Love and War in a British Indian Army WWII Memoir

Uma Eachempati ’s childhood memories of life in South India sound delightful, except this was during WWII and her father, who was a doctor and a major in the British Indian Army, was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese in the Changi Prison, a POW camp in Singapore. At a local writer’s guild online meeting, I “met” Uma and now I want to read her family memoir, Whispers of the Heart.

Uma had the letters back and forth between her father and mother during the war. Her mother, who had been a child bride and had two little girls to care for during wartime, was happy to share her memories of this difficult time in her life. How did Uma and her mother write this book? Uma shares her story with us.

Whispers of the Heart, by Uma Eachempati

In the early nineties, my sister opened a trunk in the storage room full of luggage which were collected over the years. She found a large envelope alongside a khaki-colored blanket, a “dixie” cooking pot, and a water holder—military items. She took out the envelope filled with letters to my mother from my father at the warfront, and all the letters my mother had written which my father brought back with him safely when he returned home. Since these were written decades ago during World War II, we sisters thought they were of historical importance and decided to read them to figure out how best to present them for posterity.

It took over a year to type the letters, then to store them on a floppy disc and later onto a CD. Should we publish them in toto? We also found a couple of ledgers documenting the patients treated daily. Do they belong to the war museum in London? Or do we publish them independently? Over the years it trickled down to writing about the times and including the letters. Maybe all of them, or some, or only excerpts placing them in context. Mother was excited about the prospect of writing about the worst time of her life. She wrote notes on her thoughts as she relived her trials.

With these documents in hand, I talked about them with writers of military books—novels and memoirs—to decide which would be the best for me. Whose point of view, which tense, how much detail? In 2014 I plunged into it and wrote a draft for the “100-Day Book Program” at The Write Practice. Now I had a piece of clay in my hands that I had to mold. I had decided to write in third person as that way I could write my mother’s feelings apart from what was in her letters. Being in British India, my parents wrote to each other in English which made it easy for me. I put the manuscript through two critique groups and a cousin who knew the family background to give helpful advice. Then it was all set with chapters in chronological order.

I then sent the manuscript to a developmental editor, who wanted me to change everything from the title to the structure of chapters. Who is your audience? As to be expected when someone demolishes your house, it took me a while to pick myself up and understand what was wanted of me to make a better presentation of my heart to the world. I reduced the quotes from letters to make it relevant and concise, reduced the number of chapters and made them longer, looked through music albums and poems to get a title, and started to thank my editor for channeling my efforts.

My editor, Catherine Rankovic, wanted more local news from the time. I had written about the war in Europe and the milieu of the household BUT what was happening in town? How would I know? I was only five then. After enquiries to the University of Chicago, the local Washington University, and the archives of The Hindu, the local newspaper at the time in Madras, India, I finally succeeded in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, which had the newspapers from the years 1941 to 1945 in their archives. I reserved a date and went to the LOC for a week, read the headlines of the papers of the four years, took down notes, and made photocopies on my iPhone so that I could get an authentic feel of the times.

The manuscript must have gone through twenty versions to say the least, revising each time I looked at it. I wondered who in their right mind would want to write a book! By 2017 it had evolved into its current shape, and over another two years it got edited and tightened up. I finally decided to send it away, warts and all.

I wrote to Kristina Blank Makansi, of Blank Slate Communications, at the time in St Louis, which had helped me self-publish my earlier book, a translation of my mother’s novel, Power of Love. Seven months later, after Kristina’s editing and formatting and cover design and all the other necessities of publishing, Whispers of the Heart was born on February 29, 2020.

It takes a village to write a book. I cannot count the number of people who helped me along the way, including FedEx for the spiral binding when I thought it was done, not knowing that I would go back another four times. The encouragement and helpful critique by family and friends is gratefully acknowledged. I have a picture of Mount Everest in my room to inspire me to aim high and to keep going. I feel that I have reached the top in paying tribute to my parents for their strength and the values they taught me and the power of unconditional love.

What I want my readers to know is the toll a war inflicts on those at the war front and on the home front. The heartache and fear, the suspense and terror of an uncertain future. The photograph on the first page of my mother and her two girls is special in that it had stayed in the POW concentration camp on their bulletin board boosting the morale of the starving and tortured prisoners, giving them hope of going home someday and to a happier future.

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Uma Eachempati is a retired physician with a certificate in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Whispers of the Heart is not just about war time, but also life after the war when her father returns and how the family adjusts again to “normal.” See Uma’s website for more information about her books which she has written with her mother, Kamaraju Susila.

Posted in book talk, capturing memories, heritage, history, letters, lifewriting, multicultural, overcoming, publishing, war stories, WWII | 2 Comments

Writing the Stories: 2020 History Marching On

What a week, what a year! We are so divided yet it is heartening to see so many people coming together – despite the summer-waning pandemic. Yesterday I joined my first march ever. Not congratulating myself since it conveniently went along close to my house and I could only join a little while. I get heat exhaustion too easily, which also prevented me from voting last week as my new voting place (thanks to too few volunteers) required me to stand in line in the hot sun. I sat in the car and watched the line not move for a while, then just drove home disappointed. But what an experience this march was!

Since I live in a small suburb where residents are generally well off and mostly white, I thought the march, organized by the very few black teachers at our schools, would not have many people. I was wrong! Thousands filled the road, mostly white families with kids of all ages, plus groups of teens, and even plenty of older folks. I think they came from nearby suburbs, too. Others lined the roadsides with signs and some offered water. Most people wore masks on this hot day, including me, and I was able to social distance by walking on the outer edge of the crowd. At various crowd sections, someone or two would start a chant or a call and response. “Say his name!” “George Floyd!” “What’s her name?” “Breonna Taylor!” The experience of people of all ages and genders, black and white, joining together to march for change was so powerful and heart-warming that tears came to my eyes, even as I write about it.

Some people think the marches are ridiculous and aggravating, and some seem to think all protestors are destructive. This marching started off later and was way bigger than police had expected and informed businesses about. One business was subjected to someone calling in and screaming obscenities on and on, angered by the marching and that they were unable to get to their pickup order. The workers had not been able to reach the person to give a later time and were left in tears by the abuse.

No matter what your views and experiences are, this is history and you are a witness. Between COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and whatever else controversial goes on this crazy year, think about writing. If you have stories of your own experiences, those are important to capture for history, to help others understand, and for your curious future family generations at least. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write a poem. Powerful writing comes from fear, pain, and frustration. Maybe you just have thoughts about things as an observer sitting back and watching the unfolding—write an essay. Have your opinions changed any along the way? Mine have.

Be safe out there, and think of how you can make a difference, large or small, for the better of all.

Posted in capturing memories, history, lifewriting, overcoming, storytelling | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Raised in Ruins: a memoir of adventures growing up in wild Alaska

Raised in RuinsTara Neilson lives off the scenic Inner Passage of Southeast Alaska, but nowhere where you’d be able to find her—she’s off grid. Frighteningly off grid, to me, but she was raised out there along with her sister and three brothers. Her father, a brooding Vietnam veteran, mostly had jobs across the dangerous waters and skiffed back to his family on weekends. Tara’s mother is obviously an incredible woman to have spent so much time “alone” with five kids running wild with a lot of bears and wolves. The introduction to Raised in Ruins, her memoir, already had me in its grip. Then off I went, from one adventure to another.

Although Tara loved to read and write, kept journals, and grew up to write columns for Alaskan media and various magazines, she didn’t think her life was all that interesting to others—it was “normal.” To her. Maybe kind of normal for other Alaskan inhabitants. But then she started her blog, Alaska For Real, and got a lot of interest. An author friend encouraged her to write her memoir, got his editor interested, and then his publisher got interested, and suddenly Tara had a book to start writing. My mother thought her life was normal, too—for someone growing up in Japan during WWII. Sometimes it takes outsiders to help you learn how interesting your life has been. It’s all a matter of perspective.

I love reading about different cultures as well as lived history. Tara grew up alongside a burned-out salmon cannery with a history she wondered about. Who once lived there, what were their lives like? Ghosts of the past. Culture does not just mean life in another country. It can mean life in a part of your own country, in a city or a town or in a house amid cornfields, in the mountains or beachside. And everyone lives during a time that will become history.

I asked Tara a few questions:

Tara, how did you learn to write so beautifully? Your stories require a lot of telling, but the writing is smooth with action sentences, you know how to describe a scene without overdoing the adjectives, you use plenty of realistic dialogue. Did you read books on writing or take classes?

Thanks, Linda, that made my day! I always knew I wanted to be a writer and so did my family. My grandfather was a published author and in my teens he gave me all of his back issues of Writer’s Digest and bought me various writing books. I wore them out! I really think, though, that the best way to learn to write is to read a wide variety of books: good, bad, and classic. Bad books are great for showing you your faults because it’s always so much easier to see someone else’s mistakes. I could then go back and look at whatever I was writing (I was always writing something) and see if I had bad habits that needed to be broken. Adjectives and adverbs were a battle from day one. They’re the empty calories, junk food of writing so they’re very hard to give up once you get a taste for them. As for dialogue, my journal pages were often nothing but conversations I overheard. I loved writing dialogue and my quirky family provided me with lots of material.

I love all your “shimmering images,” the title of Lisa Dale Norton’s book on writing memoir, that you could describe so clearly a scene frozen in time and how you felt at that moment—very sensitive and thoughtful. Did you write like that in your journals or just remember while writing your memoir?

I love the way you write questions. I want to read that book, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I wrote “sensory snapshots” in my journals, capturing all the senses in a moment in my life. Sometimes it was all the senses involved in something as common as hauling firewood, or walking on the beach. I had pages of the “snapshots” that were super helpful in writing the memoir. But I also found that as I re-wrote a scene the memory would come back stronger. I wound up re-writing most scenes five or more times because deeper sensory details would well up the more I remained on a single scene. It was like time traveling with the mind.

Tell us about the process of putting together your memoir. Easy, hard, outline, start-to-finish or just writing and figuring out the puzzle later?

A fairly in-depth outline was a required part of the proposal that I submitted to my publisher, West Margin Press. The outline itself was easy to do, though, and I wrote it in a day off the top of my head. As I wrote the book, though, I discovered that I had waaay too much material. I had to cut out a ton of adventures–it was remarkable to me how much we’d done and experienced in such a short amount of time. I didn’t want the book to just be a series of adventures, though, I wanted to capture the feelings and thoughts I had, and what impact music and movies had on us even as isolated as we were. I had to shift things around a bit in the outline and only touch on some subjects. Perhaps there will be a follow up book, there’s certainly plenty of material for it.

As for whether writing it was easy or hard, it was excruciating. I find writing about myself extremely boring and it takes a lot of effort to get myself in the frame of mind that will let me do it. At one point I was promising myself that if I just wrote 500 words a day it was okay. And even that was hard. Thankfully my publisher gave me over a year to write it, which was a life saver.

I’m curious – your sister, Megan, is an artist living in Florida. She left for city life in the warm sun. Do you all love visiting her in winter, or maybe city life is overwhelming after so much solitude? Maybe she likes escaping to the wilderness?

Our entire family visited her for her wedding, but I’m not sure any of us has ever been back. It was an interesting experience and I think we all enjoyed it, and I keep promising to visit her again. But it’s not really my cup of tea. The amount of people is fascinating to me, I feel like I’m visiting a strange planet. (Megan told me she always feels that way, too, when she goes back home after spending a few weeks in the summer with us.) I like that part of it. But city life is way too structured and regulated for me to ever feel at home in it. Megan loves to visit the wilderness and owns her own island near here which she hopes to build on this summer, but she can’t handle cold weather so we won’t see her in the winter any time soon!

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Tara Neilson is a writer who can make you feel the wildness of a storm or see the sunlight glinting through a dark forest. The poetry of her words adds further magic to these amazing stories of survival in the wilds. I learned so many interesting things about life—and death—in Alaska. Most of us in the Lower 48 have no clue. Read Raised in Ruins and enjoy the adventures—from the safety and comfort of your recliner.

Read more about Tara Neilson’s life on her blog, Alaska for Real, and find her on Twitter (when she can get a signal for internet) at @neilson_tara.


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