Stepping Back from the Fire: A Conversation with Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer has a PhD in American literature from the University of California–Davis and directs the low-residency MFA at Ashland University. The author of The Animals and The Infinite Tides, he lives with his family in Placer County, California.


“Ray Takahashi returned in August. By then we had put the whole thing behind us, or tried to, whatever concern or even guilt we might have felt replaced by that mixture of jubilation and despair brought on by the war’s end, for our boys were coming home and the war had changed them.” So begins Christian Kiefer’s exploration of white guilt in the aftermath of the removal and internment of an entire Japanese American population from Newcastle, a small orchard community near his Northern California hometown of Auburn. Kiefer’s third novel, Phantoms, invites privilege and prejudice into the light as the book’s narrator, John Frazier, returns from fighting in Vietnam to a community still hiding from its own complicity. Traumatized and addicted, John finds himself helping two heartbroken matriarchs chase down their own entwined ghosts from the internment.

The subject of race and white culpability has been central to an entire scope of American literature. Kiefer’s entrée to that discussion is a complex conversation about who gets to have a voice and who has to live with the consequences of complicity. Unlike the white savior narratives that have dominated the imaginations of writers—especially white, male writers—for generations, Kiefer presents a story that both subverts and complicates that trope, while still acknowledging its pull and inescapable pitfalls.

Kiefer and I spoke at a recent manuscript workshop he taught in Lake Tahoe, with follow-up over email while Kiefer was staying at the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford and while his youngest child (of seven) was in the hospital. We discussed the moral craft of writing from his own prejudices, how he juggles work and fatherhood, and the writers who are teaching him the practice of listening.


Amy Reardon: Why write about Japanese internment?

Christian Kiefer: Well, first of all, I’m still not entirely sure I should have, or that any white writer should. I’m not someone who believes that white writers should be taking up any space in this particular discussion. But having said that, the book is about the history of the community I grew up in that, by the 1970s and 1980s, was a community that was largely white.

As a boy, I think I was aware of the internment, but only in the abstract, as a facet of California history. That relative downplaying of what happened and our reticence to discuss it—especially in the white community—was really a mark of cultural shame, and I knew there was a story there that hadn’t been explored on the local scene. In many ways it hasn’t even been much explored in fiction at all. The challenge then became how to address it as a white, male, cisgendered heterosexual writer with all the unearned but very real privilege that comes with that cultural position. In other words, how to cross all the various cultural, racial, ethnic lines that would need to be crossed, not just as an act of imagination but as an act of respect and care and empathy and with full acknowledgement of the privilege that my position gives me to even think about crossing those lines.

AR: That sounds complicated. Why take it on?

CK: One of the reasons is self-serving. As a writer I only have one idea at a time, and this was it. I had to write it. But another is that I found a way to tell the story that incorporated my own whiteness.

AR: How?

CK: Part of it was just listening very carefully to voices that have been very critical about how race and, in particular, white privilege is treated and written about and talked about in this country.

AR: Whose voices?

CK: People like Jesmyn Ward and Porochista Khakpour and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Matthew Salesses, all of whom are leading the discussion on how we deal with and address issues of race and cultural privilege. I’m listening to and supporting those voices as best I can. Matt, for example, has provided a way to reconsider classroom pedagogy around issues of privilege and inclusiveness, which I’ve found extremely important in my writing as well as in my teaching life.

AR: You mention Matthew Salesses in your acknowledgments. In a 2015 essay he wrote,  “Perhaps the ultimate conclusion is that one cannot write without prejudice unless one understands that one has prejudice.” Was this the guidance you were after?

CK: Yes, effectively that’s what the book ended up being about—trying to work through the kind of legitimate, clear, and intellectually astute argument Matt makes in that essay and elsewhere. Trying to come at writing about prejudice from a white perspective is necessarily complicated and should be so. As I said at the start, I’m not convinced white writers should even tackle this subject.

AR: Why not?

CK: I think we are, in American letters, in the midst of a real renaissance of representation and diversity, an era of truly unique voices. The literary arts are the most vibrant they have ever been in this country, and I think there’s so much more room at the table for voices that might not have been allowed at the table a few years earlier. As a community, we’ve got a great deal of work still to do, of course, but leaders like Jack Jones Literary Arts and others are pushing forward in ways that are extremely important and valuable. The point, though, is that if you’re a reader interested in the Asian American experience—and I hope you are—there are better books than mine that you should be reading, and many of those writers are listed in the acknowledgments in the back of the book. I’ve learned a great deal from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies, from discussions with Bich Minh Nguyen, from reading Bảo Ninh and Aimee Phan and Julie Otsuka and so many others. Really, there are so many people you should be reading before you read my book.

AR: What else would you like to see more room for at the table?

CK: That’s a really good question because in fact there’s more room at the table, but white America still largely owns the table itself, and all the chairs. I think white Americans think they are “woke” in ways that they haven’t been in the past, but time and again the mainstream American white heterosexual voice continues to privilege itself in ways that are protective of its own political interest in consolidating power and maintaining its hold. Much of this manifests itself as a push toward defining what is “normal” and what is “aberrant.” For example, people are really jazzed about Pete Buttigieg with his clear love of his husband, but there has been very convincing writing that points to the fact that white heterosexual America cannot imagine those men engaging in anal sex together. That’s where the acceptance stops. In white male America we have a certain amount of acceptance, but it stops at a certain line, and that line is when any amount of power is lost. The definition of “normal” and “human” are couched in the same rhetoric but they are not, in fact, even in the same linguistic category. “Human” is biological. “Normal” is cultural—and most often used as a rhetorical club by cultural aggressors. We use this kind of language constantly to subtly denigrate those we find less human. Judith Butler couches this as “grievability”: who do we grieve for and who do we not? Who do we consider human and who less human?

AR: How does your story, which combines the aftermaths of Japanese internment and the Vietnam War, fit into this backdrop?

CK: Much of my response to this has to do with our use of the hyphen. If you’re from an Anglo-leaning geographical place and immigrate to American—for example, you are a Belorussian child of Belorussian immigrants—you might be Slavic American for a generation, but your children will just be American. There will be no hyphen. If you are Japanese American and immigrated to this country in 1890, and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren have been here for generations, you are still likely thought of by “we” Americans as Asian American, never just American. Which is to say you have to carry the weight of a hyphen. You have to live a hyphenated identity forever. This is true of so many non-white ethnicities in this country. I think we hyphenate identity linguistically as a measure of control, and as a way of emphasizing our power. Who gets to be American, no hyphen, and who doesn’t? This country is deeply fucked up. I might add here that AP Style has recently decided to officially drop the hyphen in Asian American.

AR: The book is a response, then, to emerging racism and nationalism in this country?

CK: I mostly finished this book before Trump. What a horror to find out that I had written something that had become topical. What an awful thing to write about internment and have it come up as something that is happening today in our culture. How horrifying to be at the forefront of that discussion in fiction. God, you want to write something timeless not timely, especially if it’s awful. On the other hand, of course, internment and racism is timeless.

AR: So Phantoms is essentially a story you’ve been watching develop your entire life?

CK: Really, we’ve all watched this story develop our entire lives. With Executive Order 9066, America decided to legally remove people based wholly on their ethnicity to concentration camps—perhaps as many as 120,000 human beings—and then did nothing to ensure there would be a way for them to return. You can look at the Placer High School yearbook in the early 1940s, and you’ll see close to half the pages in it will be Japanese American kids. After the war, 1946, 1947, there will be eight or nine Japanese American faces in there. Most of the families removed from Placer County didn’t come back; most went to San Francisco or San Jose, where successful Japanese communities flourished. Placer County was not very forgiving. They held on to their notion of race for a long, long time, and made it extremely difficult, if not untenable, for those families to return. Having said that, some did, but there are a lot of instances in California newspapers at the time of Japanese families finding dynamite under their homes, getting burned out, young Japanese men being murdered.

AR: Reading the book, I kept asking the same question over and over: who gets to have a voice?

CK: That’s the whole question of the book. One of the things the narrator is wrestling with is trying to tell a story about his experiences of the American war in Vietnam, and his reticence to do that in part is the self-understanding that as a soldier he has been a state-sanctioned murderer, but also that his feeling of culpability has not changed. He feels guilt, but even up to the last page, he acknowledges that if the shit hit the fan, he would call in the F-4 airstrikes all over again because as much as he feels guilt about what he has done under the auspices of his orders, he would rather live than die. As he says at the end of the book—that big lump of pressure when the bombs go off, and that hill beyond that is transmuted in flames—that to him is a feeling of relief. To use the kind of rhetoric we’ve used in this nation to frame this: the unnamed faceless, Asiatic hordes are obliterated, and John Frazier, our narrator, gets to live another day. And he feels bad about that. He’s a father by the end of the book and a husband, and he knows he’s culpable, but he’d rather live than not live. Which is just the hard truth. I mean, that’s a hard admission to make.

AR: Most of the book is told in distant first person. John Frazier tells the story of two mothers during the internment. Can you talk about this POV choice?

CK: My influence on that is largely Faulkner, but I was also very interested in William Styron’s narrative voice in Sophie’s Choice. The narrator of that novel, Stingo, is telling the story of his upstairs neighbors, and Sophie is telling another story about her time in the war, so there are three different timelines happening. I was interested in how that kind of point of view enabled Styron to show his bias and his prejudice and his misunderstanding and to ask questions and to potentially fail to really understand Sophie’s story. This gave me insight into how I might talk across cultures in the book. Because no matter how much research I did, I could never write about a Japanese American in a way that I felt would be respectful enough to write super close third or first person. So the POV choice enabled me to distance myself just enough, to be able to make mistakes, and to have a narrator who is fallible.

AR: The first chapter is told from a different point of view though. Why?

CK: Right. The first chapter was initially going to be to be the tone of the whole book. It’s first person plural. That town—the town of Newcastle, California, where I lived at the time of writing it—was going to tell the story of this horrible thing that happened. After I wrote that chapter, I just couldn’t determine a way to move forward that felt true and respectful to the people I was writing about. So that’s why the second chapter switches to John Frazier’s point of view, which I think is accidentally the best thing I’ve ever done in my writing life. It was really just me stepping back from the fire because I knew I was going to get burned.

AR: A choice of humility?

CK: It’s like what Kendrick Lamar says, “Be humble, sit down.” I think the primary task of white Americans in conversations about race and gender and equity and representation is to shut the fuck up and listen. By dint of that I have to apologize again for taking up any space in that discussion by writing a book that has something to do with it. But the book is largely about white people trying to understand their own privilege. Which is what I can add to the discussion with the caveat that really, I should be listening more and talking less.

AR: John Frazier makes a call for relief for those who were removed. Ray Takahashi also expects some dispensation. Can justice be found through reparations?

CK: I’m very interested in that discussion. Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have made a serious case for reparations, and I’m pretty into it. Having said that, giving somebody a big wad of sweaty cash to somehow absolve a nation for its damaging behavior over hundreds of years is cold comfort, but I am deeply interested in helping the cause of equity, forever.

AR: Are subsequent generations complicit?

CK: One of the interesting things about talking about the internment has been that the adult family members who were interned tended not to talk about it, so there’s a gap in the information. Their children and grandchildren have been much more active in speaking the truth to power necessary about the camps. I guess generation after generation we do heal, but the healing is long. There’s a terror still weighing on the text.

AR: What do you mean weighing?

CK: The weight of shame and the culpability. We perpetuated our own genocide and continue to, not only to our First Nation’s peoples, but against our African American population, yet we still have the Braves as a baseball mascot.

AR: The core of the book is about the active role mothers take to protect their families. Why is this the story John pursues?

CK: I’m interested in the extremely strong role that mothers have that goes well beyond the traditional domestic sphere. I’m thinking of the writing of Lauren Groff, who in her new book Florida writes these very fallible, complex, beautifully-rendered, loving characters who are often also mothers.

AR: The fact that, often, it’s the mothers who control the story?

CK: Yes, because in our culture the story is most often traditionally controlled by male voices, but there’s an equally valid and likely more important story being held by non-male voices and non-white voices. If we could just shut up and get out of the goddamn way.

AR: Speaking of Lauren Groff, in an interview last year, she famously declined to answer a question about writing and motherhood until such a time when male writers are asked the same question. Let’s begin the asking. How do you manage writing and being a father?

CK: I have a big family. I’ve got seven kids. First I have an extremely understanding and supportive partner, but I’m also just really used to writing under duress, which as a parent is constant. If I can get 45 minutes maybe, with my noise cancelling headphones, with the kids circling me around the table, I can get it done. I’m not somebody who needs the perfect place, the mountain cabin and the Jon-Franzen-no-Wi-Fi-allowed. I can check my email and write at the same time. It’s just a job, man. It’s a calling and an art too, but it’s also just putting words down on the page. My real work happens in the revision phase, so the writing part of the writing, I can pretty much do that anywhere. Also, I’m not a dad who can be away from his kids and wife for long periods of time on writing retreats. I need them around me, and if they’re not, I just get sad.

AR: How does Phantoms connect to the greater obsession at the core of all your work?

CK: I’m really interested in identity, and what forms identity, and how we define the self. I think a lot of what John Frazier is wrestling with, and what Ray Takahashi is wrestling with, is who am I in the wake of these things that have happened to me and because of me and these things that I did or didn’t do. If Ray is able to come home and be the person that he was, then who is he? If John is returning home from Vietnam as an addict and a sanctioned murderer for a mission of imperialism that has no functionality other than that of a political scare tactic, and he has actively participated in the slaughter of human beings with their own hopes and dreams, then who is he, as a person, as a father, as a husband?


Amy Reardon

Amy Reardon’s work has been featured in The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, Glamour and The Coachella Review. She is at work on a novel.

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