Mid-December 1941 was probably not the best time for a Nisei (U.S.-born child of Japanese immigrants) author to try to sell a book with a Japanese hero. Takumi Sato’s book proposal about a Nisei college professor trying to solve his wife’s murder had been accepted by Metropolitan Modern Mysteries, but after Pearl Harbor, “its publication is now impossible,” associate editor Maxine Wakefield wrote in a letter to Sato. “While this is doubtless disappointing, I feel you cannot be much surprised. The world has changed.”
However, Wakefield had an idea: revise the book, “which would include cutting and replacing not only your Japanese hero Sumida but also the Caucasian villain… Perhaps you could still employ an Oriental as your protagonist, a Korean or a Chinese.” And, of course, “current events dictate that your new Korean or Chinese hero be far more American/Apple pie than your discarded character.”
Sato accepted the editor’s proposition, perhaps because he didn’t want to give up the $350 advance. And so Jimmy Park, Korean-American PI, was born. But the “discarded” Sumida didn’t go away so easily; he continued his quest outside the pages of Sato’s new book, The Orchid and the Secret Agent.
Each chapter in Gordon McAlpine’s ingeniously structured novel is divided into three segments. First, there’s an excerpt from The Orchid and the Secret Agent; then there’s a chapter from The Revised, the unpublishable manuscript about Sumida. Following that is a letter from Maxine Wakefield, the “woman” of the title, commenting on Sato’s work in progress, which he’s sending her one chapter at a time. Of course, Wakefield only sees the chapters about the heroic Jimmy Park. In The Revised, Sumida traverses L.A. as a man faced with the realization that not only his wife is gone: his house is now inhabited by somebody else; his friends don’t recognize him; the back issue of the newspaper which once carried a story about his wife’s murder now has different stories on that page. And post-Pearl Harbor, everyone treats him like a pariah.
The most intriguing thing about Woman with a Blue Pencil is how we only come to know Sato, the author, through his novels and what we can glean about him from Wakefield’s letters. We learn that he and his family are sent to the internment camp at Manzanar, for instance. And that he felt conflicted about his new book, which seems logical to us, but perhaps not to Maxine Wakefield. “I understand that for you this project may hold complexities that most authors do not have to face. But I recommend courage!… While I do not for a moment believe you harbor Japanese Imperialist sympathies, I wonder if your hesitation to use Jimmy Park as your hero does not represent the very prejudice that you so eloquently derided in your most recent letter to me?”
In the end, I was never completely sure why Sato continued to write about a one-dimensional, “Jap”-fightin’ PI. Was it simply for the money? Was he trying to prove a point about his “patriotism” by creating the Jimmy Park character? Did he think his connection with Wakefield would ensure that he would be able to write material closer to his heart once the war was over? In the end, Sato remains just out of reach, a heartbreaking figure caught up in terrible circumstances.