Karen Tei Yamashita has written some very original, bold fiction. Her 2010 novel, “I Hotel,” a finalist for the National Book Award, was her biggest, a modernist symphony of Japanese-American politics that skips from traditional novelistic show-and-tell into play, screenplay, reportage, history, quotation, collage and graphics.
“Letters to Memory” is just as eclectic and unpredictable.
It is a history of her family, particularly focused on the years of World War II. Yamashita mines family letters and government documents and collects stories from surviving relatives and friends. But what results is not a coherent narrative but a deliberate jumble of genres and styles. “Stories blossom as a kaleidoscope, a space where events aggregate in infinite designs.”
She mistrusts memory as a shape-shifter and knows that historical events, always pulled in and out of different contexts and subject to points of view, only pretend to solidify into authoritative history.
In 1942, Tomi Yamashita, her seven children and their dependents — 12 people in all — arrived by bus, with all the possessions they could carry, at Tanforan Racetrack, an assembly center for Japanese-Americans.
After sleeping in empty horse stalls, they were transported by train into the Utah desert to Topaz concentration camp, where most remained until 1945. Tomi’s fourth child, Hiroshi John — later Karen Tei’s father — was 30.
In the official terminology of the time, a “garbage narrative” reveals the racial animus driving these incarcerations. “Spoilage” referred to disloyal Japanese, “salvage” to the obedient who also often contributed to the war effort, and “residue” swept up those who didn’t or couldn’t assimilate into the American workforce.
The Yamashitas were “salvage.” As the Japanese were stereotyped as racially and culturally given to loyalty and duty, so the family would perform, in all innocence, those roles on behalf of the United States. Maybe for that reason, John was allowed to attend seminary school in Illinois, where he trained to become a Methodist minister.
We learn some sweet and sad details, the odd facts of recovered history, stranger than fiction. Among the possessions they brought to camp were a vacuum cleaner and a waffle iron. In the forced containment of camp, Tomi became — who would have imagined it? — a painter.
But always in the foreground is the meta nature of Yamashita’s enterprise; we are not to experience a story but are prodded to pay attention to the ways of approaching, circling it. The text features photos, documents, faded typewritten and handwritten letters. The narrating voice jumps from the philosophical to the poetic to slangy conversational style, often from one sentence to the next.
She addresses her sections to iconic storytellers such as Homer and the authors of “The Bhagavad Gita,” questioning them about the uses of history, especially histories of war and other violence, and the nature of a historian’s or storyteller’s accountability. How did they, and how can she, “care for memory”?
This tactic ultimately feels overly self-conscious, didactic and puzzling: Why compare her deliberately inconclusive enterprise with their very formal, high-styled fictions? Her truth-telling project is different from theirs, humbled by fluid and unfixable lived experience.
It’s an intriguing experiment in memoir.
Brigitte Frase, a past winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Minneapolis.
Letters to Memory
By: Karen Tei Yamashita.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 176 pages, $19.95