An interlude

My mom’s visiting this week, and she brought more papers and objects from the archive, also known as her garage. And though I haven’t even finished writing about my dad’s manuscript, I’ve got a whole new set of documents to feed the book project. A letter from his chess-playing friend, along with a sheaf of computer chess score sheets. My dad’s old 5-year diary, from the early-to-mid 1950s. The diary itself will take a while: each whole day compressed into about an inch of space. Each page has five years of the same day. In some ways it reminds me of a Twitter feed, a Facebook status update. Perhaps the technology of documenting our days isn’t so different.

There are difficult documents in this batch: a copy of my dad’s death certificate, which means that I can now request his military records. A copy of the first and last Father’s Day poem that I wrote for my dad; he died in June. Hard. And harder still: the poem’s folded inside a copy of the eulogy that my uncle delivered at the funeral. A small gift from the eulogy: according to my uncle, my dad was conscious enough to read my poem before he died.

These are papers that I haven’t seen in years, if at all.

I’ve been thinking about my family archives: all those garages, all those places where we’ve kept paper traces of our lives. I’ve got my own archive growing a life of its own in my basement. “Nimuras,” my grandfather once mused, with some disgust, “are notorious pack rats.” What if we took that pack-rat tendency into historical context, with the Depression, with the dispossession of internment? (And, yes: am I just excusing our love for clutter?) I wonder how long it takes my family to go back through those boxes, if at all.

In fact, a couple of nights ago, I woke up wondering about my own pack-rat tendency to keep everything, but rarely look back at it all. Why has it taken me so long to begin this book project, to go back through the family archive? The metaphor may be too obvious: put everything into a box, and imagine that the keeping will be enough. But as most historians and librarians would probably tell you, an archive’s almost no good until somebody processes it, makes sense of it, organizes it. The literary critic in me would add: and makes it into narrative.

Can memory work the same way as archives? Can you bury memories desperately, leave them untouched for years, and return to them intact? And if not, is this one reason why we need physical archives?

What draws me back to this archive, this set of memories about my dad, is something I can only describe as an insistent tug. I don’t think that nostalgia is drawing me back, if nostalgia means the desire to look back, relive, find pleasure in the bittersweetness of the loss.

It’s more like the reason you might press a bruise. Yes, that’s still there. Yes, it still hurts. But maybe your fingers want to return to that mark, precisely because it’s a visible sign that you have hit something hard and survived. You press it, and wonder if it’s healed yet.

Findings in fractions

Music Scores at the Seattle Central Public Library

Here’s a paradox to consider. I’ve got a lot to think about, so you’ll have to look past the academic scaffolding.

First premise: There are very few traces of my dad on the Internet.

You can Google “Taku Nimura,” or “Taku Frank Nimura,” and there isn’t very much connected to him, or who he was. I have active e-mail accounts, a Facebook account, a Twitter account, a SheWrites.com page… and as a new daughter of this digital age, it makes me sad that you can’t Google my dad*, for lack of a better term. You can’t find his obituary, the most stripped-down version of a life outline (except for the tombstone inscription), in online newspaper archives.

(Maybe I will create a Wikipedia page about him, but there’s still so much that I need to know. And one wonders: if what makes someone “historic” is debatable, what makes someone Wikipedia-page-worthy?)

And so I wonder about the countless individuals who do not have an online presence, even now; I wonder about the connection between the Internet and identity. I’m not saying that Google should be the only way to find out information, but it’s the first stop for so many, for so much. I wonder about the impact technology will have on my daughters, and the impact it’s had so far. I wonder about them finding out more about their grandfather, in an age where they can’t find him, through search engines that mark their findings in fractions of a second.

Second premise: And yet, Internet technology gave me these things:

1. Pictures I’d never seen before of my dad, from a long-lost friend of his on Facebook. “Are those his granddaughters I’m looking at in your profile picture?” she asks. And that’s a relationship I had not yet connected with my father: he would be a grandfather, my daughters would be his granddaughters.

2. A blog comment here, from someone who knew my dad—during a time when I know so little about his life. I’m not sure we would have found each other without the Internet. I’m so excited to find out more.

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to realize this next thought, and my ten-year-old self would have resisted this, I’m sure. But here goes: my dad never belonged just to me, or just to my family. He also belonged to his friends, and other communities I’d never known or seen. The memoir that my sister and I are writing, then, may not be just a “dual” or “triple” memoir; it may also be something like a community memoir. I want to ask more people what they remember about him.

3. His Masters thesis in Public Administration and a bibliography that he wrote about Japanese in the United States. (Coming soon from Interlibrary loan, more Internet: cross your fingers!)

4. And this page from the California State Sacramento Library catalog, which makes me so happy. Taking my cue from my wonderful university reference librarians, I know that Google does not see everything. There is, however, a great deal of less-Google-able information, available from libraries.

5. A bookstore in Sacramento selling a poetry anthology; one of the poets is my dad.

Last part of the paradox: what does it mean?

Perhaps more obviously, search engines can erase (or obscure) an identity, but it can also restore an identity, in completely unexpected ways.

In the project I want to think more about what that means about humanity’s urges to record, document, remember. Google might not get me a quick answer about my dad, and I’m not sure I want it to do that, anyway. But I can still find him—or fractions of him—through these vast oceans of time and memory.

Despite our rapid technological changes, I think he would have loved our here and now. He wrote so many letters to friends and family. (My first copyediting job, by the way: proofreading those typewritten letters.) I think he’d have an active Facebook account, to share pictures of his granddaughters. And I can almost see him writing witty status updates. Like me, I think he’d share anecdotes about his family, menus of evening dinners, pictures from his travels.

Librarians, writers, readers: our human urge is to connect.

In the book I’ll be writing more about each of these artifacts. For now, I’m remembering that writing the book is one way to put my father’s presence back in the world.

The paradox rephrased: I’m writing both through, and despite, a technology and history that might otherwise erase my father.

*The dystopic novel I’m reading right now–set in the “not so distant future” describes such a person as “ITP” (Impossible To Preserve).

This picture says a lot about where, how, and why I’m traveling, taken at the Seattle Central Public Library:

Uncollected

It’s been quite a month, and while I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with my daughters, it’s also been exhausting. I’ve had to choose sanity and take a few expectations off of my plate: mostly self-imposed expectations, often the heaviest ones. Not all laundry must be clean and put away at all times; not every snack my girls eat at home must be homemade and organic and local (you can take the girl out of the Bay Area, but…); dinner does not need to be simmering on the stove when anyone walks in the door. Or, maybe one might be feasible, but not all three in the same day.

And yes: not every blog post must be perfect, beautiful, articulate, collected. For now, the point is to keep writing, whether it’s for the joy of it (Stephen King’s On Writing) or if it’s only for 15 minutes a day (Summer Pierre’s The Artist in the Office).  It’s the writing as habit that’s been an important transition for me this summer. And because of writing, I think I newly understand the phrase “collecting your thoughts.”

So there are a few thoughts I’ve collected, picked up, from the cluttered floors in my mind:

1. I’m not entering a writing contest just to win, really. Although winning would be fabulous, it’s more about the commitment to set a larger goal and put my writing out there. A lot of my thirtysomething peers seem to be running 5Ks or triathlons (or marathons) to commit themselves in similar ways. The contest deadline‘s this week, so I’m going to be working on that application. I’ve got a cover letter mostly finished, and am going to be revising these pieces.  And after that, I’m going to try to submit things elsewhere, maybe here and here. But I just want to keep my head down: write, revise, occasionally send (or hit “publish”).

2. Ever since I wrote about libraries a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about ways to help public libraries, beyond donating my books and beyond using the facilities. I was shocked to see that Seattle’s Central Library will be closed for a week next month, due to budget cuts. That library seems to serve so many, in so many ways. I’ve been heartened by NPR’s prediction that libraries will be the next cupcakes. I’ve seen several articles about libraries that have continued this thread in my mind. But I want to know what else I can do, or where to begin. I’ve been committed to American ethnic studies for almost a decade now, and I wonder if there’s a place for me to combine my commitments to that field with my renewed commitment to public libraries. Both of these institutions are firmly committed to radical inclusion and social diversity and educational justice; it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, that both of these things are also currently under attack.

3. I’m going to look a bit more into metaphors for history. Ever since I read my first piece of historiography in grad school, I’ve wanted to know more about it. I’m fascinated with Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” with Suzan-Lori Parks’s “great hole of history.” I’ve been thinking more about it ever since I came up with my own metaphor for history and title for the book.  Any suggestions are more than welcome.

As a subset of that, I’m also curious about what makes something or someone historical. I’ll have to ask my historian friends and colleagues about that.  What strikes me about internment and Japanese Americans is that in some ways, internment is a big part of what makes Japanese Americans “historic”—and there’s so little about what happened to them after they left camp.  Are they no longer “historic” once the historical event has passed, in other words? What’s left once the boat and the wake have disappeared?

I’ve been mulling over the main character’s struggles in Louise Erdrich’s novel Shadow Tag:

How many times have I told you how difficult it is to resist the lure of the historical moment? The one action, the instantaneous truth that changes everything? How many times have I described my own struggles in telling stories, relating historical occurrences, searching for the sequence of events that results in a pattern we can recognize as history? There are always many moments, there is never just one. There are many points of clarity and many causes to one effect. However, after many, many of these points, these moments, have occurred, there is, I should tell you, a final moment. A final scene.” (48)

But I wonder about the desire to resist the lure of the historical moment. We find that the character’s narration is somewhat unreliable. I wonder if her desire to resist transcendence and knowledge (that is, the epiphany) is in itself revealing, and if so, how.

4. An MFA usually requires a large project. I’ve got my project. It’s already larger than I’d anticipated; at first, I thought it would be a reworking of a response to my dad’s manuscript about our family’s internment. And it is, but among other things, it’s also about:

  • technology and memory: how do different forms of documenting (from typewritten manuscripts to Facebook photos) inflect how and what we remember?
  • family and endurance: how has my family maintained its ability to laugh?
  • creativity and multimedia: the textual, the visual, meshed with the archival; the creative lives of me, my dad, and my sister

After I enter the contest, I’ll need to figure out how to plot my next steps. In the meantime, I’ve been happy to spend so much time with printed pages and much less time with online pages (not that I don’t appreciate you reading this!). More printed pages have meant that I’ve been reading books, not just replenishing the well but also stirring up the pot, and seasoning the stew, to mix a few metaphors.

Four things: that’s the collection which is in the laundry basket for now: a few wrinkled items, a few fluffy items, a few that need to be hung up and put away. I’ll add some links to this post tomorrow evening or Wednesday, and I’ll post more about my entry in the contest towards the end of the week.

(For those of who you who asked for a post about farmers markets, I did write one, but it became something else entirely: a meditation about home and a marching song. I’ll keep trying. And I’ll post that one, too, once I revise it.)

Summer reading lists, 2010

Recently completed reading

  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  • Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby
  • The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp
  • Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reading right now (In media re[ad]s)

  • War Dances, by Sherman Alexie
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim
  • The Guardians, by Ana Castillo

Reading returned to the library, without reading in its entirety

  • South of Broad, by Pat Conroy (I like his books, but tire of his one protagonist with the same mother issues.)
  • Sparkle Life, by Kara Lindstrom (Beware the book that needs “sex” on its book jacket description, twice.)

Reading on the bedside table: on deck

  • The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee
  • Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, by David Mura
  • Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Reading that may require more quiet and commitment than I’ve got right now (and that I hope to get to eventually)

  • Baltasar and Blimunda, by José Saramago
  • The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Reading I haven’t bought yet

  • The Stieg Larsson novels (anyone want to loan me these?)
  • I-Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain

On my hold list at the library

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

A few favorite rereadings in bits and pieces:

  • Three Junes, by Julia Glass
  • The Sum of Our Days, by Isabel Allende
  • Comfort Me With Apples, by Ruth Reichl

Books to reread soon for the book project

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Books to buy soon

  • Honoring Juanita, by Hans Ostrom
  • The Atlas of Love, by Laurie Frankel

A bit of recommended online reading

I’m happy to answer questions or comment more on any of these, by request. And you? (as Shauna likes to ask) What do your summer reading lists look like?

Opening the envelope

I could tell you that it smelled yellow. Not in a diseased, Charlotte-Perkins-Gilman way. Not in an inscrutable, exotic, “Oriental” way.  It smelled like Northern California summer sunlight coming through shoji screen paper.

I could tell you that it smelled, predictably, like aging paper. But that might only tell you so much. If you haunt used bookstores like I do, you’d probably recognize the smell. You’d also know it if you’ve done a lot of research in the archives, or shelving in the library stacks. This week we took a family walk down the spiral stacks at the Seattle Central Public Library, and as we rounded a corner, something like that smell greeted me.

The envelope smelled, as my husband Josh pointed out to me, like my childhood house. When I was growing up, we had touches of Japanese décor around the house: a few kokeshi dolls, a noren that fluttered in the main entrance to the hallway, even a tokonoma with a bright red painting. But for me it’s the shoji screens over our windows and glass doors that quietly say home. That’s the smell: the yellow, the paper, the light.

Since I love paper with a cocooning fervor that would make a silkworm blush (another post, another time), you’d think that the feel of the paper would be my first sensory hit. I’ve had this envelope for years now, and it’s been at my mom’s house for a couple of decades before that, probably unopened.

But at first, I was too tentative to rub the paper between my fingers. I even did some writing before I opened the envelope; I wrote down the questions that I wanted to ask. During internment, how did you and our family deal with loss? How did you deal with the loss of your possessions, of your house, of your family papers and baby pictures? And the difficult, near-impossible questions: How have I dealt, or not dealt, with your loss? How do we endure?

It took me a week to think about those questions. I haven’t read the manuscript since I was eight or nine years old: almost twenty-five years ago. Then a week later, I wrote down why I was so afraid of opening the envelope. I’m scared that it’s going to make me cry and realize his loss all over again. I hate crying. I hate having lost him.

On my computer desktop, I opened up and looked at an old photo of my father. I wanted to say something like a prayer, but I didn’t know what to ask for. I don’t really pray, if we’re being very honest here.

I couldn’t think, didn’t say, probably felt: please.

Then I opened the envelope. Lately I’ve been worried that the manuscript inside the envelope has been deteriorating. But I noticed that though the first and last pages are a bit tattered, the bond paper’s doing its very best to stand up to the manual typewriter. In an age of slick laser printouts, there’s something engraved, almost letterpressed, about these typewritten pages.

And at the bottom of the very first page, he left me an unexpected gift.

Taku Frank Nimura

December, 1973

Out of the two-hundred plus manuscript pages, it’s this one that I just might cherish the most. He wrote this book—or at least this page—during the month and year that I was born. He died eleven years later.

In the wake of a recent loss, private for now, I am beginning to write my own book. It’s a book that speaks to my father, that will interweave his voice with the voice and artwork of my sister. I don’t know where this project will take us, but I know it’s about memory, family, technology, loss, and home. And it’s about the precariously shifting aftermath of history, or what I’ve come to think of as the wake.

The wake? Stand near the back of a ferry boat, and watch the waters below. As the boat engine starts, the waters will seem to hum. All that unseen energy will churn itself into a thick, gorgeous procession of rippling upheaval. We know the procession will eventually disappear. And so we treasure the wake because we are always leaving it behind.

Revision of Assignment #1 (Tell a story in lists)

On Becoming a Writer (Again): A Progress Report of Habits

Clean desk.
Hours to complete: about 4.

Renew library card. Check out library books.

First checkout from the library: 2 books. Second checkout from the library: 1 book. Latest checkout from the library: about 14 books.

Read more fiction for pleasure.

  • Read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a few stories from Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Laughed over one, puzzled over the other (perhaps am not hip enough? a high probability).
  • Tried to read Sonya Chung’s Long for this World, but had to return it to the library. Want other people to read this book—it looks like it will be important, transnational, historically relevant. But early in the book, had this terrible feeling that a feverish child was going to die. Couldn’t go on.

Read nonfiction writing.
Just finished Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France. An inspiration.

Resurrect the quote journal for inspiration.
Taste these from My Life in France:
• “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite” (302)
• “how lovely life can be if one takes time to be friendly” (66)
• “I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.” (67)

Carry several notebooks and pens around with you.

  • Saw my writer friend R’s clothbound journal a few weeks ago: the cover soft, lovely, well-worn like an heirloom quilt. Want my notebook to be like that: used, not reserved for special occasions, like fancy china behind glass cabinet doors.
  • Using one of those hardbound blank journals that had been a Christmas gift. Having that notebook is like having a camera: not only are moments and thoughts that much easier to document, but having the journal is itself a lens and a mandate.

Read books on writing.

  • Started Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s been recommended reading for writers, but all can think about, at least in this early part of the memoir, is “No wonder he writes horror novels.”
  • Started worrying about some of the different neuroses associated with writers: the sullen solitary, the competitive wit, the narcissistic venom, the icicle-forming insecurity. (Note to self: do not confuse writers with anonymous YouTube or newspaper commenters.) Thought about the writer who reads other writers and always loses in self-judged beauty writing contests. Always the bikini round, not the interview, that wins the day.
  • Wondered if this worrying about worrying is a writer’s characteristic.

Write.

  • Blog posts: 19
  • Status updates on Facebook and Twitter: probably too many.
  • Typed letter to a friend: 1

Revise.

  • Posted first drafts on the blog, then second and third and fourth drafts.
  • Reflected more on earlier entries, such as the one about the act of loaning out and returning library books. Although still struggling to love abundantly, wonder if my love of owning books may be actually less about generosity and more about the idea of hoarding something. You hoard something that you love because you worry that it will be taken away from you.
  • Tried to remove as many “I”’s from this post as possible.

Grades:
1. Collaged the lists, wrote, revised the first assignment into a linear story.

2. Oldest daughter commandeered one notebook from my purse, while we were waiting at the airport. She’s started to write and illustrate her first narrative book.

3. Opened my dad’s manuscript; had been scared to reread it; haven’t read it in over 25 years.

4. Woke up with a filmic ending of a story. Had never met the boy and girl characters, though had seen that particular off-ramp to downtown Seattle many times over. Two balloon releases. Not sure why. Wanted to know how the characters got to that image. Started to dream in fiction.

About a library

“I want you to write the blog post about the library,” my dear friend B said to me yesterday.

Last week I told you and B that I found myself wandering—and, let’s be honest, a bit low on funds. And instead of going to the bookstore where I knew I couldn’t buy anything, I found myself on solid ground at my public library. (That’s the main branch, in the photo above.)

I was stunned, literally stunned, at what wonderful places libraries can be. I felt occupied by exclamation points, like Ginsberg’s supermarket in California: there were whole families shopping for books! Shelves and shelves of books! People from all walks of life! Passes for area museums! Movies and TV shows on DVD! A reading area for the kids!

My daughters got their first library cards this week, and though neither of them can even read just yet, it warmed my heart to see them grabbing books off the shelves, then sitting quietly on the alphabet block carpet and turning pages. They made for the reading area as if they were at home. They’ve been to libraries before, but with their cards, I got to introduce them to the magic of libraries: so many books to read, take away, return, and then, the miracle: you can get more!

At their best, libraries strike me as an exercise in loving generously: one that I can only begin to compare to my mother’s love. My mother loves so abundantly that if you love peanut M&M’s, giving you a handful of them is not enough: she must buy you the entire 5-pound yellow bag. This is a literal, not a symbolic, example.

My library visit made me wonder: why in the world do I not visit public libraries more often? For that matter, why have I chosen to haunt bookstores, (mostly) new and used, independent and corporate, over libraries? Why would I rather buy my books, rather than borrow them? And now this tendency even strikes me as miserly, particularly in comparison to the trust and abundance of libraries’ (and yes, my mother’s) goodwill: I don’t want to have to give books back. I want to be able to keep them all to myself, forever and ever if I want. With apologies to Marxists, it’s not Scrooge’s piles of wealth which are the real problem, right? It’s his unwillingness to share.

Well, why not hang out in libraries? There’s the too-quiet atmosphere, for one thing. In cafes, I like working around others who are working. But I want to be able to talk to them occasionally, too, maybe even to ask what they’re reading. I want to be able to listen to music, sometimes even music that the baristas choose for me from their iPods. I want an iced mocha that I can nurse and an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that I can nibble. Give me a piano that an earnest teenager will occasionally strum. Since we’re in the Pacific Northwest, give me warmly painted walls, and lots and lots of windows for natural light. Give me babies who will peek at me over their mothers’ shoulders, and a space where toddlers can wield their crayons freely. No cubicles. Give me tables, lots of tables, ‘neath the reading lights above. Don’t fence me in.

Libraries are not my preferred workspaces, and for a long time, especially during graduate school, libraries meant research libraries. They did not feel like spaces designed for pleasure and quiet revelation (or revolution); they were spaces designed for hushed, solemn work. Gorgeous, but intimidating and uncomfortable.

But why in the world have I not visited libraries more often? See, if I had just discovered libraries, if I hadn’t come from a family of voracious readers and librarians, that would be one thing. But if you’ve been reading along for a while now, you already know that the written word is earth, air, water, fire for my soul.  And I went to the library all the time when I was a little girl. Summer reading clubs were a way to keep track of books I had read, sure, but they were icing on the cake. Moreover, one of my aunts was a children’s librarian in San Francisco. Her husband, my uncle, was also a librarian at the Western Addition branch there, and was a major force behind its Japanese language collection. And my dad was a librarian, the head of Circulation, here.

Marveling at the wonderfulness of my public library, I thought: Oh, shit. Is that why I’ve avoided libraries?

For a month I’ve been working on a project which involves my dad. So everything, even grilled cheese sandwiches, feels like it’s circling back to him. Characters in Colson Whitehead’s amazing novel The Intuitionist are nervous in elevators because elevators remind them of coffins. By comparison, I wonder if I’ve avoided libraries because their silence reminds me of the silence of uncomfortable introspection, or death.

But here’s a clue. I am writing this entry the night before Father’s Day, a holiday that’s been difficult for me since 1984.  (More difficult memories: I wrote a poem for my dad a few weeks before he died, and my uncle read it as part of my dad’s eulogy.) And this week at the library I was looking up Zadie Smith’s book of essays, and reached over to get some scratch paper. I stared at the yellowing piece of paper for a minute, with some nostalgia and even love. For scratch paper, my library still uses old index cards from card catalogs. “Research outlook,” the title on my card said.

Publication year on the card: 1983. That’s the year before my dad died.

Maybe that title’s a command.

P.S. Coming up this week: revisions of earlier assignments. A break from death, for us all. If you’ve been reading from the beginning, many thanks.