This interview was excerpted from Words and Pictures: Interviews with Memoirists and Creative Nonfiction Writers.
Words & Pictures offers a glimpse into the lives of authors of memoir, oral history, and biography. I use creative interview formats to help writers uniquely and reflectively discuss their lives and projects. You’ll also find articles on the writing process, self-publishing, as well as indie book reviews. Contact me if you’d like to submit a book for review or to discuss an idea for a guest article.
While browsing wattpad, I was fortunate to discover Alexia Montibon-Larsson’s book Forged In Fire: Stories of Wartime Japan. It is an elegant and lovingly rendered memoir / oral history. Montibon-Larsson skillfully captures her mother’s childhood experiences in occupied Japan following world war II . She reconstructs her mother’s memories in a historically accurate timeline. Montibon-Larsson’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy creates a dramatic tension throughout the story. We know the implications of escaping the desperate conditions in the city to go live with relatives an hour away from Hiroshima. Through her mother’s words,Montibon-Larsson presents a culturally authentic account of family life in occupied Japan. The prose is so lovely and well crafted, but it was also the intimacy between Montibon-Larsson and her mother (Rita Tomoko Montibon) that captivated me. Admittedly, at the end of the book I wanted more. It wasn’t that the story was incomplete, it was just so beautiful and welcoming I wanted to experience it a little longer.
My interviews with Alexia Montibon-Larsson are presented in three parts (1) written responses to questions about her book and her writing process. (2) a commentary about several photographs of people or objects that have personal meaning and inspire her writing (3) an audio excerpt of her book Forged in Fire: Stories of Wartime Japan.
Because Alexia’s book is about family, memories, and wartime losses I wanted to use an interview strategy that would allow us into her world as a writer and as a daughter. I asked Alexia to select pictures or take photographs of family artifacts and share a little bit about them. She selected several meaningful items and told me why they were important to her.
Rashomon book and kokeshi dolls
This English edition of Rashomon was a gift from my Mom to my Dad and was later given to me by Mom after Dad had passed away. The painted, wooden kokeshi dolls featured with the book’s cover, belonged to Mom. Kokeshi are wooden dolls with moveable heads. Mom owned several pairs ofkokeshi which were divided amongst my siblings and myself after she passed away. I included an image of the inside of the book along with a kokeshi-styled pencil topper that Mom gave to me when I was a kid. I wanted to share these images because Rashomon is a Japanese classic as are kokeshi,which are mentioned in Forged in Fire.
These two dolls are part of a small collection of Japanese dolls that Mom gave to me while she was still alive. I grew up with these dolls as her collection was displayed throughout various rooms in our family home. Although I have no idea how old these two are, my guess is that they were made in the 1940s, possibly pre-World War II. Although half of the dolls in her collection are Japanese in style, I chose to share these two which display a Western-styled influence that was prevalent in Japan at the time. They look like characters out of the 1939 film, “Gone With The Wind.”
The lower half of their bodies are cone-shaped, cardboard bases covered in cotton fabric. Their heads, upper bodies and bendable arms are made of wire armatures covered in stuffed silk. Both have dresses made from chiffon with lace and ribbon trim. The larger doll which is less than 10″ tall, has fabric flowers strapped to one wrist; the smaller doll is approximately 8 1/4″ in height and carries a basket made from pipe cleaners that display a tiny bunch of fabric flowers. Both have hand-painted features and soft, yarn-like hair. The taller doll has a bright-red, felt hat pinned to her head; the smaller one wears a flower-print head scarf. Both dolls are bit stained and moth-eaten but generally in great shape considering their age and how far they have travelled.
These represent a fraction of the many postcards I have collected while traveling in Japan. Most of the ones featured were purchased as souvenirs which exception of one that was a free advertisement picked up at a cafe. What I love about them is how they reflect both the ancient and modern aspects of Japanese culture. In Japan, there is a deep love of tradition as well as an enthusiasm for technology. This sampling of postcards shows Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto; Mount Fuji; cherry blossoms; ukiyo-e print images; the interior of a kabuki theater; a kabuki actor; night views of Tokyo; and Osamu Tezuka’s iconic, post-WWII manga character, Astro Boy.
This picture of Mom as a young woman in Toyko is featured inForged in Fire: Stories of wartime Japan. I chose this image because it’s one of my favorites of her and I love the fact that there are cherry blossoms in the background. The hand-painted frame belonged to her and I’ve photographed the back of the frame as well because I find it interesting. The frame has a solid wood back board held in place with nail-secured latches. Its corners are reinforced with metal details and it sports a mysterious, butterfly-shaped object made of metal with two holes in it. Wire can be strung through the holes for hanging. The picture and frame were acquired after she had passed away.
This is a picture of the rough draft that was used for editing Forged in Fire. At the time, I didn’t have a name for Mom’s story so I referred to it the “Mom Project.” There are hand-written notes scrawled in the margins where I had taken down additional information that came up during our phone calls.
Mom’s brother, Sadakazu, would send each of us a holiday card every year. This photo displays a sampling of the various cards and letters I had received from him. The cards always had beautiful images and were sometimes made from textured paper. The letter shown is one that he had written to me after Dad had passed away.
More about Alexia Montibon-Larsson
You can read Forged In Fire: Stories of Wartime Japan free on Wattpad