Friday, August 27, 2010

Guest post: Margaret Dilloway, author of 'How to Be an American Housewife'

I'm really excited to welcome Margaret Dilloway to the blog today. Margaret Dilloway's first novel, How to Be an American Housewife, was published earlier this month by Penguin Putnam. It's the story of a Japanese war bride, which Margaret was largely inspired to write from her own Japanese mother's experiences. It's also the story of mother and daughter, and the obligation of family and tradition. I thoroughly enjoyed it! (My review of How to Be an American Housewife).

Margaret lives in Hawaii with her husband and their three young children. For more information visit Margaret Dilloway's website. Or from the publisher's website, A Conversation with Margaret Dilloway.

Margaret has been kind enough to share with us a story of her visit to Japan as a young child. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


In my novel, HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, I make my character visit Japan. Therefore, people always ask if I have been to Japan. The answer is yes, but not for a long time. My third birthday fell during my last and only trip to Japan, but I still remember it vividly. This is probably because the experience was out of the ordinary, and because my brother and I were not well-behaved.

My mother and my seven-year-old brother and I went to Japan to see my dying grandfather. Through some forms of relative-financing, we were able to go over. My father remained at home.

We stayed with one of my aunts, in a house that seemed to always be very dark and very quiet. It was different than our house in San Diego. It had tatami mats and shoji screens. It had an upstairs, an addition; my aunt told me I was not allowed up there. Of course, one day I did sneak up the stairs. At the top of the staircase was a door, through which bright light peeked. I looked through the door crack and saw a man sleeping on a bed, face-down. I ran back downstairs. I think he was my cousin.

Other things were different at the house, too. I was terrified of the o-furo, because it had a gigantic drain and I thought I’d be sucked down into it. I poked holes in the shoji screen with my finger. My brother and I, sent outside to play, threw beer bottles into the koi pond. It froze over before anyone discovered it.

My aunt had a collection of semi-feral tailless cats, kept outside. “Don’t open this back door,” she warned me. But the cats meowed at the door, so I knew they wanted to get inside, where it was warm, and opened the door. All the cats ran into the kitchen.

Despite this, my aunt still wanted to spoil me. I think I understood Japanese back then, because I understood everything she was saying, and I’m fairly sure no one was speaking English. Once, I wanted chocolate before dinner, and my mother said no. My aunt said, “Nonsense! Let her have one,” and gave me a chocolate.

My memories are punctuated by gifts. My aunt and uncle took me to a toy store. “Pick out whichever toy you like!” my aunt told me. I looked around, thinking this was my chance to get something really grand, and got the biggest toy they had, a giant stuffed rabbit. My mother was scandalized that I’d chosen the biggest one.

I also remember going to the countryside to visit another aunt and her husband. The husband gave us temari balls he had made out of colorful string, in gold and vibrant red and orange, intricate as snowflakes.

We went to Mount Aso-san, an active volcano, where I picked out some lava rocks made into miniature geta.

And we visited my grandfather, who lay in a gray-lit room. His hands were wrapped in gauze bandages. He looked thin and sickly and I was scared. He held out his hands to me. I clung to my mother. “Go on, it’s all right,” my mother said. I would not go.

“Don’t force her,” said my grandfather. At this, I finally reached out and touched his hand. The bandages felt scratchy against my hand. I drew away.

Shortly after, he died. I don’t remember the funeral, only that my relatives were all there and we took pictures. Everyone who attended lined up in rows. No one smiled. In the picture, I am wearing a pink plaid jumper and turtleneck. I am not smiling, but I usually cried in photos, so the not-smiling was a step up.

I had always wanted to visit Japan again. I had thought I’d need to, in order to write this novel, but the opportunity never arose. Eventually I thought I had better get to work and write the novel anyway, so instead I researched Japan. I bet if I go back now, I’ll be much the same as the little girl I was: generally bewildered, marginally better behaved, but welcomed by family. And perhaps like magic, like back then, I’ll be able to understand the language.


Thank you Margaret! I hope you get a chance to visit Japan again soon.

A lively and surprising novel about a Japanese woman with a closely guarded secret, the American daughter who strives to live up to her mother's standards, and the rejuvenating power of forgiveness

How to Be an American Housewife is a novel about mothers and daughters, and the pull of tradition. It tells the story of Shoko, a Japanese woman who marriedan American GI, and aspired to be a proper American housewife; and her grown daughter, Sue, a divorced mother whose life as an American housewife hasn't been what she'd expected. When illness prevents Shoko from traveling to Japan to be reunited with her brother, she asks Sue to go in her place. The trip reveals family secrets that change their lives in dramatic and unforeseen ways. Offering an entertaining glimpse into American and Japanese family lives and their potent aspirations, this is a warm and engaging novel full of unexpected insight.
Buy How to Be an American Housewife at: | | IndieBound

The small print: Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Thanks for sharing these memories -- how wonderful that you were able to understand what everyone was saying then.

  2. This was such an interesting read! I know that it is easier for children to pick up a second language, maybe it will come back to you with practice :)

  3. What a fantastic post. It was incredibly interesting to read, and very cool that the memory of that time spent in Japan is still so vivid. Very special, thanks for sharing.

  4. It's a treat reading about your visit to Japan...I miss it so!


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