characters.3. “Young men were always horny, even during a war.” To what extent is this a novel about growing up -- and growing old?From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

“An impressive rendering of time, memory, and the lingering effects of history … This ambitious debut creates a dense world of overlapping events -- from the smallest details of domestic life to the grandest scale of atrocity and horror. Rui Umezawa presents this unique world of cause and effect with a carefully harnessed sense of despair, yearning, and beauty.” -- Atom Egoyan“This extraordinary first novel -- noisy, hilarious, and tragic -- falls somewhere between Thomas Wolfe and Monty Python.” -- Quill & Quire“[Umezawa] is not interested in sentimental silver linings. Death -- and life, for that matter -- isn’t a carnival, it just is: simultaneously momentous and completely ordinary.” -- National Post