A Review of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Letters to Memory (Coffee House Press, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn
While I was still living in the Bay Area, I would occasionally have the wonderful luck of hanging out with Karen Tei Yamashita. I had been hearing tidbits of Yamashita’s newest project and had been excited to hear about its progress, and here we are! In any case, what a treat to be reading this particular work, which is Yamashita’s most recent foray in creative nonfiction.
The official page over at the ever-groovy Coffee House Press gives us this pithy overview: “Letters to Memory is an excursion through the Japanese internment using archival materials from the Yamashita family as well as a series of epistolary conversations with composite characters representing a range of academic specialties. Historians, anthropologists, classicists—their disciplines, and Yamashita’s engagement with them, are a way for her to explore various aspects of the internment and to expand its meaning beyond her family, and our borders, to ideas of debt, forgiveness, civil rights, orientalism, and community.”
It’s been awhile since she’s really engaged in this kind of writing, and I’ve forgotten how playful Yamashita can be when blurring the lines between what is imagined and what actually happened. What Yamashita works with is the problem of the archive: things are always missing, because a basement will get flooded destroying valuable documents, letters will be lost, memories get fuzzy, and official files will get redacted. Yamashita is well aware of this predicament and constantly employs conditionals throughout Letters, saying things like, “it could have” or “might be” or “would have been” in order to offer possible motivations, possible outcomes and possible consequences. At the same time, Yamashita has some obvious firm grounding under her, employing anchor points and events in her family’s history and how that history intertwines with larger national and transnational forces occurring throughout the 20th century.
Notably, Yamashita’s Letters adds to the sansei internment corpus, elaborating upon the ways her family became impacted by that event. One of the more intriguing particularities of this addition is its exploration of religious and spiritual discourses that kept the Yamashita family together. Out of this strain of representational inquiry, Yamashita paints a rich picture of her father, who pursues his spiritual projects with a fervor that certainly inspires and illuminates. The production level of Letters is wonderful, with appropriately placed visuals, documents, and photographs appearing throughout. But what always stamps the narrative stylings of a Yamashita publication is that witty narrative discourse, one that reminds us that we’re moving through a whimsical landscape full of texture and nuance. An absolutely effulgent journey into the always contested past of the (extended) family.
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Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
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