Matthew Turner is the author of Sweden, published by The Mantle in 2018.
How did a fifty-something New Zealander with no creative writing experience come to write a novel about U.S. military deserters in Japan during the Vietnam War? And how did that novel come to be titled Sweden? To answer these questions, I need to take you back some 25 years, to when the seed for the novel was planted.
In the early 1990s I was living in Mishima, Japan, working as a freelance translator after completing a year of post-graduate study at Nagoya University. I either heard or read (I cannot remember clearly) that in the late 1960s there existed a clandestine group of Japanese anti-war activists that sheltered American deserters and helped them escape to Sweden. Their story intrigued me, but with the internet still in its infancy, my efforts to learn more about the group were in vain. Still, an idea had been planted in my mind, where it remained dormant for close to 20 years.
By 2010 I had settled back in Christchurch, New Zealand and was again working as a translator. But it had long been a dream of mine to pursue some kind of creative endeavor, and having failed early on as a musician and been unsuccessful in living up to my early promise as a visual artist, I thought I would try my hand at creative writing. Specifically, I wanted to write a novel.
With this in mind, in late 2010, I enrolled in a Community Education course at the University of Canterbury called Starting to Write. I enjoyed the weekly classes and was emboldened by the positive feedback from my teacher and fellow students to further pursue the idea of writing a novel. After completing this course, I enrolled in another, more advanced course at the same university called Writing Your First Novel. This program, comprising eight weekly classes, was due to run from February to April 2011. I remember feeling excited and invigorated after the first class on February 21, and I could hardly wait until the next class the following Monday.
At 12:51 pm the following day, February 22, disaster struck. Literally. Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. One hundred and eighty five people lost their lives, and countless buildings across the city were either destroyed or badly damaged. The university remained closed for more than a fortnight. It partially reopened on March 14, though many lectures had to be held in tents or under marquees due to the lack of available lecture rooms. All Term One Community Education courses were canceled.
Though the cancellation of the writing course was a huge disappointment, I remained enthusiastic about pursuing my dream of writing a novel. In fact, even before that first Community Education course in late 2010, I knew that I wanted to base my novel on the exploits of the above-mentioned group of Japanese peaceniks.
As I went about my research, it soon became clear that in the two decades since I first heard about the group—called the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War U.S. Deserters, or JATEC—a considerable amount of material on their exploits had become available, both online and in print. This abundance of information was due largely, I believe, to the fact that JATEC's parent organization, the Japanese anti-Vietnam War group Beheiren, was founded and led by writers and intellectuals, including the novelist Makoto Oda and the philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi. Among the younger JATEC operatives, too, were some with a writerly bent. Fumihiko Anai, who in the summer of 1968 was tasked with chaperoning three deserters to a hippie commune on the island of Suwanosejima while plans were made for their escape from Japan, wrote at least two books detailing his experiences as a member of JATEC.
While most of the primary sources I relied on in researching Sweden were written in Japanese by those involved in JATEC, I did come across one account written by a former deserter. This was Terry Whitmore's 1971 memoir (as told to Richard Weber) Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter. I drew heavily on this book and used Whitmore as the model for one of the main characters in my novel.
My research also took me to various places around Japan. During a business trip in October 2011 I scouted out some of the locations mentioned in the material I had been reading. These included Shimizudani Park in Tokyo, the starting point for many of Beheiren's anti-Vietnam War marches in the late 1960s. The first draft of Sweden included a scene set on one of these marches, though it was one of the many scenes that were removed as I continued to fine tune the novel. I also visited the Suidobashi campus of Nihon University, scene of a high-profile campus occupation in 1968 and the setting of several chapters in Sweden. In nearby Yokohama I visited Chinatown and walked the route from Isezakicho to the Iseyama Kotai Jingu shrine that one of the protagonists follows with his soon-to-be girlfriend. I also visited the Yokohama Tram Museum for a close-up view of some of the streetcars that plied Yokohama's streets until the early 1970s.
In April 2012 I traveled to the northernmost of Japan's main islands, Hokkaido. Retracing the route taken by several deserters who were smuggled out of Japan on fishing boats from a port on the eastern tip of the island, I first flew from Haneda Airport to Sapporo and then took a train from Sapporo to Nemuro. I drew heavily on this trip for the descriptions of the train journey and of Nemuro in the novel. Later that month I visited Daitokuji temple in Kyoto, where the American poet Gary Snyder once lived. In the novel, the temple is the setting for a meeting between Snyder, Shunsuke Tsurumi, one of the founders of the hippie commune on Suwanosejima where three deserters holed up in the summer of 1968, and a young Beheiren operative who is one of the novel's protagonists. Though the meeting is fictional, in real life Snyder played a pivotal role linking Beheiren, which was co-founded by his friend Tsurumi, and the hippie commune, which Snyder helped set up.
Given that several chapters of the novel are set there, I also considered visiting Suwanosejima, one of the Tokara Islands that stretch between Kyushu and Okinawa, where the hippie commune was located. But as was the case in 1968 when the bulk of the novel is set, getting to Suwanosejima today requires a long journey by ferry from Kagoshima. In the end, convinced that I could depict the island adequately based on the detailed descriptions of it in Anai's books as well in material written by Snyder and commune member Kaiya Yamada, I gave up the idea.
I began writing Sweden (originally titled Ask Not What You Can Do For Your Country) in early September 2010. By May 2012 I had something I felt was good enough to show to close friends and family. This first version of the novel was around 150,000 words long. Like the final version published in 2018, it comprised three loosely connected narratives told through the eyes of three protagonists. Unlike the final version, however, two of the narratives (Harper's and Flynn's) unfolded sequentially, with the third bridging the two. Divided into two parts, this version of the novel more closely resembled the chronology of the actual events on which it was based, which spanned roughly a full year.
In May 2013 I showed a slightly shorter (128,000 words) version of the novel to two writing "professionals," one a publisher and the other an academic specializing in Japanese literature. Both liked the novel but saw problems with its structure. Their main concern, which was echoed by a professional assessor who looked at the novel later the same year, was that reading the two parts was like reading two separate novels. As a result of this feedback, I set about restructuring the novel so that all three narratives unfold simultaneously. I also altered Harper's and Flynn's narratives by beginning with them in Japan and describing their experiences prior to arriving in the country via flashback.
In late 2013, I began submitting this version of the novel, which came in at around 100,000 words, to agents and publishers. Disheartened by the less than enthusiastic response, in 2014 I began work on my second novel. Then, in mid 2015, a friend introduced me to the publisher at The Mantle. In October 2015 I sent him a synopsis and the first three chapters. Time passed. After enquiring with the publisher in July 2016 about progress with my submission, I was asked to submit the entire novel. Eventually, in December 2016, the publisher told me that he was interested in publishing my novel, but that I would first have to make several major changes, including adding a new chapter to the end of the novel, writing a historical note, and completely rewriting one chapter. I did this and resubmitted the manuscript in March 2017. Six months later I was offered a publishing contract.
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Writers Notes, Japan, Peace, War, Vietnam, History