INTERVIEW: Margaret Dilloway

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

For all the tumult and angst between mothers and daughters, it’s a wonder they survive each other at all, much less, come to know each other. Or so it seems, until one is reminded of the inextricable tendrils that weave mothers and daughters into inseparable tales. San Diego-based author Margaret Dilloway provides such a reminder in How to Be an American Housewife, first published in hardcover in 2010 and released this month in paperback.

Dilloway will be discussing and signing the novel at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Tuesday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m.

Dilloway’s book crafts a lovely, yearning story of a Japanese mother, Shoko, and her very American daughter, Sue. The story examines the universal yet somehow always unique mother-daughter relationship in the context of war and its lingering effects, prejudice in all its insidiousness, and redemption, found in unexpected and subtle ways.

In a recent interview, Dilloway said of mothers and daughters, “I’ve heard from a lot of readers, they never thought about ‘who’ their mothers were before they were mothers. And there’s so much angst attached to mother-daughter relations. I was reading a book by a linguist about the competition between them, the meta-messages. The mother says something innocuous, but the daughter hears something else. It’s a very challenging relationship. That’s why I think it’s important to read books that help make sense of it.”

And make sense, she does — a necessary task of both author and daughter, for Dilloway readily admits her relationship with her mother was not ideal, and it remained unresolved when her mother died. “I don’t know if I would have written the same book if she’d been alive. … My mother and I never really got along. She died when I was 20, so we never got to the stage that we got to be friends.”

Nonetheless, Dilloway has found some peace in the writing, which for her “was cathartic,” and in the process she deals with the damage wrought by prejudice and the quest for redemption that seem to perpetually challenge humankind.

“In Hawaii, where we lived for a couple years, there’s a lot of different cultures all mixed up together, and for the most part everyone gets along together. … In California, there are a lot of Mexican immigrants, but people try to keep them separate, and I wonder if they’ll ever blend. I wonder if people are afraid of losing their own heritage. … My mother did say one reason she wanted to settle in San Diego was because she thought there was more of a mixture here than in other cities, where she felt stared at.”

Interestingly, Dilloway’s book is a bit of a target for prejudice. “I got a note from a Morman — there’s a Morman in the book — and it said I was totally wrong about Mormans, and a Morman person would never marry a Japanese. Well, my father would find that interesting, because my father is a Morman and he married a Japanese woman.”

As for redemption, Dilloway generously grants it to her characters in various forms.

“It was a novel of redemption on several different levels,” she explained. “A lot of things in the book deal with Japanese-U.S. relations. In some ways it was dealing with the ghosts of World War II and prejudice. … Then there’s the prejudice [Shoko] experiences when she comes to the U.S. It’s redeeming in how these things are resolved. And then the mother-daughter relationship, the mother and daughter in the book didn’t have a good relationship when the daughter was growing up. It’s a book of redemption also for their relationship.”

A successful book might be considered a form of redemption for an author, who toils at the expense of family and friends. If so, Dilloway has found hers in How to Be an American Housewife, and she has just finished her second novel. “It’s called Queen of Show,” she said, “and it’s about an amateur rose breeder, very close to perfecting a new line of roses, when her wayward niece comes to live with her and throws her life in a tizzy.” Wayward nieces and aunts sound as though they’d be right up Dilloway’s alley.

Learn more about How to Be an American Housewife and Margaret Dilloway.

Crossposted at the North County Times.