Gayle K. Sato
Born in Wailuku, Maui, and raised in Kailua, Oahu, Sylvia Watanabe is a third-generation Japanese American. She majored in art history at the University of Hawaii (B.A. 1980), earned an M.A. in English and creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton in 1985, and spent the next ten years on the road with husband William Osborn in search of tenured positions. They now commute between Michigan, where Osborn teaches, and Ohio, where Watanabe has taught in the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College since 1995. Hawaii, however, remains the primary setting and inspiration for Watanabe's work, including her major achievement in the short story genre, Talking to the Dead.
Watanabe's reflections on her journey from Maui to the Midwest can be found in “Knowing Your Place, ” an award-winning essay first published in Michigan Quarterly Review. Focusing on a particularly difficult uprooting from Hayward, California, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the summer of 1988, Watanabe interprets relocation through two conflicting histories of ancestral home-seeking and home-founding, represented by John Coggeshall, a distant ancestor on Osborn's side of the family, and Yakichi Watanabe, the author's paternal grandfather. Whereas Coggeshall, as Watanabe observes, became “the first governor of Rhode Island after testifying in the trial of Anne Hutchinson” (321), her grandfather, a missionary-educated Presbyterian minister from Japan, was interned at a military prison in New Mexico during World War II after thirty-five years of Christian service to his Maui community (317, 322). Watanabe herself, in the eyes of many, would appear to have traveled vast distances from her grandfather, but she wraps up her reflections on relocation by noting that if white neighbors—however earnest and well-