2019 Reading Goals – Results

To view my original 2019 Reading Goals bingo card, check here. Below are my results. Categories in bold represent books I read in 2019.

Indigenous writer Asian American activism Novel in verse YA or MG fantasy Black woman scholar
Bilingual book Magical realism Black SFF writer History of music or art Novella (any genre)
Historical fiction in Asia First book in a series Novel (any genre) Muslim writer Graphic novel
Memoir by WOC Anthology Nikkei scholar Poetry Middle Eastern writer
African writer Published by independent press US-Mexico border Disabled POC writer Mystery

I GOT BINGO! I read all the books in the top horizontal row of my bingo card.

2019 bingo titles:

  • Indigenous writer: Red: A Haida Manga
  • Asian American activism: They Called Us Enemy
  • Novel in verse: The Wild Book
  • YA or MG fantasy: Archer’s Quest
  • Black woman scholar: A Burst of Light

Other books I read in 2019:

  • Published by independent press: Fire Starters
  • Muslim writer: If They Come For Us
  • Graphic novel: Journey of Heroes
  • Black SFF writer: Shuri
  • Bilingual book: Sora and the Cloud
  • Novel (any genre): The Deep
  • Poetry: The Desert
  • Anthology: Well-Read Black Girl

Out of 25 potential bingo slots, I read 13 books. Not bad, but I hope to do a little better in 2020. As always, I omitted books I read in Japanese, as well as books that did not fit in any of my bingo slots.

Book Spotlight: Ghosts for Breakfast – Stanley Todd Terasaki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Ghosts for Breakfast, written by Stanley Todd Terasaki and illustrated by Shelly Shinjo, is the story of a boy who accompanies his father to investigate “ghosts” in a nearby farmer’s field.

What I liked:

  • Daikon! It never occurred to me the ghosts might be daikon. I’m glad everyone gets to eat daikon pickles at the end. I wonder how many nikkei farmers – specifically, the men – did their own pickling.
  • I’m assuming Terasaki chose the names Ono, Omi, and Omaye for their onomatopoeic similarity to certain English words. It’s amusing, but also a bit strange for these secondary characters to have names, whereas the main character and his parents are never introduced. I can see why this happened, since Terasaki is retelling a family anecdote and already knows who everyone is, but it does give the Troublesome Triplets a somewhat more substantial presence than the supposed main characters. At the same time, the use of the first-person narrative and the nameless narrator might make it easier for young readers to imagine themselves into the story, which I think is a goal of many children’s books.
  • Shelly Shinjo’s illustrations are so much fun! Her characters are rendered with empathy and humor, and her use of curved lines and rounded forms lends her images a homely, familiar quality. That said, I initially thought the food depicted on the cover was some kind of dumpling, and wondered why a story purportedly about nikkei history would so prominently feature what appeared to be Chinese cuisine. The daikon pickles depicted in the last few pages of the book are easier to identify!

What I learned:

  • Are the Troublesome Triplets a group of bachelor farmers making a living together? According to the notes at the beginning of the book (I read the paperback edition), the story is set in the late 1800s and based on an incident from Terasaki’s family history. What were the demographics of California-based nikkei communities at this time? Were farmers with families more likely to become community leaders?

Questions I had:

  • What was the market for daikon at this time? Was there any demand for it outside of nikkei and other Asian communities? My uncle grows daikon behind his house, so I know it can be cultivated in small quantities. I wonder if various nikkei farmers took turns growing Japanese vegetables for circulation within the community, so that everyone could enjoy familiar dishes without worrying about cutting into their cash crops.
  • Who is Terasaki’s intended audience for this book? What was his purpose in writing this book?
  • From whom did Terasaki first hear this story? I’m assuming it was passed down orally through the generations. Specifically, I’m curious about the use of “pon” as the sound for knocking – if the story was written in Japanese, I would expect or to be the sound, depending on the strength of the knock. It could be that was commonly used in this manner at this time, or it could also be a feature of a certain dialect.

Follow-up:

  • I wish there were more nikkei-authored picture books chronicling aspects of nikkei history outside of the camps. Books like Ghosts can serve as an entry point to nikkei history in Japanese school, and help students draw connections between what they see on the page and their own family experiences.
  • I really need to read a memoir or family history chronicle about the lives of the earliest Japanese immigrants to the US – my grandmother’s parents would have been part of this pre-camp generation and no one in the family seems to know much about their experiences.

Book Spotlight: They Called Us Enemy – George Takei

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

They Called Us Enemy is a graphic novel memoir of George Takei’s childhood in Rohwer and Tule Lake, as well as a reflection on how these experiences influenced his later life.

What I liked:

  • Takei’s child’s-eye view of the camps, combined with his present-day commentary, really brought together the experience(s) of JA incarceration for me in a way other works have not. His firsthand recollections illuminate the complex meanings of “resistance” in the JA community at this time, and the many ways incarcerated JAs kept moving forward in spite of (or in defiance of) their circumstances.
  • One aspect of the book I especially enjoyed is Takei’s close observations and analysis of his father’s and mother’s actions. I think most nikkei would agree the camps played a significant role in shaping JA community mentality in the years after the war, and that this mentality continues to permeate our spaces in various ways. At the same time, I’m curious about the origins of this mentality – specifically, in the camps, when issei, nisei, and sansei intermingled in close quarters, what kinds of clashes of opinion occurred? Some of these conflicts are more widely documented than others, such as the loyalty questionnaires and enlisting in the US military. But on the day-to-day level, especially in the early years of the camps, when these people were just learning how to live with each other, what kinds of differences did they encounter in one another, and how did they react? In hindsight, it’s easy to generalize about certain groups, but at the time, I imagine there were so many points of divergence, and not just by generation.
  • On a related note, I wonder what my grandfather would have thought of this book, especially the many sensitively depicted instances of cultural, personal, and ethical conflicts witnessed by Takei. The panels in which Takei confronts his father about leading their family into the camps rather than putting up a fight made me wonder if anyone in my family ever did the same thing. I assume my grandfather answered yes-yes to the questionnaire, since he was never relocated from Topaz, but what were his reasons for doing so? As Takei demonstrates through his own family’s situation, responding to the questionnaire went far beyond how loyal or disloyal any given JA might have felt toward the emperor. In my grandfather’s case, I don’t know how much English he understood by the time he was incarcerated – as far as I know, the questionnaires were not distributed in Japanese – and I wonder, if only English copies were available, how many issei fully understood what was being asked, or took it very seriously?
  • Takei consistently reiterates how he, his family, and other incarcerated JAs questioned why they were put in camps. He highlights the confusion and uncertainty of the incarceration, and candidly discusses the racism underlining the US government’s actions. It’s difficult to determine solely from reading this book how far his activism extends (I have not been following him very closely on social media) – for example, where do indigenous peoples fit into his vision of social justice? – but I feel he has made a meaningful contribution to nikkei-authored literature on the camps, and I hope he continues to pursue his activism with the same directness demonstrated in his writing.
  • “Sakana beach”…I didn’t get it at first, but it was absolutely hilarious afterwards.
  • Harmony Becker’s art is incredibly engaging – especially her ability to capture a wide range of emotions via facial expressions. I’m so glad a nikkei artist was chosen for this work – I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise, given my feelings about non-Japanese-created visual depictions of the camps. I don’t know much about Becker’s background at the moment, but I noticed several techniques highly reminiscent of manga in this book and I wonder what, if any, Japanese art forms she considers an influence on her own work.
  • I appreciate the closing reference to the unjust treatment of immigrants by the US government – I see more and more activism in the JA community linking our histories with current events, and I hope even more nikkei will be inspired to act after reading Takei’s story.

What I learned:

  • Did I know some nikkei chose to renounce their US citizenship before the end of the war? I suppose this is implied for US-born nikkei who voluntarily went to Japan before the camps opened, which I did know about, but I can’t recall if I read about nikkei renouncing their citizenship in the camps. At any rate, new or old, this is definitely a topic I plan to read more about. My grandfather would never have had this choice as issei, but I wonder if he ever considered returning to Japan while he was in Topaz, or at any point before or after.
  • I had no idea Takei marched with Dr. King! It would be interesting to read about this period in Takei’s life – I hope it’s covered in his autobiography, which is on my TBR list.

Questions I had:

  • How much of the script did Takei draft himself? To what extent were the cowriters involved? How did Takei envision the role of his cowriters in this very personal project?
  • How did Eisinger and Scott come to be attached to this project? Specifically, why were two (apparently) white men chosen to be cowriters on a work centering Japanese American experiences? There are plenty of graphic novelists of color, including nikkei, who might have been tapped for this project…it would be interesting to know how this team of creators was assembled.

Follow-up:

  • According to the short bio at the end, Harmony Becker has created several comics, which I look forward to reading!
  • Tule Lake is definitely a camp I need to learn more about – I’ve seen many nikkei writers discussing it, but I have yet to read a full history.

Book Spotlight: The Last Kappa of Old Japan – Sunny Seki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Last Kappa of Old Japan, written and illustrated by Sunny Seki, is the story of a friendship between a village boy, Norihei, and a kappa, Kyū-chan.

What I liked:

  • The Last Kappa really reminds me of the Japanese children’s stories I grew up with! I read the Japanese text first, just to see if the story felt similar to ones I remembered, and it did. Both the Japanese and English versions seem to fit the story well, not surprising if Seki wrote them himself.
  • Bilingual children’s books, especially by 日本人 and 日系 authors, seem to me one of the most important cultural touchstones for young nikkei readers, even more so for readers growing up in bilingual households. I don’t see too many such books being published these days, but I know there are plenty of bilingual, up-and-coming nikkei creators, and I’m hopeful for the future.

What I learned:

  • The note at the end of the book seems to indicate TMNT started out as kappa – is this true?! I had no idea, but I’ve also never looked into the history of the show. If so, hilarious!
  • A quick look at Seki’s website shows he has won Rafu Shimpo’s “Artist of the Year” multiple times, for some absolutely adorable illustrations. I wonder if very many emerging nikkei artists actively participate in art competitions within the community, and if any in the LA area have approached Seki for mentorship. The website also includes a video link to an interview with NTB (in Japanese, no subtitles). I only watched part of the interview, but it includes some interesting information about Seki’s background and creative approach.

Questions I had:

  • Is Seki still actively producing bilingual picture books? He clearly has the skills and background necessary to execute these types of projects. I also wonder if he is acquainted with Robert Kondō and Dice Tsutsumi at Tonko House. It would be wonderful to see these three creators collaborate on adapting Japanese stories.
  • How does Seki view his work in relation to work by other nikkei creators? I often think bilingual Japanese creators are potentially the most effective bridges between Japan and the diaspora, but also, no individual creator is obligated to promote this type of exchange.
  • What do the Japanese immigrants of today think of creators like Seki? I’m thinking particularly of young and middle-aged Japanese professionals, who have left their established lives in Japan for the US or another country due to a work transfer. Do they find some immediate form of familiarity in work by creators like Seki or the opposite?

Follow-up:

  • Seki has published several other children’s books, which I’m looking forward to reading as soon as budget allows.

Book Spotlight: Sora and the Cloud – Felicia Hoshino

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Sora and the Cloud, written and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino and translated by Akiko Hisa, follows the adventures of a little boy who falls asleep on a cloud.

What I liked:

  • Hoshino’s simple, quiet style works perfectly for the story being told – no big surprise, since she is both author and illustrator here. Overall, the book reminds me much more of Japanese children’s books than ones published in the US. The use of pastel colors and soft lines, as well as the leisurely narrative pace, strike me as choices that might appeal especially to Japanese audiences.
  • A bilingual text is, I think, almost necessary for this book. Not only does this choice clearly point to Japanese/Nikkei readers as one of the intended audiences, but I suspect the presentation would fall rather flat if the book was written only in English. While reading the text, I found the English version a bit slow, but the Japanese version felt exactly paced to the way the scenes unfolded. This may simply have to do with the way I distinguish between Japanese and non-Japanese artistic/literary styles based on my personal experiences, but in a sense I think this is related to the reason Miyazaki’s films are so jarring in the English dub versus the original Japanese audio.
  • Did any fellow Japanese/Nikkei readers appreciate the humor in the title そらとくも?
  • Hoshino is also the illustrator of A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, which I discussed here. Although Sora is a dreamlike fantasy, whereas Sunflowers is grounded in historical events, it is easy to see Hoshino’s distinctive style in both books. Since her work seems so well-suited to narrative, I’d love to see her produce a comic or graphic novel, or maybe co-produce manga with a Japanese team.

What I learned:

  • According to the author’s note, Hoshino chose to make the text bilingual so she and her husband could read the book to their children in English and Japanese. This seems like a touching way for authors and artists to provide cultural heritage connections for their families and communities. In this sense, Hoshino’s mission reminds me of the origins of Thank You Very Mochi, which I discussed here.

Questions I had:

  • Is this book sold in Japanese stores? How have Japanese readers responded to the story and illustrations? I noticed the Japanese translation focuses on capturing the meaning of the English text, rather than being literal, which could make this book a useful tool in certain types of language study.

Follow-up:

  • I need to do another search on Hoshino to see if she has similar books out. Maybe my little cousins in Japan would like a copy…

Book Spotlight: Journey of Heroes – Stacey Hayashi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Journey of Heroes, written by Stacey Hayashi and illustrated by Damon Wong, is a short and intimate history of the 100th/442nd, presented in comic book format.

What I liked:

  • I only knew the very basics about the 442nd before reading this book, and while it does not by any means strive to be a comprehensive history, it provides a compelling starting point for further reading. Hayashi’s notes at the beginning are especially helpful – I think I would have approached the material very differently if I had not been told all of the scenes depict actual events. Also, the idea of modeling the characters after actual members of the 442nd/100th is both a charming gesture of respect and an additional testament to the historical accuracy of the content. These choices immediately establish the parameters of the narrative as one circumscribed by the personal experiences of the people interviewed – we are reading real people’s stories, not a scholarly (and perhaps supposedly objective) overview.

What I learned:

  • From my personal experiences meeting Nikkei born and raised in Hawaii, I’ve learned there are many differences between their communities and those of us from the ‘mainland,’ but I had not considered what these differences might have implied for Nikkei like those in the 442nd/100th. I also never knew Nikkei soldiers from Hawaii visited the camps – I wonder how those trips were arranged.

Questions I had:

  • How do we, the JA/Nikkei of today, position ourselves relative to the experiences and actions of Nikkei such as the members of the 442nd/100th? No one in my immediate family was a member of these units, so in this sense my perspective should not be weighted over/against those of actual descendants of these Nikkei. At the same time, all JA/Nikkei currently living in the US participate in settler colonialism on some level, and benefit (perhaps more specifically phrased as, ‘have the privilege of residing in a nation which derives much of its power’) from [US] military imperialism and carceral capitalism. How do we consider this reality relative to the reality of those Nikkei who viewed military participation as the only way for their families to have safety and respect? Incarcerated JA/Nikkei had no idea when they might be released from the camps, if ever – imagine the terror and stress of wondering if even dying for the people who took away any semblance of socioeconomic security for your family would be insufficient to protect them. It is also useful to keep in mind that having access to this ‘big picture’ knowledge is a privilege – I only learned the term ‘carceral capitalism’ because I have the privilege of accessing certain resources. My grandfather, according to his NARA record (and probably verifiable by family members, if I ever remembered to ask), completed his education in Japan through the equivalent of eighth grade. He came to the US alone, not having any means of livelihood back home, and, if I had to guess, probably had more immediate concerns like where to sleep, what to eat, and how to find the money for basic living necessities. The term ‘settler colonialism’ would have meant nothing to him, though I hope the concept is one he would have understood, and acknowledged his own role in, if asked. To clarify, I do not want us, the current generation, to become the judges and/or arbiters of our ancestors and elders, without also being willing to simultaneously become the judges and/or arbiters of ourselves. This post is not about passing judgment, but rather about trying to figure out how the current generation of JA/Nikkei can move forward in a way that not only honors our community’s past efforts, but also ensures the best possible future for everyone.*

Follow-up:

  • There is a wide body of Nikkei-authored literature on the 442nd, naturally, but I think I might like to start by reading more memoirs, in conjunction with Nikkei-authored nonfiction/academic work on the war and its aftermath.

*‘Everyone’ might seem vague, but oppression does not stop at so-called national borders, and therefore, neither should resistance.

Book Spotlight: Thank You Very Mochi – Paul Matsushima

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Thank You Very Mochi, written by Paul Matsushima, Sophie Wang, and Craig Ishii, and illustrated by Jing Zheng, is a heartfelt story of mochitsuki as a Japanese American family tradition.

What I liked:

  • This book is published by Kizuna, an LA-based organization dedicated to supporting the JA/Nikkei community. Both the story and the multi-author team echo this collaborative, community-focused theme. I’d like to see more Nikkei publications in this vein, especially now when it often feels as if our community is fragmenting in certain respects. Kizuna itself is focused on JA/Nikkei residents of SoCal – as far as I know, no Bay Area JA/Nikkei organization has published a similar book, but I haven’t researched this as thoroughly as I should.
  • The warm, bright colors in Zheng’s illustrations feel incredibly family-friendly. In fact, the book as a whole felt very comfortable to me, even though the mochitsuki represented here differed in some ways from the one my parents host every year. I like to think someone – Zheng, maybe? – thought about the best way to make the story relatable to a wide range of Nikkei readers while knowing it centers a tradition which can vary greatly from family to family.
  • On a related note, the (more or less) grayscale illustrations depicting flashbacks to Grandpa’s time in camp were also very effective, particularly when juxtaposed with the full-color illustrations depicting present-day scenes. The visual contrast not only alerts the reader to a temporal change, but also evokes an emotional shift in the story. Even young Nikkei readers who may not know about the camps might ask about the change in color, which in turn could open important conversations about family history.
  • Did any fellow Nikkei readers notice how this book is basically a young readers’ edition of Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi series? Come to think of it, I would love to read a curated blog series featuring Nikkei writers from various backgrounds discussing how they choose to represent Japanese/Nikkei traditions in their work and why. I think of Nina Li Coomes’s article series on Japanese words (in Catapult?) – I’d like to see blog posts written with Coomes’s level of detail and insight, but maybe on a site run by Japanese/Nikkei staff?
  • Kimi has a multiracial family! I’m glad this element was included, especially for the sake of any young Nikkei readers with multiracial families.
  • The mochi-related illustrations on the inside of the cover are adorable – and also a simple, appealing way to educate the reader without making them consult a glossary.
  • Kimi’s bedroom is such a JA/Nikkei room! Even though my childhood bedroom didn’t look exactly like hers, I understand the context being referenced and I suspect many other JA/Nikkei readers will feel the same.

What I learned:

  • Furikake…on mochi? Is this an LA thing? A SoCal thing? Who does this?! I’m fascinated, but not quite enough to try it myself. Moments like this really make me wonder to what extent JA/Nikkei cuisine differs by region. Hawaii, yes, but within the continental US – what kinds of variations exist in dishes we might consider traditionally Japanese? Has any Nikkei scholar written about how the regional roots of Issei (and their respective local cuisines) subsequently shaped variations in Nikkei cuisine?

Questions I had:

  • Where is the kinako?! (And on top of this, why is there furikake??!!) I’m not criticizing, just befuddled.
  • I ask this question every time it comes up in a book – why did the authors choose to italicize the Japanese words in the text? Does italicization make reading easier for young audiences? At the same time, this presupposes an English-centric education – the more sustainable solution would be to normalize multilingual education from grade one. The challenge here is probably to normalize the non-Anglicized pronunciation of non-English words – after all, look what happened to the pronunciation of “Tokyo,” a word which I’ve noticed is rarely, if ever, italicized in English these days, but also never pronounced correctly.

Follow-up:

  • Now that I’m thinking about Nikkei organizations publishing books, it would be terrific to see a JA Buddhist temple produce a picture book about their annual mochitsuki. Also, I hope there are Nikkei picture book creators working on projects about Japanese schools, taiko groups, and Obon festivals affiliated with our temples.

Book Spotlight: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up – Stan Yogi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, written by Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins, and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette, tells the story of Fred Korematsu’s fight to prove the wartime mass incarceration of Japanese Americans unconstitutional.

What I liked:

  • I think this is an important book for all JAs to read, not just those of us whose families were incarcerated. In particular, the sections discussing how the JA community reacted to Korematsu’s actions during and after camp encourage us to consider how we, as a community, support and/or condemn our members. Additionally, as changes in technology enable 日系人 and 日本人 to interact in more and different ways, we begin to think of what it means to have a global Japanese community, and how such a community influences how we define Japanese-ness.
  • The authors were, at certain points (though not all, as I discuss below), very direct in identifying white people as the ones discriminating against JAs. Most of the textbooks I used in school followed the white-as-default style and hardly ever identified white people as white, so this is an encouraging step in the direction of decolonizing education.
  • Although I would expect no less when Yogi is a former ACLU employee, I appreciate the note on terminology regarding JA incarceration, on page 52.

What I learned:

  • Korematsu was in Topaz?! I think I knew this, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of it until I saw it in the text. I wonder if my grandfather knew Korematsu, or at least knew of his efforts.
  • Did Korematsu ever think back to the teacher who (re)named him “Fred” and feel any kind of anger or distress at the whiteness of this action? I know some JAs deliberately changed or shortened their Japanese names to adapt them to the English language, but there is a difference between an individual deciding to change their name on their own versus having a name from another culture imposed on them by someone else. I also think of US government boarding schools for indigenous/American Indian children, and how the imposition of English-language names was one way in which these children were forcibly assimilated into whiteness. Here, too, we might consider how some of the camps were built on reservation land, and how all of the camps were/are on indigenous lands. What do these shared but divergent histories mean in terms of current and future interactions between JA/Nikkei and indigenous communities?

Questions I had:

  • The use of “American” seems to be inconsistent in the text, or at least, it was not clear to me how the authors intended to define the term. For example, on page 3, JAs are defined as, “American[s] of Japanese ancestry.” In this case, “American” seems to be tied to nationality and/or place of birth, rather than being used synonymously with white, and “Japanese American” seems to be broadly defined as any US citizen (though citizenship is not actually cited, so perhaps “US resident” is more accurate here) with Japanese ancestry, whether mono-racial/-ethnic or mixed race. What assumptions is the reader expected to make about the definition of “American” and why did the authors opt for this open-ended wording?
  • By contrast, on page 4, the description of the racist, anti-Chinese cartoon first describes, “a White man attacking a Chinese immigrant,” but then references, “the anger many Americans felt toward Chinese people.” In this passage, is the reader expected to equate “Americans” with white people? If not, do the authors expect the reader to know enough about the history of people(s) of color in the US to identify the sociopolitical and economic tensions amongst them? Given my personal experiences in the US public education system, I doubt the latter, but I suppose education could have progressed drastically in the last twenty years.
  • On page 10, there is a similar example in the passage, “Americans were angry that Japanese people were moving to the United States.” Were non-white people living in the US at that time angry about Japanese immigration – and in a political position to do anything about it? Although these are relatively minor issues of terminology in the larger scheme of things, I find this ambiguity troubling if the overall goal of the book is to encourage young readers to question and eventually reevaluate their understanding of what it means to be “American.”
  • The blurb on Daniel Inouye* caused me to return, once again, to the question of how JA history is documented – who do we honor, and why? More specifically, when I read about figures like Korematsu, I think about what a JA history written specifically for our community would look like, free of any pressures exerted by the white gaze. What does it mean for us, as JA/Nikkei, as Japanese people, to respect and feel gratitude toward our prominent figures (感謝する, している), while simultaneously acknowledging what we owe to indigenous peoples and other peoples of color for the harm (being) inflicted upon them by these same figures? If we as JA/Nikkei claim ourselves as “American” as white people, how do we reconcile this claim with our complicity as non-indigenous occupants of indigenous lands?

Follow-up:

  • I’ve been meaning to read Lorraine Bannai’s book on Korematsu for several years – time to get moving!

*I recommend reading the essay about Inouye in Asian Settler Colonialism as a starting point for contemplating his place in JA history.

Book Spotlight: Flowers from Mariko – Rick Noguchi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Flowers from Mariko, written by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks, and illustrated by Michelle Reiko Kumata, is the story of one Japanese American family’s experiences in camp.

What I liked:

• I never know when I’ll come across a bit of my childhood while reading Nikkei literature. In this case, 春が来た was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if Noguchi knows this song from his own childhood, or if it popped up in his research – or maybe the illustrator, Kumata, knew of it? There is no information in the book (I read the paperback edition) about how the story was created, though two people are acknowledged on the back of the title page for their assistance with “historical accuracy.”
• Kumata’s illustrations are a perfect fit for this story. The simple lines and quiet colors feel very Japanese (or maybe Nikkei or even 日系アメリカ人 -esque is a better, more specific word – I actually think the aesthetic choices would be quite different if a 日本人 artist illustrated this story for a 日本人 audience), and also provide an appropriate visual representation of the sobering history being recounted.
• Several characters are drawn with thick, curly hair, a characteristic I rarely see even in Nikkei depictions of Japanese people. I’m not sure if Kumata intended to depict naturally curly-haired Japanese people, or if she is merely referencing hairstyles from that period. At any rate, as someone from a Japanese family with many curly/wavy-haired people, I appreciate these images!

What I learned:

• Did I know some Nikkei ended up in trailer homes after leaving the camps? I may have read this somewhere and then forgotten…my mind feels like a sieve lately. Come to think of it, my grandfather bought his Bay Area house in the 1960s, so where was he living right after he left Topaz?
• Along the same lines, I don’t recall previously knowing that some Nikkei chose to stay in the camps until they were forced out. I can see why this might not be a frequently discussed topic in our community…time to do some reading. Also, I think this particular aspect of our history could be told very effectively through film, especially if bilingual descendants of formerly incarcerated JAs partnered with someone like Miyazaki.

Questions I had:

• The author note at the end of the book uses a somewhat confusing mix of terminology. What is Noguchi’s preferred terminology when discussing the camps?
• Does Noguchi and/or Kumata have a personal connection to the camps? What motivated each of them to work on this project?
• I’m curious about Jenks’s role in the creation of this book. She appears to have an academic background in creative writing, so I imagine she assisted Noguchi with the scripting of the text. In particular, I wonder if Noguchi, her spouse, insisted her name be on the cover as a co-author, or if Jenks herself requested it. I raise this point because I’ve been considering the extent to which white people curate JA history, whether in the form of writing articles based on their interviews with Nikkei subjects in JA/Nikkei publications, or having their name listed as co-authors on works of Nikkei literature, or styling themselves as subject matter experts when they review or blurb work by Nikkei writers, and I’m concerned about who will shape the documentation of our stories moving forward.

Follow-up:

• It looks like Noguchi has also published a book of poetry – I’m looking forward to reading it, whenever I manage to get a copy.

Book Spotlight: Careful, Mama Says – Esumi Fujimoto

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“Careful, Mama Says” chronicles the memories and experiences of one Japanese American family as the three surviving daughters clean out their parents’ former home.

I originally read this piece on the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) website.

What I liked:

  • Fujimoto is a fellow Bay Area Nikkei writer! Well, sort of – the short bio on the AAWW website says “Central Valley of California,” but the landmarks in this piece are definitely Bay Area. I haven’t read much Bay Area-based Nikkei fiction outside of camp literature (the camps are mentioned, but I wouldn’t classify this piece as ‘camp literature’ in genre), so I was super excited when I saw references to Santa Clara County, 101, and San Jose. (On a side note, is this form of joy in familiarity of place divisible from the sense of ownership over place which, as it exists in the US, I believe has its roots in settler colonialism? I suppose a discussion about the role of place in the experiences/mentality of those of us who identify as diaspora could also be applied here, but again, not sure if it can be considered separately from [our] complicity in [USian] whiteness.)
  • Triangle-folded plastic bags! I have a feeling a lot of Nikkei households with an Issei/Shin-Issei member do this, but it’s never occurred to me to ask.
  • I recently read Margaret Dilloway’s piece on her childhood household and Marie Kondo and I kept thinking back to it as I read Fujimoto’s work. It seems to me the two pieces would make for an interesting comparative analysis in a Nikkei literature class.
  • Fujimoto’s romanization choices for both Japanese and Japanese-accented English make me wonder if she is second-generation and/or bilingual. She and I might in fact have very similar lived experiences, yet we make somewhat different romanization choices. I’m especially curious about the “Matta ne” because to say it this way in Japanese produces a completely different mood due to the changed inflection. まったね~ versus またね~, what do my fellow bilingual Nikkei readers think?
  • Mikan is one of those small but meaningful connections between 日本人 and 日系 sides of families, at least in my experience. I’m always happy to see them pop up in Nikkei literature.

What I learned:

  • I’m able to infer a lot between the lines of this piece because I have enough cultural touchstones in common with the characters – but this would not be the case for every Nikkei writer. It’s wonderful to become aware of this connection because it really solidifies my awareness of writing within (and in response to) a community of Nikkei writers. At the same time, this situation also highlights the importance of Nikkei writers from diverse backgrounds telling their (our) stories, so that every Nikkei reader and writer can feel this connection to the community.
  • Did most JA families take on English names after returning from camp? I’m not quite sure what is meant by this – I’ve read other instances in camp literature of Nikkei adopting English nicknames, and my mom knows a JA family who shortened their family name because they felt it was too long in English – but did any families perform a legal name change?
  • I’m not sure I’ve heard the term ‘countertranslation’ before, but it got me thinking about what an interesting project it would be for 日本人 and 日系 writers to translate each other’s work. I think everyone involved would gain significant insights into their (pre)conceptions of each other’s experiences and identities. Maybe a project like this has already been done – I wouldn’t be surprised. At any rate, such a project seems to me like an actually useful application and interrogation of the politics of translation.
  • Is this a Nikkei version of a Japanese ghost story? It didn’t occur to me until my second read-through, when I started to connect the title with all the times Mama appears in the story. I don’t find the story particularly scary, per se (though I think it could be made much more frightening if adapted as a short film), but the adaptation of experiences specific to Nikkei in the context of an existing Japanese storytelling tradition is a fascinating possibility.

Questions I had:

  • Does Fujimoto dislike umeboshi? I understand proving a point about intergenerational differences, but I still felt bad for all the wasted umeboshi, even if it’s only in fiction!
  • Any time I see “Mama” in a Japanese-language-related context, I automatically think ママ, but in this case it seems to be the English word. On a tangent, for 日本人 kids who move to the US with their parents, do they gradually switch from ママ to Mama as their language skills adapt?
  • Who is Fujimoto’s intended audience? I just reread the part about “Old Man Tanaka,” and while I don’t find it at all surprising as a portrayal of Japanese notions of fatherhood and masculinity, I would also like to know what prompted Fujimoto to include it.

Follow-up:

  • I’m looking forward to reading more of Fujimoto’s work!