“Breaking Silences: Uncovering Memories of Japanese American Imprisonment” was the subject of an intergenerational reading held March 15 at the Japanese American National Museum.
Sansei poet and editor Brian Komei Dempster, who is director of administration for the Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies and professor of rhetoric and language at University of San Francisco, discussed his community-based writing projects and anthologies, in which Nisei tell their stories of wartime incarceration and post-war resettlement.
Written through a series of workshops at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, these stories were published in two books, “From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps” and “Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement.”
Dempster also read four poems — “Crossing,” “Cloud,” “Your Hands Guide Me Through Trains” and “Steamer Trunk” — from his debut collection, “Topaz” (Four Way Books), which looks at the legacy of the camp experience and its impact on younger generations. Thousands of Bay Area Nikkei were sent to the Utah camp.
Toru Saito, a writing project participant who was interned at Topaz as a child, sang two original songs, “Beautiful Sadness” and “You.” The latter song was dedicated to his late mother.
Alyctra Matsushita, granddaughter of noted Nisei writer Wakako Yamauchi, read two excerpts from her grandmother’s latest book, “Rosebud and Other Stories” (University of Hawaii Press), “A Nisei Writer in America” and “Family Gifting.” The latter story was dedicated to Matsushita’s mother and Yamauchi’s daughter, Joy Yamauchi, who passed away in January at the age of 58.
Lillian Howan, editor of “Rosebud,” also came from the Bay Area to attend the event.
Dempster and Yamauchi signed copies of their books after the program.
Your Hands Guide Me Through Trains
From the bridge we stare down at the track, searching
the arch, where rails curve out of darkness. You lift me
on your shoulders and we balance in white light, the dead center
approaching. The whistle blows, a rumble climbs
through the bones of your feet, through your legs and hands into mine,
your right hand clenches my right,
your left hand clenches my left,
if this were 1942, my hands would be the handle
of your suitcase and your purple book scripted
in prayer. Torn from family, you board a boxcar, snap open
your case, set your brush and ink to the right,
stones to the left, paint your own sea and coast
as the plains, grass, and ironwoods rattle by.
You dip the brush in each camp and each barrack,
fill the paper with kelp and jellyfish, pebbles and shells,
tape the sheets side by side. When it grows
dark, you draw tracks leading to the edge of the tide.
Asking for water, your hands unclasp and cling
to the wires as men rip the sash from your back.
A rifle butt knocks prayer loose from your throat.
But it is 1976, a Sunday like any other,
when you drape beads over my wrists and open
the Lotus Sutra on the bridge, anchor its pages with stones,
offer prayers as the train rushes under our feet,
our lungs flowering with soot and steam.
For years, I traveled to your hands, unrolled ocean scrolls
from your case. In barracks you’d held the brush, painting
your way out. By 1996 your brushstrokes fade, washi crumples
in my palms. Your fingers grip a cane, waver with chopsticks.
Soup, tea and rice sprig your bib. I feed you, brush your teeth,
my right hand clenches your right, my left clenches your left,
I lower you in the chair, place your feet on the steel ledges.
Grandfather, can we run just once through the gravel, along silver rail,
watch flames curl off the faces of men smudged in coal?
Can you take me to Missoula and Fort Sill, wheels circling back
to Crystal City? We arrive at the church where you live, and I wheel you
past rows of empty chairs, drape the sash over your back, strike
a match, light sticks of incense. Your hands guide me
through the years like a black iron rope, into the orange glow,
a tunnel of smoke, pages returning us to the shores of our home.
— for Archbishop Nitten Ishida, 1901-1996
“Your Hands Guide Me Through Trains” from “Topaz” © 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster. Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved. Originally appeared in “Crab Orchard Review and Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond” (Norton, 2008).