TTBF Q&A 2019: Author Misa Sugiura

Misa Sugiura interview graphic

A #TTBF Q&A with Author Misa Sugiura

Which character from which book is or was your biggest literary crush?

In my elementary school years, my biggest literary crush was Laurie from Little Women. In college, I was a little bit in love with Prince Myshkin from The Idiot. I know it sounds a little weird. But he was a beautiful, pure, tortured soul…how could anyone resist him?

We love the flower shop in this novel. There are so many different types of businesses, why did you choose to set it there?

I chose to have a flower shop for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that Japanese Americans in the South Bay (where the book is set) were heavily involved in agriculture during the early 20th century. Many of them were sharecroppers and truck (vegetable) farmers, but there were several Japanese-owned flower farms, nurseries, and florists as well. Originally, I had a lot more of the plot centered around CJ’s search for her father—her roots, so to speak—and I liked the metaphor of the flower shop being full of beautiful flowers that had been cut off from their roots, like CJ. Even without that particular plotline, though, CJ does have an ambivalent relationship with her roots, and she also grows and blooms—like a flower—as the plot progresses. Finally, I’ve always loved the way Japanese (and Western) folk traditions ascribe certain powers and sentiments to elements of the natural world, and the family’s connection to the flower shop allowed me to weave some of that magic into the story.

The shop has an interesting history, too, that goes back to WWII and the internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States. Why did you want to tie it to this part of American history?

I wanted to write a novel about our links to the past, and about seeking justice and finding forgiveness. As I began drafting this novel, I kept seeing news stories that seemed to show that we haven’t healed from the injustices of the past—that we are, in fact, still repeating many of them: people were debating whether to take down Civil War monuments to Confederate soldiers, there was talk of registering Muslims in America, and the White House had issued a broad immigration ban. My parents are immigrants who would have been banned a hundred years ago, and even though my family wasn’t here during the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, I feel a strong connection to it as an American-born Japanese who is still regarded by some people as a foreigner. The incarceration felt like a natural hook on which I could hang the rest of my story.

This book addresses a lot of important issues, including the myth of the model minority. What do you hope readers will take away from reading?

I believe (and love) that readers take away whatever they’re “ready” to take from any book, but if I had to articulate my own North Stars for This Time Will Be Different, I think there would be two. The first is that things are rarely as simple and straightforward as they seem, whether they be people, or historical events, or the model minority myth. It’s always worth it to dig a little deeper, or open our hearts and minds to a different perspective. The second thing is related. I want people to think deeply about the way we consider past injustices—to ourselves, to others, whether we are victims or perpetrators. I hope we will grapple with how to move everyone forward, whether it be educating others, or making amends or reparations, or simply apologizing to and forgiving each other. It’s never easy, but I hope we keep trying.

On your website, you list that your ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway. How does your family history inspire your creative work?

The poet is my great-uncle, Hiroo Sakata. He was well-known in Japan for his poems about children and childhood (one of them became a song that everyone learns in kindergarten), and he also published several picture books, so I read quite a lot of his work when I was a kid. Quite possibly I inherited that literary gene—but mostly, I think that his very existence made me want to love reading and writing, and made me feel like I could be good at it. The stories of my great-grandfather who hid himself on a ship bound for Canada, or the legend of my great-great-grandmother who served at a shrine on the coast and gave her baby boy away to be adopted—they fed my soul as a kid growing up as an outsider in white suburban America. They made me proud of my roots and my family, and during a time when I often felt less-than, they helped me to feel special. I haven’t written about them yet, but hopefully one day I will!

If you could choose three books to include on our official “Read Everything” book list for 2019, what would they be? What flowers would you pair each of those books with?

Ooh! I always have about seven favs, but here are three:

1) Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl is about a Chinese American teen living in a closed-up and forgotten cellar in Atlanta during the Reconstruction. Jo is wise, witty, and determined to make her opinions heard—while keeping her identity secret. I would pair this delightful novel with a branch of plum blossoms, which symbolizes confidence in the face of difficulty or danger, and with bamboo, which symbolizes youth, flexibility, and endurance.

2) I’m a big fan of Ariel (A.E.) Kaplan, and her latest book, We Are The Perfect Girl, is a smart, hilarious, touching modern retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Plain Aphra Brown’s beautiful best friend Bethany is in love with Greg D’Agostino—the guy who Aphra has had a secret crush on for years. Bethany gets so nervous around Greg, she can barely speak, so Aphra squashes her feelings for Greg (who’s gaga over Bethany’s beauty) and chats with him online—as Bethany. I would pair this book with an arrangement of gardenias for secret love, pink camellias for longing, and alstroemeria for friendship.

3) Kelly Loy Gilbert’s prose is #goals, and her layered, nuanced characters and stories are, too. PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT is about a Chinese American boy who’s in love with his best (guy) friend, and still reeling from a tragedy that rocked his friend group. He discovers a shocking, life-altering secret that his parents have been keeping from him his whole life. My heart sings and aches when I read it. I would pair this book with aloe for grief and healing, holly for hope, and honeysuckle for the bonds of (familial) love.