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Wesley Leon Aroozoo On Documenting Loss

In 2017, filmmaker Wesley Leon Aroozoo published his first book under Math Paper Press titled I Want To Go Home. This full-length documentary novel details his meeting with Onagawa resident Yasuo Takamatsu, whose wife was swept away by the tsunami in 2011.

After the disaster, it was said that more than two thousand people were listed as missing. Such is the tale of Mr. Takamatsu who spent his time looking for the body of his beloved wife.

We caught up with Wesley Aroozoo to find out what about Mr. Takamatsu's loss resonated with him, and the idea of love in films and books.

How did I Want To Go Home come about?
It started in 2013 when I read an online article about Mr. Takamatsu’s loss, which I very affected by. Around the same time, I also created an article on Facebook, which was stuck on my mind for a few days. For some reason, I just wanted to meet or at least communicate with Mr. Takamatsu. I looked at the source of the article and tried to find the journalist from Japan. Getting her e-mail took about two weeks. Eventually, I managed to get in contact with Mr. Takamatsu — but he didn’t understand English and neither did I understand Japanese.

During this period of time, I needed to find someone who could speak Japanese and was willing to help out. I had one or two Japanese friends but they couldn’t really speak the language well. It wasn’t until a friend from university recommended Miki Hawkinson, who ended up taking the role of a translator during my trip as well as the book that you’re reading now.

I started wanting to find out more about Mr. Takamatsu’s story. We corresponded via e-mail for over a year (with Miki translating in between). Since Mr. Takamatsu wasn’t the most IT savvy, it typically about two weeks to get a response from him.

Miki Hawkinson was introduced as the Japanese translator in the novel. How was her role in the entire process of writing and filming I Want To Go Home pivotal apart from breaking the language barrier?
She was very pivotal in terms of the logistical aspect of the journey as well. She was there to help us navigate where we were going, getting tickets, what to eat at the restaurant and things like that. Without her, John and I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy such a smooth process.

You mentioned that you didn’t want Mr. Takamatsu’s story to be an article that came and went, in other words, forgotten after a period of time. Apart from that, what moved you to travel to Japan to document his story?
I wasn’t satisfied with just talking to him. Prior to travelling to Japan, I already knew I wanted to write a book. It was decided that a documentary would be in place.

In hindsight, do you think the film documentary enhances the novel?
I think people should read the book first as it is more in depth. Readers of the book will find it interesting to finally see Mr. Takamatsu in person albeit on a screen.

You spoke about ghostly experiences in the novel — that whole chapter was titled Afterlife. I suppose that has to do with helping the reader come to terms with the theme of death (both in literal and metaphorical terms) in the novel?
I think I’m lucky not to have faced any loss of close ones thus far. It’s something that’s on my mind only because I’m not sure how I’d react to something like that. Many times, I looked at Mr. Takamatsu and wondered what would I do if I were in his position. Would I really believe that I’d meet a lost loved one in the afterlife? 

Personally, I think I believe in supernatural occurrences and I want it to exist — the moment when you’re dead and you realise these things are all true.

It’s a non-fiction novel yet the flow is expressive in a way that’s almost poetic, like a lot of fiction and hybrid novels. What was your writing process like?
When I returned from the trip, I looked at all my notes and was trying to figure how I should present the story. My greatest dilemma was whether to include myself in the narrative. I decided to include myself because I think that will give the reader an easier entry point into the story.

I also added a little humour and other emotions into the story instead of making the narrative a completely sad one. I also had to check with Miki and John if they were alright with being part of the novel and had to inform them that I didn’t remember our conversations fully.

How did you switch between roles as a writer and filmmaker in a single experience? What were the major challenges?
If the documentary didn’t exist, it would have been a more comfortable process — the camera definitely proved to be intimidating for Mr. Takamatsu. The crew was also really small, which proved to be a challenge for us. John was in charge of camera, lights and sound. Miki and I were in charge of taking down notes and carrying out the conversations. The camera we brought along was fairly simple — just a DSLR. 

Looking back, I would have loved to spend more time with Mr. Takamatsu at different locations. We filmed most of it at his home. Besides that, the entire process was mostly filled with questions after questions. It came to a point where I started to feel bad for him.

As a filmmaker, you’ve dabbled with love in other films as well. Of course, throughout history some of the best films revolve around the exploration of love. Why do you think it is such a universal theme?
I think everyone has someone they’re afraid of losing. In that sense, the theme lends itself to relatability. Of course, Mr. Takamatsu’s story is a rather bizarre version — seeing as the person is already lost, and it's a process of coping.

In his case, people would wonder, what is he doing? Why is he still searching? Obviously she’s not in the sea. If I were him, would I be doing that or would I have a more logical stance on things? I’m not sure if I’ve found the answer. Though I do know that if given a choice, Mr. Takamatsu would gladly give up the remaining years of his life just to spend another minute with his late wife.

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