Alisa Holm’s interest in language, art and literature led her to an unexpected destination during her junior year at UVM—the Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa.
Americans remember Okinawa as the site of the savage 82-day battle in 1945 where Allied forces suffered over 14,000 casualties. For Okinawans, the battle was an almost unspeakable catastrophe—nearly half of the native population of 300,000 people were killed or wounded in the fighting and the survivors and their progeny have struggled to emerge from the shadow of the conflict.
Novelist Shun Medoruma gives a voice for Okinawans coming to terms with the multi-generational trauma of the Asia-Pacific war, and his book In the Woods of Memory was part of UVM professor Kyle Ikeda’s reading list when Holm enrolled in his “War Memory & Trauma in Japanese Literature” course. The class read a draft version of the English translation written by Ikeda’s friend and colleague Takuma Sminkey, professor of British and American language and culture at Okinawa International University.
“When I read the book, I was captivated by Medoruma’s vivid writing style," Holm recalls. “It reminded me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a novel I was fascinated with when I encountered it in a high school English class."
In Faulkner’s novel, most of what the reader learns about the central character Caddy is told from the point of view of other characters. Likewise, the narrative of Medoruma’s main character Sayoko, an Okinawan girl raped by four U.S. Marines, emerges through the memories of ten different characters including Seiji, an Okinawan boy who is incensed by Sayoko’s rape and vows vengeance against the assailants. Later in life, Sayoko finds art as a therapy for coping with her trauma, which Holm used as the central theme of her honor’s thesis.
“As an artist and a woman, I felt a connection to Sayoko,” Holm said. “I focused on Sayoko’s use of creative expression as an attempt to mediate and communicate her traumatic memory of wartime sexual violence.”
A native of Amherst, Mass., Holm graduated from UVM in 2015 with dual degrees in studio art and Japanese. She took four semesters of Japanese language instruction at UVM and then spent two semesters at Toyo University in Tokyo—by the time she returned to UVM, she had a firm handle on the language.
“I felt confident enough in my language skills to continue my studies at a higher level, to read short stories and watch movies, or make presentations and have conversations in Japanese,” she said.
Getting to the Source
The more Holm thought about her thesis research, the more she realized visiting Okinawa would be essential to gain a true first-hand experience of Okinawan culture and war memories.
Ikeda, who is an expert in Okinawan literature and the imaginative fiction of Medoruma, helped Holm get an APLE award, a College of Arts and Science program that provides $500 in travel money for students involved in undergraduate research.
Using her language skills and Ikeda’s wealth of connections, Holm learned about the long-term effects of the war. It wasn’t hard to unearth physical or psychic scars; one of the people she met, Mr. Matsunaga, worked as a volunteer to exhume human remains on the island. Holm joined him for a day working in a cave where many civilians perished during the battle.
“While we dug in the dirt in search of bones, he told me the history of the cave. Japanese schoolgirls hid there, along with over 1,000 sick and wounded soldiers. The girls held candles to light the cave during operations, taking care of soldiers.”
According to Matsunaga’s account, the soldiers were ordered to take potassium cyanide to take their own lives—the students who remained had nowhere to go. They eventually left the cave amidst a downpour of shells. Out of the 46 students, 22 lost their lives.
“Being in the dark space of the cave, feeling the souls of those who lost their lives unnecessarily, and seeing the bones still buried in the earth truly made the reality of the war past come alive for me,” remembers Holm.
Holm retuned to UVM with drawings, photographs and compelling first-hand perspectives from Okinawan war survivors and family members. Ikeda invited her to sit in on another section of his class, which was also attended by Sminkey, the In the Woods of Memory translator. While she worked on her thesis, she took advantage of the opportunity to work with two Medoruma experts.
“Alisa’s research began to focus on the use of artistic expression as a therapeutic method for multiple generations of Okinawans,” said Ikeda. “Using the themes of the novel, she explored how children of survivors understand and process the war. No one had written about the novel this way.”
Holm came to see Sayoko, the central character, as representative of the power that creative expression has for relieving mental suffering for survivors of traumatic experiences. To gain a deeper understanding of the real-life application of art-making as a tool for the treatment and diagnosis of trauma she did extensive research on treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the scholarly research conducted by working specialists in art therapy.
Meanwhile, Sminkey shared his perspectives with Holm on the novel, and actually invited her to review parts of his English translation. She offered several changes to the text.
“Sometimes there were areas that didn’t seem to be clearly communicated in the translation, so we’d discuss them at professor Ikeda’s office hours,” Holm said. “I suggested some alternate translations. There are expressions in Japanese that can't be directly translated into English, so things always need to be rewritten to feel natural for English speakers. The tricky part is doing so without losing the essential meaning.”
Holm is now attending graduate school at the Tokyo University of the Arts to pursue an MFA degree, and her academic journey continues to lead her back to Okinawa.
“For my second-year project I’ve been interviewing people in Okinawa and using their responses to create my artwork. I am so grateful for all the dedicated support I received from my professors while at UVM, especially my thesis advisor, professor Ikeda. What I learned as an undergraduate student has continually supported my studies here, and will always be the foundation for my growth as an artist and individual.”