Shadows of Minidoka


Lawrence Matsuda reads his poetry to students at the Pilgrim School in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 9. In his latest collection, “A Cold Wind from Idaho,” he comes to terms with the internment experiences of his family. (Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)


“There is a shadow that Minidoka casts on my life, I have tried to overcome that shadow,” says poet Lawrence Matsuda, a Sansei who was born in 1945 in the Idaho war relocation center and has turned that experience into searing art.

Matsuda, a Seattle educator, was in Los Angeles earlier this month to give a poetry reading for students at the Pilgrim School, a private school located in downtown Los Angeles. The students listened attentively as Matsuda, who taught for 30 years in the Seattle School District, explained unfamiliar terms such as shikata ga nai (it can’t be helped). The Japanese term gaman, he explained to the students, means to “bear the unbearable with dignity.”

“Part of why I write is to break the silence — to take the pain of an event and turn it into art and transform it,” Matsuda said.

In “A Cold Wind from Idaho” (Black Lawrence Press, 2010), Matsuda speaks to the larger tragedies that befell all Japanese Americans, and the deeply personal pain felt in his family. With the signing of Executive Order 9066, the family lost the grocery story they ran in Seattle and were sent to Minidoka, Idaho, where Matsuda was born.  His mother had a stillborn child in camp and fell into depression.

“A Cold Wind”captures that experience with tactile, powerful prose, anchored by his sense of right and wrong. Matsuda, whose work appears on the Poets Against the War website, The Raven Chronicles, also touches on the bombing of Hiroshima, where both his parents are from, as well as the Iraq War, and the court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada.

As a Sansei born in the camps, Matsuda said, that he often faces questions about whether he can really remember anything of the experience.

“Some people say, oh you don’t remember that, like it’s a discounted memory,” he said.

But Matsuda said he felt a responsibility to share his experiences, so that it doesn’t happen to any other group who may face discrimination.

“Because we were interned, it is our legacy to stand up, to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Matsuda.

An excerpt from “Too Young to Remember, Minidoka, Idaho – War Relocation Center”

Sixty years later on drizzly Seattle days,

when the November  sky is overcast, and

the darkness begins at 4:00 PM,

I feel my mother’s sadness like a cold wind from Idaho.

I search for Minidoka,

I unravel it from the memories of other,

Like a ruined sweater, I untwist the yarn,

Strands to weave a tapestry

Of pride and determination –

the “children of the rising sun” once banished

to desert prisons, return from exile

with tattered remnants, wave them overhead,

time-shorn banners salvaged from memories

woven in blood and anguish.

I wish I could remember

Minidoka. I would trade those memories for the fear and sadness

imbedded in my genes.