JAMES JONES literary society
Student Continues Writing Long After Last Lesson Handed Out
Note: Jon Shirota also is a board member of The James Jones Literary Society.
By Ray Elliott
President, James Jones Literary Society
Nearly 40 years after he last heard her say a word about his writing, southern California novelist and playwright Jon Shirota still feels the effects of Lowney Handy's watchful eye and sharp tongue on what he writes.
Placed just to the right of his writing desk and up on the wall in his Hacienda Heights home is a large, framed photograph of Handy and her most famous protégé, World War II novelist James Jones. The photo is signed, "For Jon, Love, Lowney."
"I look up at her every day, " he says and laughs quietly as he points to her likeness on the wall, "and I think, 'You better get to writing or Lowney'll scold you."
She probably wouldn't scold him much now, given the body of work Shirota has put together since landing at The Handy Colony in Marshall, Illinois, for a few months in the early sixties. He was the last of nearly 100 young aspiring writers who passed through the writing colony founded by Lowney, her husband Harry and Jones after the publication of From Here to Eternity in 1951 until she died in 1964.
Shirota wrote to her for four years before Lowney felt he had made enough progress that she might help him. Early on, she told him to throw away his past writing. He could only set the work aside and no longer mention it.
Some time later, she wrote that if he didn't throw the stuff away he would never become a writer. Shirota said he then took everything to the garbage and immediately felt better.
Lowney believed that the writer was better off throwing everything away and starting fresh with all the past experience and insights intact in the mind but not on paper where no amount of time spent rewriting would likely help much.
That's what finally worked for Shirota.
Had it not been for the war, realizing his writing goals might have been easier. He never graduated from high school with his class in 1946 and spent the war years on Maui, Hawaii, as a somewhat troubled teenager. At 18, he joined the U.S. Army and served a three-year hitch, partly in occupied Japan.
After his discharge, Shirota was graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in accounting. But he wanted to write and didn't take a job right away. He traveled around the United States, experiencing life and working at whatever he could find here and there before finally going to work for the treasury department in Los Angeles.
When Lowney telegraphed him to come to Marshall in 1963, Shirota immediately quit his job of six and a half years and drove more than half way across the country. He was in his mid-thirties, unmarried and thought he was willing to do whatever it took for him to be a writer. Meeting Lowney almost changed his mind.
"She cussed you out, cut you down and made you feel pretty low," Shirota says. "She was tough, a tough broad I guess you could call her, but she gave you what you needed."
While he was at the colony, he finished his first novel, Lucky Come Hawaii. The story opens on Dec. 7, 1941, just before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Set in Maui, where Shirota was born and raised, the novel looks at those early days of World War II through the eyes of the Okinawan immigrants in Hawaii. Shirota would often stick manuscript pages under Lowney's door; she'd make comments on them and stick them under his door awhile later.
After leaving the colony, he wrote a second novel, Pineapple White, before turning to playwriting. Since then, Shirota has written six full-length plays that have been produced, three that haven't been produced and a number of one-act plays. He has received many grants and awards, including the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center Award for the adaptation of Lucky Come Hawaii that was produced at the Pan Asian Theater in New York.
One play Shirota is particularly proud of is Honor, Duty, Country, about Hiroshi Hersey Miyamura, the only living Asian-American Medal of Honor recipient. The play, for which Shirota received a grant from the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, drew huge crowds at the Japanese-American Theater.
His new play, Leilani's Hibiscus, recently opened at the Union Center for the Arts in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. Shirota says the play is "a Polynesian love story that can take place only in romantic Hawaii. It involves a couple whose cross cultures leads to pain, frustration and hope."
At 71, Shirota still has much hope. His desire to write hasn't lessened, nor has Lowney Handy's influence and teachings.
"Lowney changed my life," Shirota says simply. "People need to know about her. I know I'd never have done anything without her."
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