The Caprices by Sabina Murray + Author Interview [in AsianWeek]
When Sabina Murray heard she had won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for her short story collection The Caprices, she was so surprised that she hardly believed it. Not until the house began to rapidly fill with flowers and e-mails arrived from around the world did she realize that “this was a big deal,” she laughs.
Born in Lancaster, Penn., to a white father and Filipina mother, and raised in Australia and the Philippines, Murray returned to the United States to do her undergrad at Mt. Holyoke and get a master’s at the University of Texas at Austin. When her school days were over, Murray “tried a lot of crazy things,” she says. She sold clothes, shoes, and greeting cards. She was a booking agent for a modeling agency, then tried cocktail waitressing which proved to be “disastrous,” she confesses.
All along, Murray, 34, knew she wanted to be a writer. “Writing is just a part of my personality,” she says. Even as she was selling balloons at the Old Port Festival in Portland, she was gracing the pages of Vanity Fair for writing her first novel, Slow Burn, about the decadent youth of 1980s Manila, all before she turned 21.
Six years later, she began what would become The Caprices, which captures the brutal effects of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. In this case, the rest is literally literary history.
How did The Caprices come about?
It was a long process. I wrote the first story, “Intramuros,” in 1996 and then “Walkabout” a year-and-a-half later. The third story came a year after that, followed by a fourth. I sold the book with those four stories, with the Pacific Campaign as the unifying concept. I wrote the last five after the book sold. It came out in January 2002 and until then, I felt like I was working on it all the time, even though I was doing other things.
Tell us about the title.
The artist Goya has a series of etchings that depict the Spanish Civil War called The Caprices. They capture the brutality of war. I found it interesting that Goya was trying to recreate the experience of war in an art form. So that was the challenge I set for myself.
During the writing of this book, you had two children. How did motherhood affect the book?
My focus changed. Instead of creating individuals to send off to war, after I became pregnant with our older son, I began imagining my characters as someone’s son rather than some guy I knew. The picture was horrible before, but when I began thinking of the characters in terms of my own child, the picture became so much worse. In some weird way, that helped me. I found an authenticity of voice from a general emotional impulse because I was not physically there to witness the horrors of war myself.
Did your view of war change while writing this book?
I’ve always been very anti-war. It’s hard to come out of my background without being that way. I have close family members whom I have never met because of war. Knowing that makes it harder to write about war. My grandfather and uncle went off to camps in the Philippines and were never seen again. My mother has horrible stories about the kids who went missing and those that died.
When people write memoirs they have a sense of conquering their fears through their writing. But in writing Caprices, I had no sense of cathartic release. Instead, I felt like I unleashed demons. World War II was a horrible time – all war is horrible – but that horror is something everyone needs to be aware of. I tried to bring an emotional authenticity to a part of history that is not explored enough. And fiction can be very effective in capturing history.
The Japanese do not come off well in your book – their history during this time period is especially brutal.
I think it’s impossible to write about the Pacific Campaign without pointing out that the aggressor was the Japanese war machine. At the same time, we need to be sensitive about certain realities. People say ‘Oh, you wrote about the Pacific Campaign, then you must have written about U.S. concentration camps.’ But those were Americans with Japanese ancestors – which means we were turning against our own. So I make my three leaps: ‘You’re one of those people who thinks the United States is only a white country.’
What I’m writing about is a history of brutal occupation of numerous Asian countries, and the atrocities committed there by the Japanese. To overlook the fact the aggressors were Japanese and spin that into some sort of Asian brotherhood would be pandering to the idea that the Asian face is seen as docile in the West. I’m writing situation by situation, about specific people who fill these roles. I’m not writing about the Japanese civilian. There’s a story in the book about two Japanese soldiers who try desperately to build a life in the Philippines after the war. I also end the whole book looking at the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that was intentional. War is a tide: It goes one way and then the other. It must stop somehow. People accept war as force of nature, but it’s not.
What’s next for you?
I have a new book out on submission right now: A Carnivore’s Inquiry is a novel that looks at cannibalism, art, literature and exploration. I’m also finishing up at Andover [the prep school where Murray has been writer-in-residence] and will start teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Andover this fall.
Tidbit: The inventive Sabina Murray, together with the wonderful Jessica Hagedorn and Helen Zia, was a guest for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s “Contemporary Asian American Writers” public program on September 29, 2004.