Mitchell Hagerstrom's Blog

August 12, 2019


Two books, three generations: a grandmother, mother, and daughter, all strong women who work hard, all stubborn women who quietly live as they believe they ought. Ordinary women, not saints.

The first generation, and the second generation as a tiny person, appear in Miss Gone-overseas, a tale set during WWII on a Japanese-held island in the Western Pacific. During the years I lived on the same island I was privileged to hear a few stories from those who were children during the war years. A fortunate find, a survey of the town of Kolonia as it was during Japanese colonial days, brought the past to life for me, and set me to imagining.

All three generations appear in Overseas Stories, set in the 1980s, with a brief step back to the 1970s. The book showcases the island as I knew it, but through the eyes of my fictional characters. With editing and the addition of a lengthy new story, the book became a prequel or sequel to Miss Gone-overseas. For those interested in the expat experience on a tropical Pacific island, it is easily a stand-alone novel told in a series of linked stories. Actually the book is all three (prequel, sequel, and stand-alone) at the same time.

Neither of these two books would have been written if I had not lived on Pohnpei, an island in the Western Pacific. Miss Gone-overseas also benefited from my family living in Tokyo during my 6th grade year, a year of living in a tradition-style Japanese house in a regular neighborhood. So years later when I encountered Japanese fiction while wandering the shelves of a small California library, I was ready to fall in love.

A few of the Overseas Stories were begun when I still lived on Pohnpei, others a decade later, and all were revitalized in the past few years. The last story, which brings the tales of these women full circle, was composed recently just for this second edition.
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Published on August 12, 2019 07:15

June 26, 2019


I made this list about 10 years ago. It still holds, but a newer list would include a few more contemporary writers, like the early stories of Willy Vlautin and maybe one of Sam Shepard’s. Maybe. Also Lucia Berlin, Denis Johnson and some I inadvertently missed, like Alice Munro.

Hills Like White Elephants -- Ernest Hemingway
A Train Ride Through Spain -- Truman Capote
Nairobi -- Carol Joyce Oates
The Dead -- James Joyce
The Birthday Party -- Gina Barriault
At the Bay -- Katherine Mansfield
Lady with the Little Dog -- Anton Chekhov
In the Ravine -- Anton Chekhov
The Villa on the Hill -- Cesar Pavese
To Esme, with Love and Squalor -- J.D. Salinger
The Sorrows of Gin -- John Cheever
Why I Live at the P.O. -- Eudora Welty
A Day in the Open -- Jane Bowles
Welding with Children -- Tim Gautreaux
Easy Pickings -- Tim Gautreaux

Each of these stories was included because I felt they taught me something and at the same time were highly entertaining. When I am accused of writing something without a proper plot, I find comfort in the Hemingway story. The Capote story is a great example of James Agee's advice to slow down. Capote offers a lyrical slowness of pace, and again no real plot.

Many of the stories listed were practical lessons for me in how to deal with a large cast of characters, all small versions of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, especially the dinner table scene.

The stories are not listed in a particular order. At one time the list was shorter, only a baker's dozen. Bowles and Gautreaux were added after a reread to confirm I still loved them. Gautreaux's two stories are set in southern Louisiana, funny as hell while grabbing you by the heart. Interesting that Gautreaux and Chekhov are the only two listed with more than one story. They really are alot alike.

I know Bowles' husband is much more popular, but here she narrates the story of a group of Mexico City whores on a picnic with a couple of their Johns. What's not to love about that?
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Published on June 26, 2019 14:56

April 2, 2018


At a reading years ago for my novella Miss Gone-overseas, a member of the audience asked how I started a piece. With the story or with a character? Actually, I answered, I start with landscape and then I people the landscape and the story comes from that. Yet, when I reflect a bit more, I have to add that landscape cannot be divorced from time.

Both my novella and a small collection of short stories called Overseas are set on the island of Pohnpei in the East Caroline Islands of Micronesia. If one has a globe, it’s about 7 degrees north of the equator in the Western Pacific. I lived on the island during most of the 1980s. My memory of that landscape led to my novella set in the 1940s, and my short story collection set in the 1980s. Even today the physical landscape has not changed, except in the main town and the capital.

The 1940s were the war years, and by then the island had been a Japanese colony for 20 years. In 1947 the U.N. handed the Japanese mandate over to the victorious Americans, and by the 1980s the U.S influence had been in effect for nearly 40 years. But, as a character in Miss Gone-overseas comments, before the Japanese were the Germans, and before that the Spanish. Through all the foreign administrations, it’s amazing to see how much of their own culture the indigenous people have protected.

Youtube is a great source for the history of the island, especially the videos by Fran Hezel’s Micronesia Seminar. Fran, now based on Guam, is a Jesuit and a scholar who lovingly made the islands his special mission. A google will also bring up videos for the tourist trade, showing the beauty of the place. Other videos show how much the town of Kolonia has changed. The traffic snarls and multistory buildings makes it nearly unrecognizable to me. There wasn’t a single traffic light in the 1980s and only the main thoroughfares were paved.

Still, landscape is the beginning, a lesson learned when I was given a copy of Justine, the first book of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I was 19 and had barely flirted with the idea of becoming a writer. In the author’s note for Justine -- after the usual b.s. of everything being an invention and bearing no resemblance to living persons -- Durrell writes: “Only the city is real.” But Alexandria, like everywhere, has also changed. The house where Durrell lived and was the novel’s primary setting was demolished in 2017. And the house where I lived on Pohnpei is long gone.

Note: no photo. Photobucket no longer hosts and I'm too computer challenged figure out a different host.
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Published on April 02, 2018 14:14

November 8, 2017

Mexico '93

Testing an alternate (free) image-hosting since photobucket now wants about 40 bucks a month for the privilege of lending a hand to starving writers. I see I will need to resize before knocking on’s door.

Ignore the white splotch on the wall above my head (the photo was stuck to the glass when I unframed it for scanning.) But do pay attention to the figure on the left. One would almost think it is a trompe l'oeil painted on that wall by Diego Rivera -- a mural begun and then abandoned.

So, yes, this is me in the role of my future character Carolina in The Tourist (the story is posted on fb page of Tiny TOE Press). Dorky shoes I loved (in the top half dozen of my most favorite shoes I’ve ever owned), messy hair, dowdy skirt (the bottom portion of an afternoon tea dress I once bought for embassy functions), and a boring white t-shirt. Please ignore the cigarette. Carolina doesn’t smoke, nor do I any more.

The light tells me is it approaching afternoon: siesta time and the market street is almost empty. But my memory can still bring up the smell of fresh hand-patted tortillas -- with bits of roasted goat imbedded in the maize -- cooked to order on a large make-shift comal over a charcoal fire.

My mother would say I need a touch of color, a smear of lipstick. Unfortunately my sister had just borrowed (to never return) my fabulous tube of Shiseido red-tinted lip gloss. I need to remind her: she owes me.
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Published on November 08, 2017 08:10

August 1, 2017


From my cushion on the floor I couldn't see the view, only the wide blue sky on days it was blue (and an angry grey on rainy days). But I knew without looking what was there, below my cliff side house: a wide bay, an aquamarine lagoon reaching out toward breakers on a fringing reef, then the midnight blue of the deep ocean beyond, and above that a baby-blue sky sporting a variety of cottony clouds.

The view ranks as the most spectacular of any of my writing places. Although I am still partial to the small back window of my San Francisco apartment, a window I left open summer and winter. Pigeons perched on the windowsill, they cooed but never invited themselves all the way inside. Outside, over rooftops, was the Hilton's silver-paneled cylinder and way off the East Bay hills, snow-dusted one day or two a year. Directly below the window, a vacant lot where the homeless sometimes slept in shacks of cardboard construction. It was the Tenderloin, after all.

In rural Louisiana the sliding doors of my tiny studio looked out on a grassy slope where I could hear deer prancing at night. To the right, my mother’s vegetable garden snuggled behind a chain link fence softened by the climber Mme. Alfred Carriere with her boudoir-pink blooms, and at the bottom of the grassy slope, a large pond whose reedy shallows hosted visits from high-stepping white egrets.

Now I have only the sandstone siding of building opposite and a small green verge in between where a neighbor walks her shitty little dogs and never bothers to pick up the poop. She thinks no one is watching. But like John Cheever, I live behind the potted palm and from here I can see everything.

Anyway, when one is writing, the view outside disappears and one wraps oneself in the imaginative place being created on that white page -- whether actual paper in a typewriter (as of yore) or the computer screen. That imaginative landscape is all that matters.

Today, while the shitty little dogs cavorted on the lawn and I worked on a poem about the summer my father died, I lived in the landscape of my parents small place in Louisiana. And when I actually lived in Louisiana, my mind’s eye lived in the landscape of Micronesia where my fictional Miss Gone-overseas lived. And when I let my eyes wander to the pigeons on the windowsill of my apartment in San Francisco what my mind’s eye saw was my grandparent’s East Texas home, the setting for a novella I was writing at the time.

Bottom line -- the actual view does not matter one bit, nor is it a distraction. What matters is the amount of time a writer has to devote to his or her craft. One must carefully select a form most suited to that amount of time, and these days small poems work best for me.
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Published on August 01, 2017 14:23

May 8, 2017


Those who have read Miss Gone-overseas will remember the small child, Mariko, daughter of the engineer and his mistress, Armina. In a sequel to that book the child becomes Maria, an easy jump from the diminutive, Mari-chan.

As an adult, Maria operates a small restaurant on the island: Maria’s Place. We meet her as an adult, in the mid-1970s and 1980s in the short story collection, Islands. In the sixth story, as yet unpublished, we meet her daughter Helen as an adult.

Helen asks if the kitchen can make a couple of fish tacos, her current favorite among her mother’s other menu items: pulled pork sandwiches, tuna burgers, or the popular plate of sashimi, fried tuna nuggets, rice, and slaw.

The backstory here is that Helen suggested adding fish tacos to the menu, having learned of their popularity while at school in Hawaii. The dish is a natural for the islands. Fish abound and cabbage for slaw is grown locally, while masa is easily imported so that fresh tortillas can be made daily.

I’m not much of a cook but I do have an interest in diet, especially the diet of Pacific Islanders when it is based on local foods. One of the biggest banes of American influence in the islands is imported foods which are the cause of most of the medical and physical problems of the islanders. So, actually it was me, not Helen, who suggested this menu item to her mother. Whatever.

Maria and Helen, and Armina, whose identity was usurped at the end of the book by Mieko, the narrator of Miss Gone-overseas, are all part of the short story collection Overseas: stories. Many readers expressed dismay at the abrupt (to some) end of the first book. I did attempt to write a straightforward sequel, but found the pillow book format was not suitable for carrying the story far enough into the future without being seven or eight hundred pages long -- way longer than my stamina.

Instead, I carried the story forward in Overseas:stories. Composed of five short stories, the collection is set in the 1980s, except for the first, Same Father, Different Mother, which is set in both the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. Echoes of Miss Gone-Overseas are evident in the stories: the “acquired” child, a suicide, and the lives of colonials. In this case, the colonials are American expats -- most of whom are there short term, some very short term.

In the first story of the collection we meet Maria and Shige, the young boy who the narrator of Miss Gone-overseas watched say goodbye to his father, the engineer. In the second story we meet Maria's family and a couple of expats. In the third and fourth stories are more colonials/expats interacting with the local population, and in the fifth an American tourist.

Most of the main characters, both locals and expats, of the first five stories will reappear in the sixth, but the adult Helen is the star, and the whole saga will turn a circle on itself.
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Published on May 08, 2017 15:13

April 2, 2017


The Japanese Heian Period (roughly 794 to 1185) was, without a doubt, the most romantic era in human history -- for the aristocrats, not the common people. The women of the court celebrated this era by using a newly devised form of vernacular script that used Chinese characters phonetically. They created a vast body of work: stories, pillow books or diaries, poetry, and the world’s first novel.

Court life was a life of leisure, devoted mostly to aesthetics and ceremonies. Refinement in dress, deportment, and off-the-cuff compositions of small poems were social measurements. Polygamy was the norm and many women used the practice to their own advantage; both married and single women indulged in romantic affairs. Erotic love was the game everyone played and Heian women poets excelled in wallowing in it, chronicling both the ecstasy and the heartbreak.

No way to see him
on this moonless night--
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.
Ono No Komachi [825-900]

In this world
love has no color--
yet how deeply
my body
is stained by yours.
Izumi Shikibu [976-1030]

Be close, you say;
but the first thing I met
on getting close
were your feelings
thin as summer’s clothes.
Murasaki Shikibu [973/78 - 1014/31]

In Miss Gone-overseas the narrator does not enjoy the luxury of romance. Her arranged marriage was brief and unhappy. The man who gave her the wonderful fountain pen and who she hoped would become her patron? Well, that’s all he gave her. Although there is sexual coupling between her and the engineer, she never gives the impression she sees it as anything more than an obligation -- despite her very real affection for him.

Instead, for her, there is familial love: for her two brothers, for her parents, for Kimiko who became like a sister, for the young corporal who became like a brother. In fact, the Ifumi was like a family, headed by the mama-san Mrs Okata, and the group at the house on the river functioned like a family with the engineer as its head. At the close of the book the narrator creates a family on the island rather than risk returning to the homeland where she might have no family at all.
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Published on April 02, 2017 19:26

March 1, 2017


The women here appear to be preparing pihlohlo, a dessert of bananas simmered in coconut milk.* I have no doubt both the women on the right have regular western-style kitchens where they prepare meals for their nuclear families, but when a menu of traditional foods is needed -- for large family gatherings such as funerals -- small modern kitchens won’t do. The raw ingredients for a traditional island menu require a lot of space for prep and for constructing an uhmw -- an oven of heated stones placed around the food.

This particular photo caught my attention in a facebook posting as it reminded me of a scene described, but not shown, in one of my stories. My expat narrator in the course of one particular day has an errand to deliver some paperwork to her boss who is out sick. His home is in a family compound composed of a number of small residences and outbuildings. It’s not the narrator’s first visit. She recalls a previous occasion when she witnessed the women of the household at their daily tasks: “the husking, peeling, chopping, grating, grinding, beating, soaking and squeezing required to convince coconuts, breadfruit, taro, tapioca and yams that they are indeed edible. All done with simple tools and lots of muscle.”

Looking at pre-1980s photos of Pacific island people one is struck by how slim and healthy everyone looks. Yet, nowadays obesity is endemic in the islands. There was once a study done on the Pima Indians of southern Arizona where the U.S. border divides their tribal land. The members south of the border who ate a traditional diet were healthy, the ones north of the border struggled with the problems caused by obesity, the fallout of easy access to modern processed foods.

Recently a few Pacific Island nations have been discussing implementing a ban on Western products such as sodas and sweets. Since nutritional education has so far been fairly ineffectual, maybe this is a solution. We all know that such bans do not work well where consumers can travel and shop where the bans are not in place, but on an island it isn’t possible to go “elsewhere” to shop.

A land without sodas! Yes, a land offering coconut water and lime water as substitutes. There are island people who are trying to promote the use of low-tech mills for turning tapioca or breadfruit into flour. I applaud all those who are committed to finding ways to make traditional food accessible for family cooks who don’t have a lot of time, especially foods which can be adapted to modern diets and modern kitchens where there is no one home during the day to advance the worthy movement of “slow food.”

*The recipe varies according to the home village, sometimes sugar is added and a thickener such as tapioca, some nowadays brighten the dish with food color to a pinkish red. And the type of banana varies -- utin ruk is shown here, but utin Fiji is sweeter.
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Published on March 01, 2017 14:41

November 30, 2016


Here, a small photographic masterpiece of a particular moment at the Japanese Embassy’s recent celebration for Emperor Akihito’s eighty-third birthday. Those who have worked in embassies know one of their main functions is throwing parties. Those who have lived on Pohnpei know that parties and rain go hand in hand (given the extremely high amounts of rainfall that bless the island). Photographer Bill Jaynes* must be applauded for capturing it all: the different moods of the party-goers, and the rain.

There is a certain timelessness in the photo. The wistful lovely in kimono gazes downcast at the rain, reminding me of court ladies in 10th century classic Japanese literature where nature and mood are as one. The other young women in the photograph are modern, looking for all the world like girls just wanna have fun. Young women such as these in 1920s Japan -- both on the street and in literature -- were labeled Modern Girls [modan garū or moga].

Those who have read my essay on Pohnpeian skirts or who have had the pleasure of living on Pohnpei, will recognize that the party dress of the young woman on the right has the embroidered hem of a traditional urohs [skirt]. For me, that element of the photograph, coupled with the kimono on the left, symbolizes that East is meeting West on a very particular island in the mid-Pacific.

The instant I saw the photograph of these women in the rain at this particular party I was reminded of an incident in my book, Miss Gone-overseas, an incident concerning the father of the current emperor. In the book, on an evening when their clients were confined to post, my fictional women traded their daily yukata or summer kimono for western-style dresses, and threw themselves a party. They played popular boogie-woogie 78s on the phonograph and danced -- because girls just wanna have fun.

That evening Mrs Okata, the mama-san of the house, was mildly disapproving but she did not stop them. The next day, however, my fictional women -- according to my narrator -- were more like the wistful kimono-clad woman on the left.

The emperor was sent from heaven to lead our nation, Mrs Okata reminded us, and because she insisted, we went to the shrine to make amends for our disrespectful party. It was raining so hard we could not take the shortcut up the side of the hill but had to go around the long way and before we arrived we were soaked up to our knees….

At the shrine I remembered my husband who was killed in Manchuria, and my brothers who are now soldiers and who may also be killed. We all prayed loudly, following Mrs Okata’s example, asking forgiveness for our unpatriotic behavior.

Besides the obvious artistic merit of the photograph and the link to my book, I also have a sentimental reason for loving this photo. The year before the current emperor, Akihito (then-Crown Prince), married Michiko Shōda (now the Empress) she was finishing her studies at the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, while I was a sixth-grader next door at the International School of the Sacred Heart where our opulent classrooms had once been the residence of a Japanese princess.

*Bill Jaynes, editor and publisher of The Kaselehlie Press, Kolonia, Federated States of Micronesia.
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Published on November 30, 2016 14:17

April 23, 2016


I grabbed this photo from facebook -- Fran and Greg during a brief and unexpected meetup between planes at Narita. Fran being Francis X. Hezel, a Jesuit priest and scholar who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963, and Greg Dvorak who lectures and teaches Pacific Islands Studies at Hitotsubashi and Waseda Universities in Tokyo. Fran has published half a dozen books on Micronesia and Greg’s first book, Coral and Concrete (a history of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands where he grew up), will be out sometime this year.

Mainstream publishers have a whole stable of more famous authors they can coerce into saying sweet nothings about a new book by an unknown author. My small publisher had no stable -- I was only the second book he published. As it was, he took a risk selecting my book whose audience is such a tiny niche: mostly family and friends, or readers interested in Micronesia as a Japanese colony before and during during WWII, and/or Pacific Islands women’s studies. Blurbers, I’m told when I google, don’t grow on trees or fall from the sky -- although these two did fall in my lap from cyberspace.

Since a large piece of MGO had been previously published in a Guam glossy and was therefore listed in the catalog of the Micronesian Seminar, I wanted that organization to have a copy of MGO for their non-circulating library. I emailed Fran Hezel, the head of MicSem at that time, for the postal address; he asked me to send the book to him instead. He and I had never met but we do have a few mutual friends. He wrote back requesting to keep that copy for his personal library, and would I send another to MicSem. An email conversation ensued and the blurb was taken from that correspondence -- with his permission.

Somehow Greg Dvorak found the book online (perhaps trolling books by subject on amazon) and wrote to me about how much MGO fit with what he was teaching, particularly gender studies related to the Micronesian Islands. Greg has made the western Pacific his life’s work. His blurb was also taken from our ensuing correspondence -- with his permission. In turn, he asked if he could copy parts of the book for hand-outs to classes. The utter dream of a lifetime: to have one’s book taught in school (even if just part of the book)!

I was so thrilled that these two eminent scholars found my narrator accessible (never mind she was a brothel worker), and they approved both the writing and the style I chose (a pillow book) as being clear and precise enough to convey that particular period in Micronesian history. My only wish, however, is that the book came with a warning label: die-hard readers of romance paperbacks no likee.
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Published on April 23, 2016 14:38