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.

(Approximately) Five Questions About Writing, History, & Technology: Hans Ostrom

With the shift in new routines, I’m missing a few things that I know the non-private MFA would offer: externally-imposed structure and accountability. But! I’m a Capricorn, as I’ve said, and usually good with internally-imposed deadlines.

So with the beginning of a new school year, it’s time for a new assignment. To help with more regular posts, I’m introducing a new occasional feature here: a series of short interviews with writers, historians, and anyone else who’s interested in questions of writing, history, technology, and memory.

Today’s inaugural series post is a short interview with my good friend and colleague, Hans Ostrom. One of my favorite stories about Hans is our very first meeting. I’d done some research before we met, and saw that we’d gone to the same high school. I realized that my high school principal also had the same last name, and so I asked Hans if they were related. Hans raised his eyebrows, dropped his jaw, turned slightly paler, and actually dropped the paper he was holding. My high school principal was (is) Hans’s older brother. Hans and I have worked together now for almost seven years.

*****

KikuGirl (KG): In the “customary” Google/Wikipedia search, I couldn’t find any interviews with you! Are you that reclusive? Has anyone called you the J.D. Salinger of Tacoma, or Sierra City, where you grew up?

Hans Ostrom (HO): Ah, this one is easy. There are no interviews because no one has been interested in interviewing me.  I like the interview as a genre, and I don’t mind being interviewed.  One problem, if it’s a problem, is that I have written in a bunch of genres—poetry, fiction, scholarship, criticism, journalism, textbooks, encyclopedias, blogging, etc.  I think if I’d decided on one thing early on, I might be better known as a writer of that thing—be it poetry or mystery novels or whatever.  But I love to try different kinds of writing. I would say I’m solitary—writing-groups, for instance, have not worked for me, and I’m terrible at literary politics—rubbing elbows, going to the right conferences, etc.  So by default, not really design, I’m a lone wolf and a contrarian. But I’m not reclusive, and  always thought Salinger was simply bizarre.  Whereas I’m simply obscure.  I think bizarre pays better.

KG: Speaking of all of that writing: you write and publish more, both in hard-copy print and online, than just about anyone I know. (Maybe you’re the Joyce Carol Oates of the West Coast.) In addition to the multiple, regularly-updated blogs, there’s the edited encyclopedia of African American literature, there’s the poetry collection, the textbooks about creative writing, the scholarly studies, the detective novel, and probably a whole other set of writings I haven’t discovered yet. How do you produce so much, so consistently?

HO: I’m probably a compulsive writer.  Not an obsessive one, but a compulsive one.  I just love to write, so I write more or less all the time—in waiting rooms, in bed, sometimes while watching TV.  I do very well with deadlines, which are a kind of drug for compulsive writers.  This all may have started at community college, where I had a full-time academic schedule, worked as an R.A., and wrote sports articles for local newspapers.  This required multitasking and writing quickly.  So I just tend to plunge in and write and then see what I have later, as opposed to a lot of planning, outlining, etc.—although these are often necessary, too.  And one genre tends to carom off the other, so in the midst of an  encyclopedia entry, you might get an idea for a poem.  [KG: I love this idea.] Writing is probably also my way of processing the world, perhaps of coping.

KG: In your historical novel Honoring Juanita, there are several metaphors for history. There’s the standard history as “the dusty, distant past”; history as the recurring, haunting Juanita; history as the origin of objects (the trees that the main character, Mary, uses in her woodcarvings); history as sedimented levels of trees and nature. What did writing historical fiction do for you that reading written histories might not have?

Mary is a kind of poet, and I think poets are mad to make history “real”: palpable, something you can touch and smell.  Of course, this is impossible, as history is past, is gone.  Its effects aren’t gone, but it is, so it always exists once or twice removed. Perhaps my favorite metaphor is the sediment/compost one, history as a slow building up, an accumulation, something that feeds the present, for better or worse—good compost vs. unhealthy compost. A woodcarver, Mary wants to get her hands on Juanita, but of course she can’t.

KG: Elsewhere, you’ve written about the Kindle and e-books, and you (like I) have lived from dial phones to IPhones. How do you think these forms of digital technologies will impact our reading habits, and our memories?

HO: I think they are revolutionizing reading and writing—right now.  And this will only accelerate.  There’s something called “Moore’s law,” which is that micro-chip storage capacity doubles every 12-24 months.  I think you’re seeing an erosion, even a collapse, of publishing hierarchies.  Vested interests need to try to prevent this from happening, but I don’t know if they can. We could be witnessing a vast democratization of writing and publishing, and I love it.  The old way depended upon an economy of false scarcity, which is reinforced by rigid ideas of “genius,” by making art mysterious (“it can’t be taught”), a fixed canon, only so many slots open for “great” writers, etc.  Many people are nostalgic for this setup, but I’m not.  Interestingly, you can archive books with Amazon  after you’ve read them on Kindle, so there is a chance that people will leave their Kindles to their children—a library of hundreds of books, maybe thousands, if we go by Moore’s number.  Few saw this coming.  Huge personal libraries owned by everyday folk.  At the same time, we may also be entering an era in which most people don’t have the patience to read for a long time or to read complex things.  Don’t get me wrong—I love books as books, as artifacts, but I also love these new developments.  It’s not an either/or question for me.

KG: What’s your favorite metaphor for history, or your favorite quotation about it, and why?

HO: The compost one I mentioned. I think maybe another expression would be “a necessary illusion.”  That is, history represents what is gone, but we need an illusion of its still being there, so we continually create  illusions of past—in our personal lives, in history books, in the media (“founding fathers,” “the greatest generation”).

Where history is still alive is its effects, and oddly enough, people are often reticent to accept that reality; thus the U.S. has never fully come to terms with the effects of  slavery, for example (just one example—there are many).  A kind of deep denial festers, therefore—and you see it coming out in the overreaction to Obama’s being elected.  He is as moderate as Eisenhower, but confused racist reactions drive people to make him some kind of Other—socialist, Kenyan, proto-dictator.

I can’t think of a favorite quotation, but I’m sure it would be something  ironic, something to let the pretentious steam out of history.  There’s probably one from Wilde or Twain.

*****

I’m honored—and frankly, surprised—to note that this is Hans’s first interview. And it’s my first written interview, too. Many thanks to Hans for being the first contestant, and for playing along.

Writing, history, and technology are going to be important in my book, so these interviews are also a form of research. If you know anyone who would be interested in being interviewed for this series, please send me a message at kikugirl (at) kikugirl dot net.

An unexpected stretch

“How does it feel to be writing your own MFA?” my newly-refound childhood friend asked me, while we were chatting on Facebook this week. A concert pianist, and thus an artist herself, she wondered if I faced issues with writer’s block, or struggled with a blank page, or a blank screen. “Sometimes the longest trip is between me and the piano,” she wrote.

“Well, I’ve been away from writing for a while—for now, I still hunger to write,” I replied. “And I know that an artist’s life is not a linear one.” (“Amen, sister!” she wrote back.) “But right now, I think it’s more fulfilling.”

And it’s true, so far. While writing my dissertation had its own rewards, a life lived in bookstore cafes and libraries, this version of my writing life is, well, fun. And it’s a foreign work ethic for me, when my work ethic is usually much more Puritan.

These days I just don’t want writing to be work that I hate. I don’t mind it being hard. I don’t mind working hard. But I don’t want to hate it. I don’t want to write out of guilt for having not written. I don’t want to write in order to please a hostile or cynical audience. I want writing to always have some element of pleasure as the goal. (I’m telling you, Stephen King’s On Writing has some great stuff in it.)

So when I write these days, I am seeking pleasure. Every time I decide to write creatively, it is a gift that I am giving myself.

You might hear the faintest hint of yoga-speak creeping into that last sentence, and I don’t blame you if you are skeptical. Too granola, too Berkeley, too earth-mothery, too woo-woo. I know, I know, I know. Surprising that despite growing up in California, despite going to UC Berkeley, I didn’t take up yoga until I moved to Washington. Like many people, maybe even some of you reading right now, I rolled my eyes at yoga. But really, now that I think about it, the idea of writing as a gift to myself must have something to do with my yoga practice.

A few years ago my sister convinced me to try yoga. For a little while, I took yoga classes at the recreational sports center here. And when the karate students were thumping upstairs over our overheated yoga room, I couldn’t see any “horizon” past my Warrior II fingertips, pointing at the heap of dirty blue gymnastics mats. And then I bought some DVD’s like the ones here. And it was fine, but not great, much less life-changing.

But then I started taking classes, and found a studio that I love, about a mile from my house. The teachers often incorporate meditation techniques. (Some of my favorite techniques: focus on an image, a word, a quotation, and use these as themes for the hour and a half. It’s actually quite literary.) The teachers gently correct postures. And the studio itself tries to create community within its community, from the self-introductions at the beginning of classes to the sponsorship of farmers markets to the weekend retreats, events and workshops.

And for someone like me, who lives so deeply in the mind, yoga has been a priceless gift, because it emphasizes the mind-body connection. Academics live at computers, at desks, at tables; it can be physically and mentally damaging if there are no times to take a break. It’s absorbing, and rewarding, but it can take its toll.

While academia often involves judgment, yoga doesn’t judge me. I rarely look around to see what other students are doing, and I don’t feel the need to compete with them. (“Ooh! She’s holding her ‘tree pose’ longer than I did!”) I’m never sorry that I went to yoga, and that’s an entirely new approach to work, and even exercise, for me. Even after several years, I feel like I’m still pretty new, but I’ve gone to a few advanced yoga classes. There I’m nowhere near as flexible or practiced as other students, but it’s actually fun to shrug my shoulders (mindfully) and just give the pose a try. Or rest.

There was a series of poses that used to be very difficult for me; I had to start out in the easiest, most modified version. Then I had to modify a little less, but for months my arms would shake when I’d lower myself to the ground. But one day I realized that I could do these poses without any modification or protest, mental or physical. And I wasn’t doing it to please my teacher, or to get a good grade, or to receive validation from anyone but myself. For an academic overachiever like me, it’s a revolutionary approach to learning.

Yoga taught me that holding up your own weight can sometimes be the hardest thing to do, but holding up your own weight can also be exactly what makes you strongest.

So now, six years after I started yoga, I can list almost identical reasons for my yoga practice and my writing: I go because there I can practice, and screw up, and fall; because there I can rearrange my mental furniture, or even redecorate my mental living room. And because there I am constantly surprised that I can discover new ways to be happy.

(And yes, now the title of this post comes into play. Sorry for the pun. But honestly, I didn’t expect to end up writing about yoga. I was going to write more about the latest developments with the book. Next time, for sure.)

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:

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.