The Big Idea: Alma Katsu
Do we learn from the past? And how does the past inform today, and the art that is created in it? These are questions Alma Katsu is confronting in this Big Idea for The Fervor, and is inviting you to confront them as well.
The Fervor is a novel about the Japanese internment. It’s about the lives of four characters during the waning days of WWII: Meiko, the Japanese wife of a U.S. fighter pilot, sent to one of the Japanese internment camps; Archie Mitchell, whose wife is killed at the opening of the book when a fu-go, or fire balloon, explodes near Bly, Oregon; Fran Gurstwold, a reporter intent on writing up the dangerous and mysterious fire balloon incidents; and Aiko, Meiko’s daughter, who escapes from camp and makes a dangerous solo journey back to Seattle when she’s told her mother has died. It’s all tied together by a forgotten episode in Meiko’s past: a trip taken with her researcher father to a remote island reportedly linked to the Japanese underworld.
On another level, though, it’s an exploration of racism in America.
I write historical novels with a horror twist. The question I’m invariably asked is why now? Why should we care about the Donner Party (The Hunger) or the Titanic (The Deep) or the Japanese internment (The Fervor)? Don’t we have enough to worry about today without dredging up the troubles of the past?
What I’ve learned is that the troubles of the past are still with us because we failed to learn our lesson the first time.
Nowhere is this more true than with The Fervor. While the novel centers on the internment, that event couldn’t have happened if prejudice against Chinese and Japanese on the West Coast hadn’t been allowed to ferment in the open for decades. And now here we are 80 years later, and violent attacks on Asians in America have jumped over 300 percent, directly attributable to politization of the origins of COVID. The attacks by these American nativists are disproportionately against elderly Asian women.
I know a fair amount about civil unrest. It was part of my beat as an analyst at CIA and NSA. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Sierra Leon—name a civil war in the 1990s, I was part of the team analyzing it. A campaign of demonization of “the other” is an important part of the game plan.
As aware as I was, I was shocked to learn during my research for The Fervor just how widespread white nativist groups were in the American Midwest and West in the decades leading up to WWII. Their hatred of Asians was sickeningly open. Except for the white hoods of the KKK, they didn’t bother to hide it. The white nationalist group I created for The Fervor is based on one of the most virulent of the time—and one that exists to this day. (I don’t know if they ever apologized for their antagonistic behavior toward Asians.)
I realize this post is a bit of a downer. I hope you’ll give The Fervor a chance, as it was written to entertain and I think it does, but it’s also meant to impart a lesson, one that is (depressingly) still relevant today.