Dream of the Water Children – a memoir of half worlds and unpleasant history

Fredrick Kakinami Cloyd is Black-Japanese, but actually he is Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and European from his mother’s side and black and Cherokee on his dad’s. He is Amerasian, a term Pearl Buck coined as she advocated for the many abandoned or orphaned mixed-race children born of US military servicemen and the women in Asian countries they occupied. Fredrick’s US serviceman father was eventually able to marry Fredrick’s mother, so Fredrick is technically a “military brat,” but he transcends that label in big ways. He wrote Dream of the Water Children:  Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific for his mother, who bravely did not let her “half” baby become one of the  “water children.”

Dream coverIt took thirty years for Fredrick to write Dream of the Water Children, which he calls an “anti-memoir.” The book is memoir, family stories, and personal reflection encased by wars and global and cultural histories – a huge undertaking resulting in what I found to be a gripping, highly thought-provoking, often horrific but also poetic read. As an “anonymous figure,” Fredrick decided his pain, that of his mother’s, his father’s, and so many more was “beyond personal.” There were stories that needed to be told, things for us all to think about.

Fredrick answers a few questions about Dream of the Water Children:

Fredrick, it took thirty years to put your book together. Did you know from the start it would be this encompassing? This complex?

No. But I didn’t think of things in that way either. It was not even anything like “I want to write a book”—so much as saying that I needed my family story put out into the world somehow, so I’ll start writing things down for a while. For a minute, it might have been a documentary film of some kind, but I didn’t have the resources (in the 1970s) or the know-how. Even as I started formulating it into a book, as I saw it, I knew that there was something missing—mainly my very mainstream way of thinking. But I didn’t know until later, from 1995 to 2008, that I needed more language, consciousness, and social justice shifts in my own mind to write the way I wound up writing “Dream ….”

You have quite a varied background, including studying Buddhism and cultural anthropology. Your writing shows a surprisingly objective awareness of your own self and your parents, and even global histories. You rein in your emotions and let readers decide how to feel—often deeply!—on our own. As a scholar who is obviously quite introspective, was that a natural way of writing your own stories, which were often sad and even traumatic, or did you have to work hard at that?

I think it was a combination of both work and “natural,” or more exactly: instinctual. The complexity of how the book turned out would not have been possible before 1993 or so, when I began my studies at Antioch University Seattle and then in California, in the anthropology department, which is no longer that same department at all today as it was when I attended the California Institute of Integral Studies. Complexity by itself was not enough. There were also the decisions of what to write about. The stories in the book, and the trajectories I write about, are one-millionth of the things that happened to me and my family. But through studies and shifts in my thinking, and my experiences in spiritual and academic work, as well as in competitive volleyball playing and coaching, I was able to write a mind-map of sorts, to determine what and how I would write.

Before any thought of my book, I was interested in poetry of all kinds, but have to credit my big “turn,” in what inspired me in writing, to reading James Baldwin and Gloria Anzaldua, combined with Trinh Minh-Ha and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. The overall trajectory of “why” I would write certain things, in certain ways, was through my readings of post-structural writers who were immersed in activist work—such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, as well as many South Asian, Latin American, and Asian writers who were writing against the grain. I knew that I didn’t want to write another so-called “memoir” in the traditional sense.

The difficulty was in determining what would *make sense* to the reader. There were hundreds of rewrites and the playing of words to bring certain moods out, certain feelings, certain attempts to not say too much, and also—I wanted to resist the typical ways a reader may take information in or interpret, as well as keeping in mind the most likely assumptions held by mainstream readers and presenting events, circumstances, and interpretations that would not be so “normal” in how culturally and politically one might act. I tried to pull from memory those moments. These were all difficult and took much studying of what words to use. The poeticism was intentional, in order to bring together haiku forms, James Baldwin prose writing, avante-garde, and styles of Hak Kyung Cha and others, and to then turn these into my own personal forms, experimenting throughout. It was intense and pleasurable.

You had difficulties getting stories from your mother. She suffered tragedies and trauma, carried ghosts, told different versions of stories. The stories in your book jump back and forth in time and place, although I found the book an easy and engrossing read. How did you decide order? I was impressed by how you handled the different story versions your mother told, giving each of them (and her) respect.

Yes. The main thing for me was in the Japanese tradition (and Zen Buddhism), I wanted silence to work for me in the text. In text, silence may be expressed in omission, but also silence can just be replacing an assumed train of memory or event with something other. This could be dangerous and seem flaky. But I played with how to do this by thinking of the traditional Japanese forms of expression involving spiraling in and out. This involved me writing down certain events and thoughts, and then pulling out certain emotional themes and then questions arising. Then I rearranged them to fit another set of spiraling stories and tried to parallel them. I did two or three at a time, so it wasn’t as horrible as this sounds (heh heh). It was quite an experiment.

I also knew that in the end, it wouldn’t quite matter if it was jarring and seemingly incomplete because what I wanted were continual juxtapositions and going back and forth in order to present how memory lives in the present. Memory is not linear, and often not appearing when and where we would want, and the emotions, also, are sometimes unexpected. So I decided that these were valuable in telling these collective memories together. I did not want to give off an err of knowing everything and remembering everything. This was vital. So the juxtapositions also worked to present a *memory of memory* and not a memoir. So this was an experiment that, I hoped, would work for readers when reading my book.

Due to his military service, your father was mostly absent as you grew up. You wrote that you reconnected with him and see him occasionally. Is that when you learned most of his stories? Was he as forthcoming with his stories, or answers to your questions, as your mother generally was—when she was ready to remember?

In most cases, yes. Most of the stories were actually my mother’s version of his childhood, which my father did not talk about too much. So Mama filled in these parts, and hopefully people would understand them as her versions, or at least my own versions.

The stories of his time in Korea and Vietnam were added, as you say, in conversations just before the book was published. My publisher and I did much editing of this book including adding in things I wanted, such as more of my father’s story, as well as what the publisher would ask for in “filling up” parts that felt needed filling. It was exhausting and fruitful.

I tell memoir writers to write keeping in mind what their memoir will offer to readers—why are they writing, what do they want readers to learn. This helps keep focus and can be used in marketing. I learned so much from your book, but in your words, what was your reason for writing Dream of the Water Children?

To leave something for the archives—of the people of the Black Pacific—most often ignored and silenced and forgotten. The Black Pacific includes local Asia-Pacific women and their contact with so-called “Western” colonial and imperial programs and the intimacies involved (cultural, personal, military, institutional, etc.) in relation to hierarchies. It includes indigenous peoples and their contact and/or assimilation with traditional and modern forms of nation-state peoples, and the overall big picture:  the creation of our modern world through military-formed ways of thinking and creating, which involves all forms of domination and submission.

I would want them to see themselves in these stories when reflecting upon them. And then to see differences—asking themselves how social change and social justice requires questions that are not revealed when focused solely on a person’s singular perspective.

I want people to understand how history lives in us and through us, and that each of us is accountable to how life is in the world. It is hopeful (since we make it).

* * * * *

After researching for my mother’s Cherry Blossoms in Twilight memoir of WWII civilian survival in Japan and being a part of an international group of half-Japanese on Facebook, I thought I knew way more than the average American (or most anyone these days) about life in Japan around WWII and the Occupation. Dream of the Water Children put that idea to rest. I knew nothing. Fredrick repeats this phrase in his book: “You know nothing.” A line from the movie Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Because I wasn’t there, didn’t live through it, only read and heard some stories, read the cold-natured histories of what others wanted to say, the rest hidden away.  This is what memoir is for. Read many for the different perspectives. Find truths from those who actually lived the history on the ground, in the trenches.

I highly recommend Dream of the Water Children for people who want to expand their world and ponder. But have a tissue nearby.

Dream of the Water Children website

Memoir Tips from Fredrick Cloyd via Clairitage Press Blog, Karen Dustman, April 12, 2019


Jizo is the bodhisattva protecting travellers, but also is the guardian of children who have died (hence the bibs). “Water children” is a Japanese post-WWII euphemism for miscarried or aborted fetuses and dead children. Children fathered by foreign military men and born to Asian women they abandoned (in Japan, Vietnam, Korea) were at risk of becoming water children, or destined to live difficult lives.


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
This entry was posted in book reviews, book talk, heritage, history, memoir writing, memories, multicultural, war stories, WWII and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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