Family past sparks shining stories

Debut author draws on Japanese history for 'dazzling' new collection

Her recent book, 'The Laws of Evening,' shows every sign of being a smash hit. Nan Graham, editor in chief of Scribner, called the first-time author 'dazzlingly talented.'

And on this particular day, Mary Yukari Waters is headed to a book signing in a small college town. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, fingering the ends of her freshly bobbed hair, she could pass for one of the college students who will attend the reading.

Waters has won both praise and awards, including the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award. Still, she's not above the author tour that includes Corvallis.

'I like to interact on a grass-roots level,' says Waters, 37.

The talent of the Japanese-American writer, who was an accountant before turning to fiction, shines from each of the book's pages.

Set in Japan before, during and after World War II, the short stories chronicle characters whose lives have been inalterably changed. Waters never addresses the war directly, revealing instead how the event shaped the survivors' existence. In most cases, they've lost both loved ones and a way of life.

In 'Aftermath,' a young widow struggles with the cultural conflicts that surface in raising her 7-year-old son during the American occupation. His growth is fostered by the peanut butter he's fed at subsidized school lunch, and he prefers dodge ball to saying his prayers at the family altar.

She also recognizes how much a refugee existence has changed her. As she eats roasted corn at an annual village festival, the sight of the now-tattered tents collides with memories that the simple treat evokes: 'And when she finally takes her first bite, she is amazed to find that it tastes exactly as it did during her childhood É the surprise and relief of it brings tears to her eyes, and she chews vigorously to hide the sudden twisting of her features.'

Waters says memory is a common theme throughout 'The Laws of Evening.'

'I wanted to preserve what I've learned from my Japanese mother and grandmother, who both lived through World War II,' Waters says. 'And I also wanted to remind myself of the special aspects of my being.'

Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father, Waters moved with her family to a small town in Northern California when she was 9.

'I look very Caucasian, so fitting in wasn't an issue,' says Waters, who became a corporate tax accountant after college.

Her father's death seven years ago prompted what she calls a 'mid-youth crisis.'

'I went to sign up for an art class, but the supplies were really expensive,' she says. 'So I took a fiction writing class instead, and loved it.'

A subsequent class on memoir writing planted the seeds for her book.

'I'm not like my Japanese cousins, who never talk about the past,' Waters says. 'There's still a terrible shame associated with the war.'

Not surprisingly, the acclaimed author has no desire to tally numbers again.

'I could never go back to being a CPA,' Waters says. 'Writing made me realize that I had much more to offer.'

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