What It Means to Be a Nisei

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By SOJI KASHIWAGI, Rafu Contributor

At age 91, Hiroshi Kashiwagi just had his book of short stories, “Starting from Loomis,” published by the University Press of Colorado.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi holds a copy of his new memoir, “Starting from Loomis.” Kashiwagi writes on his experiences growing up in the small farming town of Loomis, and also his decision to answer “no-no” on the loyalty questionnaire. (Photo by Ben Arikawa)

Hiroshi Kashiwagi holds a copy of his new memoir, “Starting from Loomis.” Kashiwagi writes on his experiences growing up in the small farming town of Loomis, and also his decision to answer “no-no” on the loyalty questionnaire. (Photo by Ben Arikawa)

The noted Nisei poet, playwright and actor will be reading from his new book on Saturday, Jan. 18, at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum’s (JANM) Tateuchi Democracy Forum, and on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 12:30 p.m. at the Orange County Buddhist Church. The JANM reading will be presented by Dr. Lane Ryo Hirabayashi and is co-sponsored by the Aratani Endowed Chair, UCLA Asian American Studies. The reading at OCBC is sponsored by Project Kokoro. Both readings are free, and will be followed by a Q&A and book-signing with the author.

Here Kashiwagi talks about “Starting with Loomis” in an interview with his son, Soji Kashiwagi.

Soji Kashiwagi: Tell us about the book. How would you describe it?

Hiroshi Kashiwagi: This is a collection of stories, some published previously and others new and unpublished.

SK: How did the book come about?

HK: The book came about when Professor Lane Hirabayashi selected it for his The George and Sakaye Aratani Nikkei in the America Series. The challenge was to make the stories work as a book.  My editor, Tim Yamamura, was responsible for much of that.

SK: You grew up in Loomis, Calif. Where is Loomis?

HK: Loomis is a small fruit-growing town northeast of Sacramento off Highway 80 — just follow the Reno sign and look for the Loomis turnoff. (If you miss it you might end up in Reno but that’s okay, you’ll have a good time.) Loomis is where the best-tasting plums, peaches and pears were grown. Sadly, not anymore.

SK: Are all of the stories in the book based on true incidents from your life?

HK: The stories are based on true incidents; some names have been changed for obvious reasons.

SK: Lane Hirabayashi wrote in the afterword that your book will be of great benefit to the Sansei and Yonsei generations. What do you think he meant by that?

HK: I think he meant that the book is history — about the life and time of Japanese Americans that no longer exists.

SK: Do you have a favorite story in the book? If so, why is it your favorite?

HK: I guess my favorite is “What It Means to Be Nisei” because it is about Nisei as a group and I am a part of it. But of course I always like the lighter stuff.

SK: A substantial part of the book addresses your “no-no” position at Tule Lake during the war, and your subsequent renunciation of your citizenship. Why do you feel it was important to talk about this and include it in your book?

HK: The camp experience and my no-no position are essential to who I am. So I’m just being honest when I write about it.

SK: Much of this part of the book was painful to read. Was it painful to write?

HK: The most painful part was the family stuff about tuberculosis, which was definitely a taboo subject.

SK: Some have commented that the heartbreak and the pain in your stories lie more in what isn’t said, in what lies beneath the text. Do you agree with these comments? Is this something you did on purpose?

HK: I think the comment is true. It’s due to my general make-up, my reticence. It’s deliberate in the sense that you don’t tell everything.

SK: How do you feel about the whole “no-no”/”yes-yes” controversy now? What can we do to heal from the damage that this conflict caused within our community?

HK: I think if all the no-nos and people who are connected in any way with the no-no question spoke up, this would help to bring understanding in the community.

SK: What do you want the reader to walk away with after they read this section, and the entire book as a whole?

HK: About the camp section, I would like the reader to understand that dissent is an essential part of the democratic process. About the book as a whole, I would like the reader to know that despite the highs and lows, here was a life that was lived honestly and well.

SK: Which stories do you plan to read at JANM and OCBC?

HK: I would like to read the lighter stuff, the funny stuff, but that would be too fluffy. It would depend on the audience. For the younger group I’ll probably read the more educational stuff. I think the Nisei would rather not hear about camp.

SK: Why is it important that we tell our stories? What advice would you give a young, aspiring writer? What advice would you give to a Nisei senior who might want to give writing a try?

HK: Only by telling it will other people know. To aspiring writers I say, write and keep writing and don’t forget to live a life. To seniors I say, what is there to lose? Go ahead and write, just like you talk. Leave something for your children and grandchildren.

SK: What’s next for you?

HK: Starting Monday, Jan. 20, I will be acting in a new film. And who knows, there might be other jobs and my love affair with the camera will continue.

SK: Most of your books have been in the short form — poetry, short stories and plays. Do you think you’ll ever write a novel?

HK: I think the novel is out of reach for me. If I do any writing, it will continue to be in the short forms.

SK: You just turned 91. What keeps you going? Why not retire, relax and enjoy the rest of your life?

HK: I know I am 91. I know I’m blessed with good health and that’s what keeps me going. I’m having the time of my life, so why should I retire?

Note: Following the JANM reading at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. will be the Southern California premiere screenings of “Infinity and Chashu Ramen,” a feature film by Kerwin Berk starring Hiroshi Kashiwagi. Both the reading and the screenings will be held at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, located across the courtyard from JANM, 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street). Tickets for the film screening are $8 for JANM members, $10 online at www.infinityandchashuramen.com, $12 at the door.

Orange County Buddhist Church is located at 909 S. Dale Ave. in Anaheim.

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