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Camp Memorials, Silence, and Restlessness: A Dialogue with Brandon Shimoda - Part 1

Cranes for 2017 Tacoma Day of Remembrance. (Photo courtesy of Tamiko Nimura)

2017 has been a Year of Remembrance in the Japanese American community, commemorating 75 years since the signing of Executive Order 9066. Many Days of Remembrance events have been planned around the country, with more events to come. It’s a year that has made me wonder about the long-term effects of memorials and memory. For whom are memorials important? When are they useful? When are they unsatisfying?

I reached out to the Sansei/Yonsei writer Brandon Shimoda, who I’ve known from Twitter, to have a conversation about these issues, and more. Brandon is the author of several books of poetry, including O Bon (Litmus Press, 2011) and Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions, 2015) and is at work on a book of essays.

I don’t know if we answered many questions, but I think we raised some useful questions that can help light the way for future memorials, future memories, future generations.

* * * * *

May 3, 2017

Dear Brandon,

I’ve been reading your essays for a little while now, mostly through Twitter, which is where we “met.”

Because I’ve been thinking and reading and writing about camp for a long time now, your beautiful essay about the Portland Japanese American Historical Plaza (in the New Inquiry) really hit home. I loved how the essay visited the plaza several times, creating several memories of the space for yourself and the reader.

I really appreciated the difficult questions that the essay asked:

I too want people to remember. But how could anyone who was not there?

What in the plaza is helping people recognize and remember civil liberties and the consequences when they are forsaken?

What about the Japanese Americans who did not make American military history….who did not make invaluable contributions to national life?…who did—nothing?

These are painful but (I think) necessary questions, and I appreciated how they made me think harder about memory and memorials.

Among other things, you said that “memorials are, themselves, sites of willful closure and forgetting. They valorize the act of remembrance by foreclosing on what is being remembered.” It seems to be against memorials, which made me think hard about the purpose and audience of memorials.

This idea can be very painful for some people, no? I think about the obelisk at Manzanar. That marker means a lot to a lot of people. Or statues, or Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Are we better off without memorials? Or is it that camp memorials (or just certain camp memorials?) especially present difficult problems that resist resolution?

This train of thought made me wonder if memorials are primarily for the limited circles of people who actually are involved in creating them (whether through the physical act of sculpting something or fundraising for them or dedicating them). Would you say that that’s the case? And if so, is that bad?

I think about your essay as I’m considering one of my long-term goals, which is to create a series of physical signs for my adopted hometown: for Tacoma’s non-existent Japantown. I’m also thinking about the memorial dedication ceremony I attended a few years ago, in honor of Tacoma’s (again, non-existent) Japanese Language School. It was incredibly moving, several hundred people gathered to hear the school song, to remember their experiences as students so many years ago.

The dedication created its own memory for me, one that still resonates as I’m working on a Day of Remembrance for Tacoma.

So maybe the memory continues through the process of making memorials, although perhaps differently than memorial planners envision?

I wrote to you in a private message on Twitter because I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your essays, and to hear more about your ideas here—and in another essay (Hyperallergic) I sensed a restlessness, even a discontent, with silence and forgetting around camp. There are ways that your writing about camp seems to want to resist ideas of resolution and closure (where was your family incarcerated?, as we later generations ask each other). And I wanted to hear more about that.

I look forward to reading more from you—it seems great to me that letters (even now antiquated e-mail letters!) are how we’re able to begin.


* * * * *

May 8, 2017

Tamiko …

Sometimes I fantasize lighting questions on fire and launching them into the sky. Favorably. Like fireworks. Then divining the answers in the colors and patterns of each question’s explosion. I wonder if we both answer questions by adding to them, by writing more into them, by turning them into something else. I thought of that reading your piece, How It Feels To Inherit Camp (in Kartika Review, Spring 2011). It ends, in part:

To see yourself as a part of history also means that you can change it. So you must make the textbook paragraph into a poem. Saturate history with meaning like water bleeds through paper.

Which sounds, to me, like a call not only to transform history, but to transform historiography, the writing of history, which is related, I think, to remembrance and memorialization.

To be, within it, creative ...

You asked, based on my writing in Japanese American Historical Plaza, if I think we are better off without memorials. I would say no. We are not better off. Mostly because I think that memorials are organic, therefore fundamental, consequences of life. That everything is, in one way or another, a memorial to someone or something that has passed. That could be as monumental as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, or as small and obscure as a facial expression. In that sense, some memorials depend upon a public audience, while others depend upon privacy, secrecy even. This, without correlation to scale. This might extend what you were wondering: if memorials are primarily for limited circles of people. Each memorial is different, right?

That being said, I think some of the most fertile and evocative memorials exist in the imagination.

The memorial you mentioned creating in Tacoma, for example: a series of physical signs for Tacoma’s nonexistent Japantown. It is beautiful. It is profound. Even though it does not exist yet. It does. It exists. But its form relies presently on the imagination. Yours. But also that of whomever you share your idea with. It is mysterious. And possesses, in its mysteriousness, an urgency that cannot be diffused.

I would love to hear more about this project. Are you able to talk about it? Where does it currently exist. I mean, in addition to your imagination. Does it exist in notes or sketches or photographs? What would the signs say?

If you feel comfortable sharing …

It would be interesting to collect people’s ideas for memorials. Related to Japanese American history, and in general. And to also ask people where, or in what stage, people felt their memorials to be the most fertile and evocative.

I might ask that of the people who created the Japanese American Historical Plaza, in Portland.

I have been meaning to write more about that, by the way (the Historical Plaza). A sequel to what I wrote. About how, for example, the more I visited the memorial, the more the "memorial" changed, evolved, turned into something else, something unexpected. And also about how it is called the Japanese American Historical Plaza, but the only history it represents is incarceration. I think that is a problem.

That is an aside.

Are there any “sequels” you want to write?

Maybe everything is an aside. A universe of asides, with no center …

Sometimes I think my problem, or frustration, rather, with memorials, in general, is that they have been realized, that they have been COMPLETED, and therefore embody a kind of achievement, a kind of pride, that feels antithetical to the openness that memorialization requires. This might be my misunderstanding. My obtuseness. But you asked: is it that camp memorials present difficult problems that resist resolution? I would say yes. Because yes, the mass incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans resists resolution. It has not yet been resolved. Redress and reparations did not “resolve” the issue of mass incarceration. It neither broke the silence, nor silenced the anger. It did not close the book. The book is still open. Pages are still being written. As you write:

Saturate history with meaning like water bleeds through paper.

I am both Sansei and Yonsei. My grandfather, a Japanese immigrant ineligible for citizenship, was incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison in Missoula, Montana. My great-uncle and his family were incarcerated at Heart Mountain. My great-aunt and her family were incarcerated at Poston. My grandmother and her family, who lived in Utah, were exempt from incarceration, though not the conditions, the atmosphere, that bred incarceration. My grandmother remembers receiving the restitution check made out to my grandfather and the accompanying “apology” by George H.W. Bush. She spent that check on rent for the nursing home where my grandfather lived. He did not know about the check. He had Alzheimer’s.

Now it is 2017. The emotions, the anger, still exist. Partly because the United States has not changed. The conditions, the atmosphere, that bred incarceration, have shifted shape, but neither the inherent desire nor intent have changed. Japanese Americans who were incarcerated know this. That is why they have been speaking out, telling their stories, with greater force and specificity and conviction than (maybe) ever …

I greatly appreciate the litany of anger you write in How It Feels To Inherit Camp:

And you are angry when some people praise your people for not being angry or bitter.

And you are angry when some people ask why you are not angrier.

And you are angry when you know that some people might like you better when you are

Usually, you are not an angry person. Where does this anger come from?

Once you know that your family was in camp, you own history in your guts: it's written within the body.

That final line is so crucial! It is written within the body.

Which is maybe the most fertile and evocative memorial: the body.

There is so much more to say about that. But I’ll leave it there, for now …

In the meantime, I was wondering: what was the first thing you wrote about incarceration. No matter how young you were or what the writing actually was. Do you remember?


Read Part 2 >>


© 2017 Tamiko Nimura

Brandon Shimoda camps DOR EO9066 memorials writer