Friday Speak Out!: A Reason to Finish

Friday, May 14, 2021
by Marilyn Kiku Guggenheim

The hapa (half-Japanese) hero of a novel I obsessively re-read, grew up with a mother who cherished her. Even when teenaged Sarah betrays a family secret, her mother Yoko forgives her, and they reminisce while holding hands and strolling a leafy Kyoto lane. With Yoko, Mary Yukari Waters conjured my fantasy mother in The Favorites. Mine lacked time or energy to see or hear me, which another reading obsession, The Bilingual Edge, helped me psychoanalyze: “Many researchers have concluded that immigrants...who maintained their cultural heritage at home...also provided their children with the strength to face challenges….[T]o know who they are and where they came from...fostered closeness between parents and children.” My mother converted from Buddhist to Catholic to marry my Anglo dad in 1955, migrate to southern California and raise seven children. I reversed her steps by leaving her Church after twelve years of parochial school, learning her native language and bonding with her three sisters in her Tokyo childhood home.

I thought my memoir-in-progress about reconnecting with my mother’s Tokyo past would show that the more I tried to get close to her, the more mute and invisible I felt with her. But while boo-hooing about how my mother never listened to me, I haven’t listened to myself when I’ve avoided revising and finishing 150 pages of crummy first draft. As Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew explains: “When we write solely for ourselves...we human beings have a propensity to navel-gaze and obsess.” I could have so much more fun allowing my “brilliant but quirky inner voice the freedom to emerge...” by revising my memoir until it feels complete to me. My version of “complete” means sharing my words with readers--”opening [my] internal world to another, or to the Other” as Andrew encourages:
[B]y setting our work in the context of history, social movements, religious thought, psychological explorations, and other external forces, we link the smallness of our memories (or imagined world) to that web of commonality that connects us as humans.
I want to claim belonging for myself in the messy task of revising over and over to my satisfaction, “seeing our material again and again, with eyes other than our own or with sight broadened by the wider world.” I have the chance to do for myself what I desperately wanted from my mother: to “foster closeness” by pursuing “who I am and where I came from.” That closeness is not for the sake of my mom and me, since she died peacefully at eighty-five a few years ago. It’s my attempt to keep strengthening myself “to face challenges” by plunging into the messiness of my head and listening. Rephrasing, cutting and pasting, rewording, I can chip further away at the Woe Is Me draft. And by finishing this essay, I polished another memory into a gem of insight I can turn to, like rereading The Favorites, to cheer me through the hard work.

* * *
Marilyn Guggenheim's pen name is Marilyn Kiku, and her memoir's tentative title is "How To Be Japanese." After earning PhD in Japanese, she taught language and literature to college students for six years. She volunteers with a local nonprofit for world language education in southwest Montana, where she shares Japanese folk tales and songs, memories of and trips to Tokyo with her two sons. You can find her online at and


Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"?
Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Marilyn--Good luck with your memoir. Yes, diving into our head is messy, but how valuable, once we emerge from our deep dive.

Your story sounds fascinating. Keep slogging forward. Don't give up.

Ashley said...

Marilyn, congratulations on conquering another milestone! And what a treat for us! Your post is beautifully conceived and executed. And yes, writing always comes easier when we decide to make it fun. Bring on more of that quirky voice we love so much!

Marilyn BG said...

Messy, beautiful, quirky... that's the goal and the reality, isn't it? Thanks Ashley and Sioux for joining the cheer squad for the completed memoir and other challenges!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Marilyn, my fellow hapa, I love your post! Yes, I agree that giving ourselves permission to have fun, use our quirky voices to explore our stories by expanding them to the larger world is where the magic happens. Mary Karr said that writing is only "fun for novices, the very young, and hacks" (lol), but if that's the case, call me a hack. I'm a craft nerd and all aspects of writing is fun for me, even the messy task of revising. I'm so proud of you for doing the work! I know it's not easy, but it's wonderful you have a book like The Favorites as a model to turn to for inspiration. Keep going, mem-warrior! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh yes ! this: I have the chance to do for myself what I desperately wanted from my mother: to “foster closeness” by pursuing “who I am and where I came from.”

keep going!

Anonymous said...

Lovely Marilyn! Thanks for sharing and inspiring me on this crummy cloudy day.

Marilyn BG said...

I'm thanking you fellow readers and writers on another crummy, cloudy, SNOWY (yes, on May 21st...) day. Like Yiyun Li speaks to her son by writing a novel with herself talking to him, I hope to bring myself closer to my loved ones by writing to them / about them--without letting them take over the narrative LoL!

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