Book Spotlight: Weedflower – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

WEEDFLOWER is a middle-grade novel following the experiences of Sumiko and her family as they are forcibly relocated from California to a camp in Poston, Arizona, during World War II.*

Things I liked:

  • Kadohata’s spare, clear prose not only evokes many of the values/ways of thinking I associate with my own Nikkei experience, but its very delivery feels aligned with how I was taught to present myself (at least, via my Nikkei relatives) and how I’ve seen fellow Nikkeijin presenting themselves. I doubt an outsider could replicate this effect convincingly.
  • Sumiko’s budding friendship with Frank, a Mojave boy, complicates historical portrayals of the camps by reminding the reader that, as unjust as relocation was and is, Japanese Americans were and are participants in settler colonialism.
  • Sumiko’s observations of her environment (people, places, activities, etc.) indicate hers is only one variation of a narrative that played out in myriad ways for Japanese Americans across the US during this time. In other words, even though the entire story takes place from her POV, Nikkei wartime experiences are not flattened/distorted into a single narrative.
  • In dialogue with the previous point, the varying personalities and actions of Sumiko’s family and the other camp residents emphasize that Nikkeijin are not a monolithic group. Brothers Ichiro and Bull have very different personal interests, Jiichan and Sumiko speak different first languages, Mr. Moto pours his energy into building a camp garden while his son gambles away their savings. These variations illuminate the everyday cultural navigations required of Nikkeijin in communicating not only with outsiders but with each other (this really hit home for me – fellow Nikkei readers, what did you think?). At the same time, Kadohata conveys these realities to the reader without erasing the simultaneous existence of communal values, as evoked by gaman or shikata ga nai.
  • Kadohata gives us a snapshot of Sumiko’s family at a moment when it is both multigenerational and multilingual. In today’s Japanese American communities, generation and language have the power to both divide and unite. Just ask the Yonsei descendant of a camp survivor and the Nisei child of Shin-Issei parents the same set of questions about their respective Nikkei experiences and compare their answers. As a descendant of a camp survivor AND a Shin-Issei, generation and language are important cornerstones of my Nikkei experience. Even though Sumiko is not bilingual, many of her interactions with her family members feel deeply relatable to my own.

Things I learned:

  • Japanese American flower farms are new to me. Some of my relatives on my dad’s side had/have farms, but I believe they are all vegetable or fruit farmers.
  • This is the first full book about camp experiences that I recall reading. I think we read Farewell to Manzanar in school at one point, but I don’t remember anything except finding it boring. I’ll have to revisit it soon.

Questions I had:

  • Does Bull survive the war?
  • How have Native readers responded to the Mojave representation in this book?
  • Why was it important to the story that Sumiko be an orphan?
  • If Cynthia Kadohata ever reads this post, I’d love to know if my reflections align with her vision for the book, or if I overanalyzed/misunderstood anything.

Follow-up:

  • Need to do some nonfiction reading on Japanese American flower farms
  • Need to read up on camp experiences in more detail, in both fiction and nonfiction – especially curious about any mixed-race JAs who were put in camps
  • Need to read up on works exploring relationships between Nikkeijin and settler colonialism

*I really hate summarizing books, so this is as much as I’m providing. If it piqued your interest, read the book, or check out some of Cynthia Kadohata’s other books!

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A few updates

Reading – Currently finishing up my October reads. I hope to have a Reading Update posted in mid-November, but I might just skip to the December update depending on time.

Blogging – Downtime at the day job was my main time for writing blog posts. Since things have gotten busier at work, I’m finding less opportunity to draft posts, but I’m not as upset about this as I might otherwise be because…take a look at the next thing!

New projects – I’m collaborating with another writer to create an Asian writers’ group! Specifically, it will be a space for Asian writers telling stories informed by our own cultural identities and experiences. It will NOT be a space for non-Asians seeking to tell “Asian” stories. We are currently drafting website content and ironing out various administrative kinks, with the expectation of launching by the end of 2016.

That’s about it for now. If you’re interested in joining our writers’ group, keep an eye on Twitter in the coming months for an official announcement!