Book Spotlight: I Am an American – Brandon Shimoda

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“I Am an American” is an essay contemplating the place of incarceration in the lives of past, present, and future Japanese Americans through an analysis of the Gambatte! photo exhibition at the Tucson Desert Art Museum.

What I liked:

  • As any followers of Book Spotlight know, I don’t generally discuss essays or shorter pieces on here, but Brandon’s essay was so thought-provoking I thought I’d give it a shot. Also, he’s a terrific writer and I always think it’s a good idea to study my role models.
  • If it seems like this section should be longer, well, I basically liked the entire essay – in the following sections, I’ve discussed in more detail the points I found especially interesting.

What I learned:

  • I’ve been reading various discussions of gaman and shikata ga nai in Nikkei/camp literature and while I don’t disagree with what I’ve read, I think I finally understand why I felt kind of detached from these topics. I learned these terms like I learned the majority of my Japanese – from my Shin-Issei mom, so they were just words to me for a long time. My dad’s side of the family endured incarceration, but my dad doesn’t speak Japanese, so these words never came up in conversation. Anyway, all of that to say, it’s fascinating to me to think about how our individual (diaspora) experiences with language can so meaningfully shape our understandings of what it means to be Japanese. I’m also interested in Brandon’s specific point – how the use of these particular Japanese words in the particular context of the camps and war history has determined the (partial?) shape of Japanese-ness in the US. I wonder if he has thoughts on the endurance (either independent of or connected to specific words) of Japanese people in the face of US military/government power in a transnational context…and yes, I’m once again heading toward Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat. To also pull in a thread from one of the ongoing discussions in Book Twitter, I feel this is somewhat of a sticking point, at least in the context of Japanese/Nikkei communities, in the argument, “diaspora is separate from non-diaspora.” Obviously, they are not the same, and nor does Twitter allow for nuance, but specifically in a Japanese context, I often think our existence and experiences as diaspora are in fact much more connected to Japan than some narratives might seem to indicate, not least because of the now-global popularity of Japanese pop culture and what it means to exist outside Japan as a Japanese person in the context of said culture. Then again, I might simply be inferring from my own experiences without sufficient context – I have a lot more reading to do.

Questions I had:

  • Who is Kitagaki’s intended audience? It seems he wants to memorialize Japanese Americans and incarceration in a respectful, enduring way, but does he wish to do so primarily for our community? I especially wonder what he expects Black audiences will think when they see the blackface photograph – or did he not imagine any Black people (including people of Black and Japanese descent) would view the exhibit? I am not suggesting the photograph necessarily be removed, since, as Brandon points out, the image testifies to, “the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism,” which I believe our community absolutely needs to keep in mind and actively resist. However, whereas I feel Brandon’s essay is written in a way which makes room for Black readers to consider and respond to his discussion of antiblackness in the Japanese American community (if any Black people read this, please let me know if you think otherwise), I’m not sure the exhibit itself offers this space. I never viewed the actual exhibit, so I can’t be sure, but based on Brandon’s description of how the photograph was displayed, it doesn’t sound as if the blackface is being explicitly challenged or condemned. Although I don’t wish to erase the feelings of the relatives of those pictured, I believe our community can and needs to find ways to call out blackface and other instances of antiblackness without disrespecting the memories and experiences of our families.

Follow-up:

  • I looked up Paul Kitagaki’s website after reading the essay, which answered one of my original questions – he apparently did come up with the overall concept of the exhibit. My immediate thought when Brandon wrote of the blackface photograph, “It is probably not the moment Kitagaki imagined as the keystone,” was whether Kitagaki or someone else chose to include that particular moment from history and what this selection implied about the person behind it. I don’t know how the photographs were arranged in the space or if there was an intended centerpiece, but I feel the inclusion of the blackface photograph, as well as Brandon’s commentary on it, raises the question of what has been the focal point of camp memorialization for Japanese Americans (if indeed such a point can be identified – I don’t feel I know enough right now to make this determination). In this particular case, I also wonder why Brandon suggests this photograph was not Kitagaki’s intended keystone (oddly, I thought of Keystone, South Dakota – I suppose settler colonialism was/is on my mind) – does he know Kitagaki well enough that this is a personal observation? Kitagaki is quoted in the essay – perhaps Brandon’s statement arises from remarks Kitagaki made during the interview/whatever source material Brandon drew quotes from? Or is it an inference drawn from his broader studies of incarceration, a commentary on how antiblackness, model minority, settler colonialism, and a host of other essential issues are (often?) not discussed, much less directly addressed, by the larger Japanese American community. Or it could be something else altogether. If Kitagaki has read this essay, I wonder what he thought.
  • According to Kitagaki’s website (not sure how updated it is), he is hoping to publish a book containing the exhibit photographs. I hope he succeeds. I would be interested in reading any accompanying text.

Book Spotlight: A Jar of Dreams – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

A Jar of Dreams follows the experiences of Rinko Tsujimura and her family as they struggle to make a living while fighting anti-Japanese racism in Depression-era California.

What I liked:

  • I first encountered Uchida’s books in middle school (as far as I remember) and as I was reading, memories I hadn’t considered in years came rushing back. In middle school, I spent a lot of time in the library during lunch and recess (wow, do they still call it recess?). I was mostly reading Robert Jordan, David Gemmell, and Dragonlance in those days, but I remember walking slowly along this one shelf, looking for books by Japanese authors. From what I can recall, the only ones I found were Uchida’s Rinko series and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori, neither of which really stood a chance against the likes of Tenaka Khan and Raistlin. In retrospect, I wonder if this experience was what prevented me from seeking out more JA/Nikkei authors until college. I’m so glad I decided to pick up Uchida’s books again. A huge thank-you to my fellow JA/Nikkei writers for all the articles and blog posts they created on camp history, which was really what drew me back into JA/Nikkei literature so many years later.
  • THAT TAKUAN REFERENCE! I definitely know I’m reading a Japanese author.
  • When I started the first chapter, I wasn’t immediately certain whether the characters were speaking Japanese or English. Most of the other JA/Nikkei historical fiction I’ve read features characters who don’t speak or understand much Japanese, so it was super gratifying when I realized they were speaking Japanese for the most part. I especially appreciate how Uchida writes as if taking this for granted, i.e. the scene where Rinko realizes Aunt Waka can speak English.
  • So many layers and facets of Japanese/JA/Nikkei history are addressed in the text, with varying levels of detail, from the Japanese newspaper on the kitchen table at the very beginning, to references to Aunt Waka’s English education, to Kanda’s bachelor life in the Japanese church dormitory. The immersive feel of an insider perspective on our histories and communities reminded me so much of my own experiences and what I’ve heard from family members.
  • A ‘jar of dreams’ is a lovely concept. I immediately thought of a jar of fireflies – even though Rinko’s jar has money in it – and from there thought of the various images associated with Japanese summer culture, especially events involving family. I wonder what inspired Uchida to use this term and I’d also like to know what fellow JA/Nikkei readers thought of when they read it.

What I learned:

  • I’ve been reading bits and pieces of pre-war JA/Nikkei history, but I think the only work of notable length I’ve read on this era is Between Two Empires. I’ll have to review my TBR to see what else I’ve got on there. I don’t recall if Azuma addressed this in his book, but I wonder how many (if any) Japanese Americans returned to Japan during the Depression. I know some JAs returned to Japan for various reasons over the years, but was there a ‘mass exodus’-type movement at any point other than when many returned because of the war?

Questions I had:

  • At what age do other JA/Nikkei readers tend to encounter Uchida’s work and that of other historical/canon Japanese American authors? I wonder how many of us have shared the experience of finding these books super boring the first time around, but being very happy to return to them later. I also wonder in what sort of context other JA/Nikkei readers encounter our community’s literature. My mom pretty much only reads books in Japanese and I’ve never thought to ask my dad if he ever read JA/Nikkei authors because I never saw any of their books at home, so I had zero background information when I first came across names like Uchida and Mori. I wonder if JA kids growing up in heavily JA-influenced areas like Little Tokyo or those whose families are heavily involved in the community via Buddhist temples, Obon, etc., might have heard of these authors before ever picking up their books. I never really talked to anyone besides family and friends when I danced in Obon, but something tells me the name Yoshiko Uchida would not be unfamiliar to some of my fellow participants.
  • Based on the cover artist’s name and the age of the book, I’m assuming they are a white person. I don’t really expect better of books from so long ago, but considering Uchida’s work is relevant to today’s readers (and continues to be available via major retailers like Amazon), it would be nice to see new editions with covers by JA/Asian/POC artists. Did other JA/Nikkei readers feel like Rinko and Aunt Waka don’t exactly look like actual Asians? I can tell they are meant to be Asian, especially in contrast to the white characters in the background (I read a paperback edition; see my twitter for a photo of the cover), but to me they seem to represent a white/non-Asian person’s attempt to depict Asians, rather than being a recognizable image of actual Asians. In fact, the most visually similar representation of “Asians” I can recall is some depictions of Asian characters by non-Asian artists in Marvel/DC comics. Put another way, Rinko and Waka’s facial features make me think of white people dressed as Asians, or those terrible films featuring yellowface. I remember being puzzled by these depictions when I first read the Rinko series, but since I was also regularly exposed to media from Japan, I simply expected the ‘white American’ style of representing Asians to be somewhat off from the reality and didn’t consider it worth holding to the same standard.
  • A quick search indicates Uchida passed in 1992. Did she imagine or hope her books would remain in circulation more than twenty years later? If she knew how widely known she is today, what would she say? What advice would she have for today’s JA/Nikkei writers? Did she have any hopes for or concerns about the future of JA/Nikkei literature?
  • When Waka reminds Rinko to know she is always Japanese, even if she never wears a kimono again, I realized this particular conversation isn’t one I see very much during conversations about identity in Nikkei/diaspora/Asian American spaces. Rather, there seems to be a focus on diaspora Asians building community with each other through shared experiences or later generations expanding/reevaluating their identities when in conversation with earlier generations, i.e. second-gen child discussing family history with first-gen parent. This is not a critique of ongoing dialogues in diaspora Asian spaces, but rather an exploration of how to conceptualize the spaces inhabited by people like Waka. To put it specifically in JA/Nikkei terms, Rinko’s mother is obviously Issei, but I doubt any of us would use Issei to describe Waka because she isn’t an immigrant.* In my personal experience, visits from relatives like Waka, as well as being able to visit Japan, played a significant role in shaping my understanding of what it means to be Japanese, and I would love to hear thoughts on this topic from fellow JA/Nikkei with similar connections to Japan. I also wonder whether it is more or less common for families to visit each other internationally today than it was in Rinko’s time. On one hand, many families who are now at the Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei, etc., stage would (theoretically, assuming they stayed in contact) have had much closer ties to Japan in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century than they might have now, especially if connections were lost during the war; conversely, with today’s technological advancements and (relative/selective) ease of access via study abroad, overseas job recruitment, etc., even children can make the international journey. This is obviously a very simplified comparison – I hope some Japanese or Nikkei scholar has written a book on the topic.
  • Rinko draws a distinction between her ‘American’ and ‘Japanese’ parts. Although I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a child narrator, it would be nice if, along with a Nikkei/POC-illustrated cover, the publisher could update some of the text to be more inclusive, or maybe a JA/Nikkei author could be commissioned to write a foreword or afterword addressing aspects of the original text which have not “aged” well, per se. This is, of course, linked to an ongoing problem in US publishing and in US mainstream culture in general – the assumption of ‘American’ as white by default. In this particular case, the Tsujimura family (perhaps not unexpectedly) seems to uncritically endorse ‘American Dream’ rhetoric, which erases their role and the overall role of nonwhite people in perpetuating settler colonialism in the so-called US. Examples include some of their key ‘victories’ in the story, such as the establishment of the home laundry and the repair garage. To any JA/Nikkei reading this and getting angry at me, pointing out this aspect of the book does not undermine the difficulties and obstacles endured by our community and other nonwhite people in the US. I’m not trying to diminish our history or disrespect our ancestors – my own grandfather ran a laundry in my hometown after being released from Topaz. That said, it would be dishonest and disrespectful to our community’s values (at least as I understand them), if we fail to acknowledge our past and current roles in upholding settler colonialism and if we do not actively engage in decolonization work with both indigenous and settler communities.
  • To further clarify, I am not (necessarily) critiquing Uchida for the pro-settler representation discussed above. I have no way to confirm her beliefs regarding indigenous peoples – all I can really say is, nowhere does the text challenge the ‘right’ of Japanese and other nonwhite people to pursue the ‘American Dream,’ and because of this lack of a counter-narrative, I feel it is the responsibility of the non-indigenous reader to raise these questions.

Follow-up:

  • I think I’ll read The Best Bad Thing next – or at least, the next time I’m in the mood for another JA historical novel. When I was younger, I could read my way through an entire series without stopping, but these days, I find I have to break it up by reading a book or two by a different author in between. Sometimes I really do wonder what happened to my attention span…

For anyone who may have been following Book Spotlight and thinks I am singling out Uchida, I am not. Just like many of you, I’m learning as I go, meaning that over time, my posts will contain more nuanced discussions of how Nikkei books approach decolonization and other social justice topics. If I were to rewrite some of my older posts, I would doubtless have much more to say about how other JA/Nikkei authors have endorsed/opposed/questioned the relationship between ‘Japanese American’ identity and settler colonialism. This blog and Book Spotlight as a series were never meant to be static, consistent representations of a particular way of thinking. If you are looking for JA/Nikkei who have more of their shit together, I recommend checking out some of the people on my JA Reading List. Happy reading!

*I suspect this situation isn’t more widely discussed in general diaspora Asian spaces because not every diaspora Asian family maintains ties to relatives in the cultural/ethnic homeland. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to label this as a kind of privilege – I think it can be a privilege or a means of oppression depending on the situation, much like fluency in non-English languages can be for people in English-dominant countries – but nevertheless, it isn’t something which can be discussed without, I imagine, making large groups of people feel excluded or less-than.

Book Spotlight: The Fog – Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Fog, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Kenard Pak, follows the adventures of a girl and a bird as they fight to free their home from a mysterious fog.

What I liked:

  • Kenard Pak is a fantastic artist. In fact, I really think his use of colors and composition is what made the book, even more so than the story itself. It looks like his background is in animation, which would explain how his images function so perfectly as storytelling devices. I almost feel he could have created this book solo, without any words.
  • There is no mention of race in the text, but I never imagined the main human character as anything but Asian. I wonder if other POC/Asian readers felt the same way.
  • I feel this book would do well if translated into Japanese. When I consider possible translations in my head, the story almost flows better in Japanese – maybe because, to me, there is more linguistic latitude (does that even make sense?) for leisurely storytelling in Japanese as opposed to English. This is probably an extremely subjective point, since I’ve noticed I can read slower-paced stories in Japanese, but I quickly get bored with them in English. Also, I think the quiet underlying message about environmentalism would fit in well with the subgenre of Japanese children’s literature which I think of as, ‘make the world better.’

What I learned:

  • Quite frankly, I found the story a bit slow, though the cinematic effects of some of the illustrations reminded me of the movie Happy Feet, with its strong visuals and message about environmentalism. I don’t think kid-me would have found the story particularly appealing, either. Apparently, I like my picture books to be a bit more attention-grabbing in terms of plot.

Questions I had:

  • Whose idea was it to caption the human characters? I thought this was the most effective device in terms of conveying the bird-rather-than-human perspective.
  • Did Maclear or Pak come up with the initial concept of this book? What was their collaboration process like? Did one deliberately seek out the other as a fellow POC in the children’s literature field?
  • How have Asian kids responded to this book? Do many of them automatically see themselves in the main human character? Do their parents and/or other supervising adults make a point of drawing their attention to the Asian author AND illustrator?
  • How many young readers pick up on the book’s environmental themes? Do their parents and/or other supervising adults make a point of discussing these themes with them?

Follow-up:

  • Pak has written and illustrated several picture books of his own, so I’ll be checking those out!
  • I haven’t gotten much of a sense of Maclear’s writing style from her picture books, so it looks like I’ll be reading one of her novels sometime.