Wittier Word Weavers

Writers' Club of Whittier

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The Chick Sexer – A Novel Education: Part 3


Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans, really enjoy ballroom dancing. The first classes I taught in L.A. were Nisei groups. European ballroom dancing became popular in Japan as far back as the 1880’s. One old photo I saw depicted Japanese men in western suits and their partners in kimonos dancing the waltz. By the time Frankie Honda arrives in Japan in 1930 the tides are churning. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria. The Prime Minister of Japan was assassinated in an attempted coup d’état in 1932. The power of militarism was rising. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933.

I remember once listening to two of my Nisei dance students talking about World War II. One man was in the 442nd Regiment, a combat unit made up almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, and the other Japanese American fellow fought for Japan. I wondered: How could that be? I learned that Nisei (born in America) were automatically given dual citizenship by Japan unless a request was made to be removed from the family records. Many children who were sent to Japan by their parents got stuck there for the duration of the war. The young men who were of age got drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army.

A book called “Dear Miye” written by Mary Kimoto Tomita documents through letters what a young woman experienced when she went to Japan to study in 1939. Political tension between America and Japan having escalated, she received an urgent cable from her parents telling her to take the next boat home. December 1st, 1941, she boarded a ship, with some two hundred other Nisei girls like herself, returning to California. December 8th they were told the unthinkable. The SS Tatsuta Maru turned back to Japan, zigzagging so as to avoid submarines. She hadn’t a cent to her name and, she and her family had no communication for the duration of the war.


to be continued . . .



The Chick Sexer – A Novel Education: Part 2

Zeitgeist – the spirit of the age. What better way to get a feel for an era than reading the work of authors who lived and breathed at that time? Nobel prize winner, Yasunari Kawabata, wrote a book called The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa. Basically plotless, the book’s sensual impressions of the seedy slum of Asakusa during the 1920’s and 30’s was exactly what I was looking for to bring Frankie Honda’s yakuza, gangster, uncle to life. The area, on the northern fringe of Tokyo, was home to a colorful parade of actors, hawkers, dancers, bums, con artists and prostitutes. Asakusa was a place that never slept.

I learned that the great depression hit Japan before America’s disastrous crash of October 1929. Tokyo had not yet recovered from the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in which 140,000 people were killed. When Frankie’s Uncle Hitomi gives him the rickshaw tour of Asakusa in The Chick Sexer they pass Hanayashiki park, thick with the jobless and the homeless. “Under the Stars Boarding House,” says Uncle Hitomi. “Biggest hotel in Japan.”

“Desires dancing naked…Asakusa, heart of Tokyo…marketplace of humans…strange rhythm.” Pieces of lyrics drift back to Frankie as his rickshaw puller sings a popular song of the day. Japan was known for her pleasure districts. In the early 1900’s girls were sold into prostitution if their parents couldn’t support them or if they were orphaned. Sandakan No. 8 (Brothel 8) is a heart-wrenching Japanese movie on the subject, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1974.

A fellow with the Flickr name of Okinawa Soba has an amazing collection of photos of old Japan. With a high quality scanner he turns 3-D stereoscopic post cards into wonderful vintage photos. Popular postcards of the day included geisha posed in gardens with parasols or in rickshaws, oiran in their impossibly high shoes and prostitutes behind bamboo bars in the pleasure quarters, prisoners of poverty.

Oiran, mistress, geisha, geiko, prostitute – different status? Different levels of female degradation, but then arranged marriages for many women also meant a life of drudgery. Mother-in-laws treated their son’s wives as slaves. Memoirs of a Geisha – I reread the book and watched the movie again. When the film was released in 2005 I was anxious to hear my Japanese American students’ opinions of it. Most of them were peeved that the main actress was Chinese.

Many young Nisei who were sent back to Japan for education didn’t speak the language well and were unfamiliar with the status concepts in the country of their ancestors. Often they didn’t know the who and the how and the depth of the Japanese bow. In the opening scene of The Chick Sexer, sixteen-year-old Frankie realizes his teacher is waiting for him to bow. His young class mates find his fumbling attempt at the respectful gesture hilarious. Frankie thinks: How should I know how to bow? I’m an American. I have never bowed to anyone in my life.

to be continued . . .


The Chick Sexer – A Novel Education by Sherry Novak

Chick sexer – what’s that? I enjoy watching expressions when I tell people what 101-year-old Frankie used to do for a living. He squeezed day-old chicks to determine their gender. I’ve heard Frankie’s stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, for the thirty years I’ve been his ballroom dance teacher. All the time I thought: Someone needs to get this little known and soon-to-be-lost slice of Japanese American history down on paper. And so, three years ago I set to work writing the novel entitled The Chick Sexer. Creating the story of the fictionalized Frankie Honda has been an education!

Places like the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. and the Densho website have done a great job of documenting short pieces of oral histories. But how did it feel to be a young Nisei, second generation born in America, man in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s? Kids who played baseball, watched Charlie Chaplin films and built their own boards with skates on them; teenagers who learned to box, drove Model T Fords and danced the Lindy hop were soon to be viewed as the enemy. What happened between the time they were born of Issei, first-generation, parents and the bombing of Pearl harbor?

How to start the process of writing a historical novel? Along with collecting vignettes from the real Frankie, I asked him a million questions over lunch, every Tuesday. I started soaking up movies from the 1920’s-40’s, both American and Japanese. (Hulu has a large selection of old Japanese movies, however, quite a few, annoyingly, stopped about three-quarters of the way through. Slow internet?) I learned that, next to Hollywood, Japan had one of the most prolific film industries in the early 1900’s. Sadly, many classic moving pictures were lost during the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Frankie told me that in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Japan the silent movies always had benshi. The narrator stood on stage next to the film voicing man and lady’s roles as well as adding explanations. Sometimes they threw in jokes or improvised new dialogue. They were as famous as the actors and rode up and down the west coast in limousines. Japan continued making silent movies even after talkies come out, because their patrons so enjoyed the narrators. Producer Akira Kurosawa’s brother was a famous benshi. Keeping the art form alive, a lady narrator named Midori Sawato performs today as a benshi.

Part I, to be continued . . .


Flowers Full of Prayers


Flowers are full of prayers in the month of August. On a half-mile walk in an area overgrown with pink silk floss blossoms, wild phlox and butterfly plant, I spied thirty-three mantises praying for prey today. Brown like a twig or green like a leaf, Stagmomantis californica waits upside down, underneath or smack in the center of the flower. At the moment, butterflies frequent the yellow blossoms in this area the most, so that’s where the majority of mantises lurk. I’ve seen them eating fritillaries, bees, skippers and, yes, their own mates. No one seems to be able to explain that seemingly deviant behavior of species survival.

A photographer friend of mine used to find these camouflaged little creatures everywhere and post them to Flickr. There had to be hundreds even thousands of them out there but I never saw any. I had mantis envy. I was determined to learn how to see them.

I figured it was like finding mushrooms. In Iowa, where I was raised, folks enjoy picking and eating wild morels. (You best know exactly what you’re looking for because there are deadly poisonous mushrooms.) The light brown, spongelike fungus blends well with the leaves and earth. Whenever I went mushroom hunting with my parents they’d have bags full while I’d come up empty handed.

In art classes you’re taught to look at the positive and negative space. It’s kind of like that with hunting mantises. Hmm — I wonder if that technique will work for mushrooms?

~Sherry Novak, author of the soon to be released novel The Chick Sexer.




Chasing Butterflies by Sherry Novak

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Saguaro National Park campgrounds were empty when we arrived on a steamy August evening. Apparently everyone else knows to avoid summer in Arizona. My friend and I figure it’d be wise to get the tent up before dark; we don’t camp often and it’s borrowed gear. But, first, we have to take pictures of the covey of quail bobbing around the bushes and the lizards skittering with their tails up like scorpions. The fiery sun dips down silhouetting giant cacti against a shamelessly pink sky. A couple cowpokes on horseback would complete the wild west picture. Two motorhomes lumber into camp, air conditioners humming. Night falls fast.

Heat lightning and the low rumble of distant thunder add more sultry to the air. Only a sprinkle is forecast. Coyotes howl from a faraway canyon. We lay out our cots and sleeping bags, unzip all the “windows.” There isn’t a breath of breeze. I rustle out my small flashlight for a trip to the bathroom. I make my tent-mate escort me. Not two feet from the flap door something scuttles under my light — a tarantula! First I want to scream, pack up and look for a motel, on second thought we get out our cameras and take pictures. In the bathroom, thank goodness not an outhouse, I find a big, fat frog and a couple praying mantises.

Back at our nylon abode my roomie crashes out immediately. I wonder how I let myself get talked into this. What’s an insomniac to do in a dark tent? It feels so vulnerable having only a thin piece of cloth between you and the wilderness. Throughout the night the wide circle of howling coyotes grow closer and closer. Have any campers been eaten lately? Bugs chirp, twigs crackle, night birds call. At one point I hear something sniffing next to the tent. The lightning stops, the sky clears and I can see the Big Dipper through the net window. Stars blaze deep and infinite.

The next morning we decide to go peruse the welcome center and come back later to break down our tent. There’s the spectacular panoramic window view I remember. A lady ranger asks what we like to photograph as we have our big cameras hanging around our necks. Birds, bugs, butterflies, most anything we say.

“Have you seen the sulphur butterflies?” she asks. “They’re right down this path in the sugar bush.”

A desert turtle is sunning himself on the sidewalk, so lazy he doesn’t bother to move. Twenty paces and down a few stairs we enter butterfly paradise. Cream-colored sugar bush flowers and blooming cacti are aflutter. Besides sulphurs, we count at least ten varieties. We photograph for hours and decide to stay over night. Happy campers, we come back again the next day to chase butterflies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMEuedrVb6E

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Dragonfly Summer

Exclamation damsel, hyacinth glider, fiery-eyed dancer, each name a picture and a poem. Summer heat calls dragonflies and damselflies to life. Nymphs leave their water world to a reed or leaf. Exuvia left behind, newly emerged dragonflies transform into winged sky hunters.

Vermilion saddlebags, roseate skimmer, amethyst dancer, Odonata, “the toothed ones,” are brilliantly painted. Birds, butterflies, dragonflies, endless is Mother Nature’s imagination. Wings transparent or dabbed with brilliant splashes, delicate-looking, yet strong and flexible. All four work independently allowing for forward, backward, up or down flight.

Stygian shadowdragon, lyre-tipped spreadwing, ebony boghaunter, their names evoke mythical images of dragons and damsels, magic and the underworld. Dragonflies ancestors are far older. Fossils, with wingspans of up to 25 inches, are thought to date to around 300 million year ago.

Aurora damsel, filigree skimmer, sparkling jewelwing. I’m as fascinated with the names as the creatures themselves. As a photographer I appreciate the poetic touch in the title, showing the scientist’s admiration of nature’s artistry.

I say hummingbirds, tiny jewel-toned wonders, deserve their own haiku. Anna’s hummingbird might be renamed roseate-helmeted swordplayer and Allen’s changed to fiery-gorgeted nectarseeker.

Are Hummingbirds Attracted to Red?

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Orange aloe, lavender Mexican sage, bird of paradise, golden currant and red bottlebrush, hummers are drawn to any nectar sweet flower into which their little beaks fit. A birder friend of mine who leads nature walks says, “They’re not here for our entertainment.” I don’t know — watching the small packages of energy wage war, sit on their nest or blush orange or ruby, can keep me fascinated for hours.

Gorget. It derived from Old French meaning “armor that protects the throat.” “Gorgeous” is from the same root. The male Anna’s wears a whole red-violet helmet. Why are some birds so outrageously beautiful? ‘To attract a mate’ is the normal answer. Then why can sparrows and wrens find find love when they’re plain old brown?

Having a 300mm telephoto lens on a fast (10 fps) Sony Alpha 65 camera has made spying on the tiny creatures more interesting. I observe them catching gnats in the mid-air, snitching spider webs to build their nests and sticking out their tongues to lap up nectar. Before I thought they used their beak like a straw! Nature’s feast, a hummer at a flower. The bird is fed, the bloom is pollinated as evolution intended. I can’t help but think sucking artificial sugar water out of a red plastic container just isn’t right.