Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently The Grave on the Wall (City Lights) and The Desert (The Song Cave). He is currently writing a book on the afterlife of Japanese American incarceration, passages of which have appeared in The Asian American Literary Review, The Nation, and The New Inquiry. He is also the curator of the Hiroshima Library, an itinerant collection of books on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is currently installed (until June 2020) in the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. He lives in the desert.
Geoff Martin: First of all, thank you for giving over a Sunday afternoon to have this conversation by phone. The Grave on the Wall is in many ways an incredible personal history of your grandfather, Midori Shimoda. In writing his story you end up tracing all kinds of world-historical events and movements, but you’re not telling a causal or linear history, right? Instead, all the historical linkages that you make are relational. There’s your great-grandmothers arriving in the U.S during The Period of Summoning Relatives, along with 10,000 other picture brides, in the early 20th century. There’s your grandfather, displaced to Utah during WWII, whose Mormon friend Devon ends up in a spotter plane above Hiroshima a few years later. Or there’s the fact that Minoru (Tinky) Yamasaki attended your grandparent’s wedding in New York in 1945, then later designed the World Trade Center. Do you write your way into those kinds of surprising historical connections, or do you learn of them first and think that absolutely needs to be written?
Brandon Shimoda: Yeah, it’s a combination of both, and there are so many more! I mean, I don’t know what the profusion of these terrible coincidences indicates, but yeah, there are a lot more of those connections that I left out just because I don’t really want to re-write Forrest Gump! [Laughs] No, I didn’t actually have that fear, but as I began writing first from the knowledge that was gained from his FBI file, all these other amazing and dark coincidences materialized.
There’s really no organizing principle working out what ended up seeming like unavoidable connections. To me, it makes sense that his life touched upon all these events that mark twentieth century America. All these forms of connection reflect how incredibly small this country actually is, especially in relation to histories of violence and histories of detention and incarceration. Everyone’s actually connected to those kinds of events, and this just manifests that. This just concretizes that. These coincidences are just expressions of the fact that we’re all bound by the same violent circumstances.
GM: The Grave on the Wall reads quite differently from many other, say, family histories in that, among other things, it’s written in a kind of mythic or spiritual register and so much of the writing circles ghostly absence. You return to your grandfather’s birthplace in Japan, for example, to visit “a house that is no longer there.” You do end up finding some traces, but you’re largely writing presence out of absence. What kind of techniques do you use in conjuring your writing out of many absences, when on arrival there’s nothing really there that you hoped for.
BS: To take the example of going to this town that doesn’t exist anymore to visit this house that doesn’t exist anymore: my answer to this question might be really simple and that’s that I just write what is there. I think, in general, my relationship to graves or memorials has become less about the thing that grave or memorial is purporting to mark and more about what is actually there. Which is usually both more mundane and more surprising at the same time.
Even though every time I do go to a ruin of history or a gravesite, I go with the expectation of connecting with the thing that is being marked, but when I get there, I become either distracted or influenced by something else going on. And then I think, well, that is the actual subject of that grave or that is the subject of that memorial. So if I’m going to the town where my grandfather lived and the town doesn’t exist anymore, it’s not that the town doesn’t exist but that something else exists in its place and that the only person now for whom that original town matters is me, whereas for all the people who exist in that place now, they care about the fact that they’re inhabiting a place that has meaning for them.
So the technique here, if it is even a technique, is just about observation and letting go of the thing you imagined you were going to find, right? And I think that’s the training of poetry—to be completely open to not having too much of an agenda. Even if you have a desire or a vision, any kind of agenda will just straitjacket the energy of the piece.
GM: Many of the chapter titles and certainly some of the scenes in The Grave on the Wall are identifiable recurrences of poems from your 2015 William Carlos Williams Award-winning book of poetry, Evening Oracle. In using a more narrative approach, are you re-writing those poems to new discovery, or are you narrativizing the story behind the writing of the poems? Are you contracting to a narrower point or dilating outwards?
BS: Yeah, good question. I don’t know that I’m re-writing them. There are different ways of approaching the same experience. So in one way, Evening Oracle is a predecessor but only because it came out first. The writing happened simultaneously. The poems that are in Evening Oracle, I needed to work through the experiences that I was having in Japan in particular. Or I needed to work through what I was witnessing or some of the images I was seeing. I needed to work through those first in poetry. And it’s not necessarily that I failed or that I wasn’t able to bring those to some kind of fruition, but the poetry didn’t exhaust the energy or the power that those experiences were asserting. So, writing it in prose is in some ways an expansion and in other ways it’s just looking at the same thing in a different way. It’s not like the reader needs to have access to both, but they fit together. They’re complementary.
GM: This memoir has a strong searching quality, a fluid effort after poetic image and feeling as opposed to straight historical fact. In a review of Evening Oracle on Full Stop, the reviewer called the book, “elegantly wandering but not lost,” and I think the same could be said for The Grave on the Wall. There’s that snaking, maze-like quality to the narrative scenes, which is figured quite literally in your great-grandmother’s signature stamp, as you point out. We follow you through your archival digging, your pilgrimages through Japan, your reminiscences and unease at various major public memorials both there and in the U.S. You’ve lived and moved through many places, and I was wondering if you feel like your grandfather has perhaps helped ground your wandering, or placed you either in time or geography? Do you think that’s true?
BS: That he has helped ground my wandering? Yeah, that’s beautiful. What a special relationship that is, if true. It can be really hard to answer questions that are, that feel like they’re accessing something so intimate.
There is certainly a difference between being lost and wandering. And I think maybe I thought for many years I was lost because I was wandering. If you don’t really know where you started and you don’t anticipate an end, or you don’t have an expectation for a certain kind of end, then there’s no such thing as being lost. But in thinking about my grandfather, I would love to pose that question to him. The maze that he was maybe trapped inside or that he was navigating is much different than the maze that I’m in. He had a much different beginning and a much different expectation for an end. And I think he was really striving for something. He was moving through his life with a particular orientation, so I have the freedom and privilege to wander when he might have actually been lost. Or displaced. Which would kind of make me, not his shadow, but maybe an echo, a third-generation echo of the experience he was undergoing. But yeah, if there is any way in which he is grounding my wandering, I don’t feel good about that. [Laughs] Not that I’m exploiting his life, but that I’m benefiting from his life in a way that I don’t necessarily feel good about.
GM: But it seems that rather than exploiting your grandfather, you’re reaching back and writing in order to understand some of the ways he has shaped your life. This seems different than exploiting his life, no?
BS: Yeah, I just think there’s always that anxiety about either misreading or misappropriating, especially somebody that you feel like you deeply respect and somebody who you feel indebted to. And so, the idea that I might be exploiting him or anyone is just an anxiety that probably won’t go away even though that seems like an essential component to this kind of worship, that I feel like I’m crossing certain lines.
GM: This is an interesting segue to my next question, which has to do with the kind of ethic that you exhibit in your writing. What comes across is a real care and concern for the ethic of writing the traces of lives past. You write about a chilling moment, a moment when I felt your haunting, when you made that surprise discovery of your grandfather’s photographs in the archives in Tucson where you “did not anticipate there being a trace.” You write of sitting in the archives with your white gloves on and recount “the feeling of violating the privacy of death.” I’m hearing your anxiety, which you’re speaking to now, at moments throughout book, but I’m wondering if that’s just part of the ethic, the foregrounding of those anxieties?”
BS: My mind can go in a lot of different directions in thinking about this, but I think it’s a commonplace to worry about how you’ve treated a person who once existed, knowing that the reality of their life is going to be inevitably refracted in the eyes and the minds of everyone that person knew.
GM: I suppose it would be unethical not to have that kind of anxiety when writing about the past.
BS: Right! That would be far stranger. And if that were the case, I don’t even know what kind of book would be possible. I don’t know what kind of book would be possible in the absence of anxiety.
GM: I’m interested in thinking more about the genre or style of The Grave. You write about how your grandfather apprenticed under the pictoralist photographer William Mortensen (who, you note, Ansel Adams once called “the Anti-Christ”), and I’m wondering if you consciously think of your own prose writing as pictoralist also—because of its attention to myth and historical haunting, and it’s not a kind of purist, say, social documentary prose writing? Are you writing pictoralist-like scenes?
BS: Yeah, that’s interesting. I originally had many desires for this book, one of which was to write a biography that was more straight, I think. But in the process of writing that, I became bored. I can only write how I’m compelled to write. I think what happens when I’m given historical facts or information is I’m just inherently drawn to the shadows, even to the typos or the slippages. For example, in his FBI file, I’m fascinated when the functionaries who are generating the text of his file, permit themselves a moment of sympathy in which they describe something about my grandfather or about the landscape in which he was taking pictures, that is almost beautiful, or seems antithetical to the task they’ve been given. If I’m looking at a photograph, I’m drawn to the thing that’s maybe not meant to be part of the narrative. I think that this just organically generates a certain kind of writing.
As far as it’s relation to pictorial photography, and the ways that a photographer like William Mortensen was going against what a photographer like Ansel Adams was doing—I should say that to me they’re not that different. They’re both striving to achieve some kind of Romantic interpretation of a much harsher reality. But the way that Mortensen conceived of the illusive possibilities of photography, that it can function in the same way as a painting or a drawing, yeah, I can relate to that! But I want to be clear. I don’t want to be evasive. I don’t want to be sentimental necessarily. I want a reader to actually see, to be able to see for the most part what I’m seeing, and to have some sort of emotional experience based on that. And my writing is partly indebted to the writers I admire who are willing to forego, in a moment, the subject matter in order to write something that has a certain sonic or illusive quality.
GM: That sonic quality makes me think of the polyvocality in your writing. Alongside your own lyric voice there are also short emails that you fold in, letter exchanges from family and friends, your conversations with archivists that are funny and revealing. There’s the FBI reports alongside photographs and artwork, too. Would you speak to that kind of social art practice, or maybe collage work, and what it does for your poetic vision?
BS: I want to do more of that. If I had a different kind of inclination, I would make documentary films. If I were to imagine making a certain kind of documentary film on a specific subject, I wouldn’t spend very much time advancing the narrative in my own voice. If I reached a certain kind of question, I would look for the person who can answer that question for me maybe more appropriately than me, more befittingly than me.
When I was travelling in Japan and walking in the wake of my grandfather’s life, I would meet people and have these incredible conversations or we’d be going on these drives or having these meals together, and those experiences constitute a really beautiful phantom book in my mind. Instead of being about my grandfather, the book is about what happens when you try to write a book about something. What happens is that, if you’re lucky, you enter into all these social relationships that fill in the subject that become surrogates of the subject and then, in a way, make that subject more transcendent because it makes it about these living relationships, these living engagements.
GM: Speaking about these living relationships, you write that your grandfather’s death and the subsequent research and writing have opened up “a pantheon of ancestors” for you. And now you have a one-year-old daughter who bears the same name in the book’s dedication as your great-great-grandmother, Yumi Taguchi. So I’m wondering how her arrival—presumably as you were finishing the book?—has contributed to your vision of the presentness of the past or to ideas of ancestry?
BS: In a way, her presence makes all of it even more absurd than it already is! I have all these thoughts and ideas about family and ancestry and inheritance and intergenerational communication and trauma, and then you have a child who is both the embodiment and the epic dismissal of all the notions you have. Looking at her, everything is erased and everything is also reborn in a completely unexpected way.
Looking at my daughter’s face and watching her behavior, I think it’s really important that I honor not only the ways in which she might carry forward any of the things that are circulating in this firmament that might be referred to as ancestry or ancestral history but also to honor all the ways in which she won’t give a shit about any of that. It’s just as important to let go of all those attachments and to allow the next generation to completely redefine what family might mean because the ancestors have to evolve with the living, you know, especially as the nature of the world changes and the nature of the climate changes. We can’t just relegate the ancestors to this particular place or this particular past. I look at my daughter and I recognize the importance of giving all of it to her and if she does nothing with it, or she drops it and it shatters, or if she puts the whole thing into her mouth, that’s what happens next. That’s where this goes next.
GM: The “where this goes next” seems like a good place to end. You and I are both trying to write alongside young toddlers in our lives, so I’m curious if you’ve found certain strategies for writing inside naptimes or from within the cloud of sleep deprivation. Do you fold that into your process? You mentioned in a previous interview that you’ve been keeping late-night journals through the first year of parenthood—is that a new book of poetry emerging?
BS: Oh yeah, that book is complete. I haven’t done anything with it yet. But you know, it seemed so much simpler back then. I don’t know why. I wrote it across the first six months. Every night when she would wake up, I would change her diaper and then she would feed and I just kept these small notebooks that I would write in. It doesn’t feel as easy now. I feel infinitely more tired now. Those first six months… I don’t how that worked.
GM: Well, I think sleep-deprivation is cumulative. It builds up.
BS: Yeah. There’s just so many things to contend with, and I am not a good example of someone who has figured it out. I mean, we have no—this is super practical—we have no childcare, so one of us is always with her. I know there are many other writers who prioritize things in a way that gives them more time to write. And I think that’s important, but I just haven’t gotten there yet. I do a lot of my writing currently in my head as I’m lying awake or as I’m lying in bed at 4 a.m. about to get up. Maybe that is something that I’ve turned into a discipline. I’m in the process of learning how to write very fast and largely in my head so that when I do have ten minutes or twenty minutes, or even five minutes, I already know what I’m going to write. I know it’s going to change, and I hope my mind will meet me there! I think the more difficult thing for me right now is reading. I find it more difficult to create generous space for reading. Reading has become this dream, you know?