How to bring your mother back to life


Writing about the dead is a difficult task. Whenever I write about my mother, I spend a lot of time reminding myself: How did she take her coffee? What music made her dance? When she laughed, did she throw her head back, like me? My ability to answer these questions – to try to create an honest portrait of her on the page – is limited by the five and a half years we spent together before her death. To fill in the gaps, I interviewed my family and friends, I even put together an archive of documents and photos. Every bit of new information—her US naturalization certificate, her honeymoon photos—is a gift, but it’s also a reminder of how much I’ll never know about her.

Given how intense and moving memory work can be, I was amazed to learn the story behind a book called Mariquita: A Guam Tragedy. First published 40 years ago by journalist Chris Perez Howard, it is considered the most widely read contemporary text from the oft-overlooked US territory of Guam, where my family is from. Part novel and part biography, Mariquita follows the author’s native Chamorro mother, who was killed as a small boy during the Japanese occupation of Guam in World War II. She died just three days before the arrival of American troops; His body was never found.

In some ways, Mariquita is the story of all the Pacific Islanders whose lives have been shattered by the wars of empire, the surviving generations left to make sense of the ruins. Although my own mother was born in Okinawa, as a young girl she moved to Guam. There she met my father Chamorro, whose parents had lived through the war. I first heard about the occupation during the years I lived on the island as a child, but learned just as quickly as most manåmko’, or the elders, didn’t like to talk about that time. Better to leave old wounds alone. It was the silence – the pain – that Perez Howard had to face to write Mariquita. As an adult with a limited connection to his homeland and few memories of his mother, he set out to learn more about her. It was by collecting the details of her short life that he brought her back to life.

Perez Howard grew up knowing only the basic facts of his early years, though that was enough to justify his use of the word. the tragedy in the subtitle of the book. He was born in Guam in 1940 to Maria “Mariquita” Aguon Perez and Edward Neal Howard, an American sailor who was stationed in Guam aboard the USS Penguin when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded in December 1941. elder Howard was captured as a POW and sent to Japan; Back in Guam, his wife, young son and daughter, and thousands of Chamorros endured 31 months of what historian Robert F. Rogers called “a vigil of brave despair”. During the summer of 1944, when it became clear that the cause of Japan was doomed, violence against the local population escalated: labor camps, rapes, death marches, massacres. Mariquita, who had been forced to work as a personal servant to a Japanese officer, was last seen severely beaten and then taken into the jungle. After Japan’s defeat, Howard tried but could not locate his wife’s body; he moved to the United States with his two children, who were now motherless.

Edward, Chris and Helen at Naval Hospital Aiea Heights in Hawaii in October 1945, shortly after their reunion. (Courtesy of Chris Perez Howard)

Although this extraordinary summary reflects the main arc of the book, it does not capture what I find most moving. Mariquita. No, for me the deepest meaning comes from Perez Howard’s return to Guam in 1979. In the prologue to a revised edition of the novel in 2019, Perez Howard writes that he was disturbed by the way his family and his friends welcomed him to the island by sharing their memories of his mother, who had been pretty, small, lively and beloved. “Everyone seemed to know something about her except me, her son,” he wrote – a relatable sentiment for anyone who lost a parent at a young age. His mother’s death haunted him, but also the mystery of his life. Who has been Mariquita? Like any good journalist, he decided to report it. He pored over university and library records, conducted oral interviews with other war survivors, and pressed relatives for every detail: the kind of dresses his mother wore, where she and her girlfriends loved spending the weekend.

Consequently, even if Mariquita is often described as a novel, it is more accurately a work of fictionalized, but highly researched, biography. It is also an enlightening, moving and sometimes disorienting read. The genre and tone are constantly changing. Mariquita jumps between romance (retracing the courtship of Edward and Mariquita), textbook (as it explains Guam’s colonial past), soap opera (during the sometimes maudlin made-up dialogue), and action thriller (providing a narrative of the fall of Guam). “Beyond the reef were several ghost-like ships and flares lit up the sky,” Perez Howard writes of his family’s experience during the Japanese invasion. “As they stood there, transfixed by the incredible sight, the menacing sound of gunfire came from afar.” The narrator’s voice also changes, never quite settling on one perspective. Sometimes the speaker seems pragmatic and detached; at other times the reader enters the mind of Mariquita and the minds of other characters. Of the taicho, or Japanese officer, for whom Mariquita worked: “He wanted Mariquita to voluntarily submit to his superiority, and sex would be the ultimate proof of that submission. From Mariquita: “She had thought about running away, but surely she would have been killed when she was caught.”

Where some readers might see a frustrating lack of cohesion, I see genuine fragmentation and disorder. At 113 pages, the book is too thin to be everything its author wanted it to be: family saga, war novel, love letter, historical text, anti-imperial heartfelt cry. But Perez Howard’s attempt to capture all of these moods and viewpoints only adds to the untold complexity of those wartime years for Chamorros.

The somewhat underdeveloped quality of the original novel was partly due to the lack of literary resources on the island at the time of publication. In the 1980s, Guam had no infrastructure to produce books. Determined to publish it locally, Perez Howard enlisted a local printer and typist; as a result, the first print run of 100 copies had widespread typos and poor binding. Eventually, the story found an audience; it was published in Japan and then by the University of the South Pacific in 1986, making it “one of the first contemporary Chamorro literary texts to circulate beyond the Marianas Archipelago”, according to the Chamorro scholar and poet Craig Santos Perez. “Much of the Chamorro literature… is unpublished, archived and out of print; or, if published, it has not circulated widely,” notes Santos Perez. Therefore, Mariquita is a significant entry into the context of both Pacific literature and, given Guam’s status as a modern American colony, American literature.

Today, after centuries of rule and suppression by the Spaniards, Japanese and Americans, the Chamorro language has less than 50,000 native speakers. My grandfather Antonio used to teach chamorro to school children, although I never learned it myself. Yet oral tradition remains a central element of culture. The stories my grandparents told me as a child—of the mermaid Sirena, the sibling gods of creation Puntan and Fu’una, the taotaomona spirits—are my legacy. But growing up, I didn’t know there were books by Chamorro writers, and I certainly had never heard of Mariquita. Reading it as an adult – especially if it was interested in issues of grief, memory and legacy – felt like stumbling upon a secret. Yet these types of stories should not be secrets or mere footnotes in literary history. It is possible for dispossessed people to participate in their own history, to make art that captures their singular experiences and to resurrect their loved ones.

Mariquita and Chris
Mariquita and Chris (Courtesy of Chris Perez Howard)

In his heart, Mariquita is a tombstone made of ink on paper, built by a son for his mother. Some of the most heartbreaking passages are those in which Perez Howard describes his youth in the third person. “Months passed and it was almost Chris’ first birthday,” he wrote of himself. “He was a good child, who rarely fidgeted, and the contentment in his dark eyes reflected all the love given to him. The happiness he gave Mariquita was such that she rarely felt it. It’s that tough business of writing about the dead; emotions arise out of nowhere, leaving you reeling for days.

Perez Howard got it. In the afterword to the updated edition of the book, he describes how the process of researching and writing the book changed him. “At first it was easy to write about her because I was writing about someone I didn’t know,” recalls Perez Howard. But over the course of working on the book, he grew to like it – a realization that caused him to crumble at one point as he neared the end of his manuscript. “I may not have remembered her in the ordinary sense, but I had a deep-rooted memory of her and remembered that day how much I loved her and missed her,” wrote -he.

When I read these lines, I cried. I knew what he meant. One writes to make sense and to remember – and at some point the ground tilts, the page vanishes, the text becomes flesh, and it’s there again, as if it had never left. Alive and yours.

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