Meeting Rita, Undisguised

Alison Morris -- May 17th, 2007

There's a book coming out this September that I feel very personally connected to. No, it's not my own book, but it does have very direct ties to the one I'm writing, and for that reason I'll tell you a bit about both.

For what feels like eons now, I've been working on a non-fiction book for Candlewick titled Imposters! True Stories of Girls Incognita. Aimed at a middle school audience, it's a collection of true stories about girls and women throughout history who (at some point in their lives) had to disguise themselves as men because the things they wanted to pursue were off-limits to them as women.

In the course of my Imposters! research, I stumbled across a reference to a book called Disguised: A Teenage Girl's Survival in World War II Japanese Prison Camps by a woman named Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli. Originally published in 2001, it was already out of print and had been published by a small press I'd never heard of, which didn't seem promising. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the book's synopsis: Fearing that the invading Japanese troops might use her as a "comfort woman," Rita's parents disguised her as a boy — an identity she maintained for the three and a half years during which her Dutch-Indonesian family was sent to multiple POW camps. I requested a copy of the book from inter-library loan and less than two weeks later found myself transfixed by Rita's remarkable story and the wonderful way she tells it.

It's not just Rita's own personal experiences that are so noteworthy. It's also the clear, honest way she presents the sequence of events in her life, and her uncanny ability to recall the nuanced emotions of her adolescence. In reading the book I was reminded of Katherine Paterson, who frequently links the effectiveness of her writing to the fact that she possesses a good "emotional memory" of her childhood. Rita has that "emotional memory" and more: a factual memory, a historical memory, a no-detail-left-out memory that makes her story truly come to life in the minds of her readers.

And what a story it is. Not only did Rita pose as a boy during three and a half harrowing years, but she managed to do so while working right under the noses of the Japanese government. "Rick" was so resourceful, determined, hard-working and intelligent that no one suspected that when the war began he had been a 12 year-old girl wearing dresses.

I loved Disguised and couldn't help wondering what had become of Rita. I knew she'd be in her 70's, but as her book had only just been published in 2001, it seemed safe to assume that she was still alive, and that perhaps she was someone I could track down and hopefully interview for my book.

I Googled numerous combinations of Rita's many names and came up almost empty-handed. An abridged version of her story had appeared in a book of survivors' accounts of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Thinking the editor of that book might tell me how to find Rita, I wrote to the only e-mail address I could find for him but got no answer. I returned to Googling and testing my luck with the online white pages. Still no luck.

About the time I started giving up hope of finding Rita, I phoned my editor Mary Lee Donovan, told her I'd fallen in love with Disguised and said, "Candlewick has to reissue this book." A week later she called me back to say she agreed with me — that she couldn't put the book down. By that time I'd tried one last-ditch effort to find Rita, trying a combination of names I apparently hadn't tried before, and lo and behold I found her, or so it seemed. "I think she's living just up the road, in Nashua, New Hampshire," I told Mary Lee. Neither of us knew quite what to make of the fact that this woman might be less than an hour's drive away. I dialed the number I'd found, and (sure enough) Rita picked up the phone.

Our conversation began something like this: "Um, hi, is this Rita la Fontaine de Clercq Zubli? Hi, Rita, my name is Alison Morris and you don't know me but… bookseller… writer… book about women and girls who… would love to interview you for my book… recommended your book to my editor… and Candlewick Press would like to reissue your book!" There was a long pause before Rita's voice came back to me: "Who is this again?"

About two months later, on May 8, 2006, Mary Lee and I drove to Rita's house accompanied by some Candlewick paperwork (the latest round of Rita's contract negotiations) and my laptop. Rita and her husband Dan greeted us at the door then ushered us into her house for what became a lively morning of conversation and laughter and awe, really, as Rita poured out the details of her family's experience to me, Mary Lee, and my portable microphone. I can't quite tell you what it was like to meet this woman in the flesh and hear her describe her story, but you need only read her book to get a taste of it. And in a few short months, you'll have that chance.

This September, Candlewick is reissuing Rita's book with an new eye-catching cover under the slightly revised title Disguised: A Wartime Memoir. I urge you to buy a copy, read it, and share it with others. I'm so thrilled to have played a part in helping this book finally find the audience it deserves, and (just as much) to have had the pleasure of meeting Rita. I hope you someday have that pleasure too.

Here's a photo of me, Rita, and Mary Lee taken last May, followed by a photo of me with Rita and Dan.

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