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What remains in the ruins of Japanese American internment

A new book sifts through a family’s history in the aftermath of being forcibly incarcerated by their government during World War II.

 

In The Grave on the Wall, poet and essayist Brandon Shimoda focuses on what remains after great loss. In this work of lyric nonfiction, he writes about his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, who died after years of memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease. Midori was one of more than 110,000 American residents, most of them U.S. citizens, who were forcibly incarcerated by the federal government during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. Shimoda travels to places from Midori’s life to tell not just the story of his grandfather, but also of himself and of the racist history that, then as now, has damaged families and excluded many from citizenship. Along the way he sees much that has been irredeemably ground to dust. His book is a memorable and memorializing work that depicts the pain of trying to recover what can never be regained, from lost lives to a lost sense of home that transcends generations.

The Grave on the Wall bends and blends myth, research, travelogue, elegy and memoir. The chapters generally follow Shimoda’s journey back through his grandfather’s life, but his investigations also explore other elements of the family’s history and even include leaps across mythological and geologic time. Yet, despite this structure that many would call fragmented, I would instead label it smartly granular.

Midori Shimoda, 1943.
The Peter Fortune Memorial Collection. Courtesy of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula Collections.

Each piece in this work is intimate and delicate, yet the piling up of those pieces can never recreate or resolve what has been lost, just as eroded sand cannot be returned to the original rocks from which it was worn. The stories Shimoda tells, the artifacts he finds, the artwork he explains, and even the land itself are what is left of his family’s history, and the larger American history he is attempting to explain. These remains function as ritual sites for remembrance. Repeated images of sand, disintegrating land and ashes — like the ashes of his grandfather, which his family scatters in California’s Death Valley, or like the ashes of Nagasaki after the atomic bomb — all reinforce this theme.

Granularity resurfaces in the low-resolution family snapshots and artistic photos taken by Midori, a professional photographer. They remind viewers of the pixels that are missing: Viewers can never see the full picture, because the art objects, along with Shimoda’s descriptions, are only attempts to capture unspeaking subjects, whether Shimoda’s grandfather, great-grandmother, or a mythic figure. The lack of direct access to these subjects reveals that what existed before is gone forever. Even so, Shimoda doesn’t want to forget the tales in these photos, because they evoke his own family, America’s devastating use of nuclear weapons, and the country’s use of citizenship laws to target people of color, which continues today.

For Shimoda’s grandfather, Midori, this complex relationship with his adopted country began as soon as he immigrated to the United States from Japan as a child in 1919. Like other Japanese immigrants at the time, Midori was considered a legal “alien” and “ineligible for citizenship” because of his country of origin. Over the course of his life, he moved throughout the West both by choice and by force; he was arrested during World War II, for example, ostensibly because he owned a camera — a crime at the time for those of Japanese ancestry. Such arrests were part of the removal of Japanese immigrants and their American children from the West Coast. During the war, Midori’s status shifted to “enemy alien.” Incarcerated in Salt Lake City and in Fort Missoula, Montana, Midori had to renounce any connection to Japan to avoid deportation, leaving him stateless. He was not granted American citizenship until after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952.

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To Shimoda, incarceration is an ongoing experience for the generations who follow. He joins Japanese American writers such as Julie Otsuka, Heather Nagami, David Mura and Karen Tei Yamashita, who did not experience the camps, but still are grappling with their long-term ramifications. These descendants are now in search of “re-enacting and reclaiming and rehabilitating” those earlier experiences in what Shimoda sees as “the ruins,” the literal remains of various sites where new generations must find ways to grow out of the ravaged past.

In one section, which feels like a study of the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami as well as something from a myth, Shimoda describes a woman in Tohoku, Japan, who “planted spinach in the ruins of her house.” From Japan to the United States and across a century, Shimoda explores these incongruous yet fertile places for remembrance, knowing that we all continue to reside in the midst of destruction. 

Abby Manzella is a writer and critic who lives in Columbia, Missouri. Her scholarly book Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements was named a Choice Review Outstanding Academic Title. Follow her on Twitter at @AbbyManzella.