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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 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. Many would call this structure fragmented; I would label it smartly granular.

Each piece in this work is intimate and delicate, yet the piling up of those pieces can never re-create 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, Mont., 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.

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, Mo. Her scholarly book Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements was named a Choice Review Outstanding Academic Title. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Grave on the Wall

By Brandon Shimoda

City Lights

222 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

In his heartbreaking new book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, California writer Richard Reeves reminds us that wars have a frightening tendency to spawn racial prejudice.

The incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans has been relegated to a footnote in U.S. history for 70 years. Infamy is a not-so-gentle reminder of that tragedy.

Backed by a wealth of research, Reeves documents the systemic racism behind internment, the military and political leaders who launched it, and the massive toll it took on immigrants and their children in the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Soon after Pearl Harbor,” Reeves writes, “Caucasian shopkeepers joined the farmers in outspoken hatred, with signs saying ‘This restaurant poisons both rats and Japs’ and ‘Open hunting season for Japs.’”

Infamy generally portrays first-generation Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents as patriotic U.S. citizens who happened to have the “wrong” physical features. The campaign to evacuate them from the West Coast was led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, generals and other prominent officials.

Reeves was inspired to write Infamy, he explains in the introduction, after he drove through a desolate area of California and passed a sign that read, “Manzanar War Relocation Center.” This relic of the past haunted him: “I finally decided to write this book when I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the troubles of the day.”

Xenophobia reigned then much as it did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Horrific scenes in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona mirrored events in Nazi Germany: FBI agents barged into private homes, and soldiers herded Japanese Americans into railroad cars bound for 10 relocation centers, located primarily in the West, ranging from Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Topaz in Utah, to Amache in Colorado, Gila River in Arizona, and Minidoka in Idaho. Barbed wire and machine gun-toting guards kept them imprisoned until the war was almost over. More than 1,800 died in the camps.

The epilogue notes that, almost 50 years later, the U.S. government paid $1.2 billion in reparations to the survivors. “The money was a pittance compared to the billions in 2014 dollars American Japanese had lost, but in the end, it was not about money,” Reeves concludes. “It was about getting a formal apology from the government for stealing liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II

By Richard Reeves

Henry Holt and Co.

368 pages, $32

Published in Literature

There’s an old Japanese proverb, “Deru kugi wa utareru.” It basically means: “The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hit.” It represents Japan’s conformist tendencies, and the long-held belief that an individual should never rock the boat.

It’s also the underlying theme of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s season-ending production, Hold These Truths, written by Jeanne Sakata and starring Blake Kushi. Originally staged in 2007 as Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, it chronicles the true story of Hirabayashi, a second-generation Japanese American who had the guts to rock the boat by resisting the legally mandated internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

The oldest son of a truck driver, Gordon learns about discrimination early on. As a young boy, after he tries to come to the aid of an injured dog in the street, a white man screams at him and his mother: “Get out of our country, you fucking Japs!” Local businesses hang signs warning, “Japs, go home!” During his first trip to New York, Gordon is relieved at the lack of such signs, and his ability to eat at a restaurant without being thrown out.

Hirabayashi is studying at the University of Washington in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, which requires that all West Coast residents of Japanese descent be sent to internment camps. Hirabayashi refuses to join the ranks of the hundreds who obeyed, in the process losing their homes, businesses and self-respect.

He writes a letter to the government explaining his actions—but he’s arrested for refusing the evacuation order. The legal defense group that takes up Hirabayashi’s cause claims the 1942 executive order violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the seizure of property and rights without due process of law.

Hirabayashi’s case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943, where he eloquently argues that ancestry is not a crime, and passionately declares: “I am an American.” However, he ultimately loses. After requesting a 90-day sentence rather than a 60-day sentence (it’s the only way he can serve it outdoors), Hirabayashi hitchhikes all the way to Tucson, Ariz., to serve his prison time in a labor camp.

The play depicts Hirabayashi’s subsequent marriage to his college sweetheart, the births of his children and his successful teaching career. Forty years later, he gets a phone call from a law professor who has unearthed old evidence that there was no military necessity for the mass incarceration. In 1987, Hirabayashi’s conviction was overturned, and in 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, just a couple of months after his death.

Not bad for a nail that stuck up.

Carrying a show alone that’s nearly two hours long is not easy, especially when the show deals with such heavy duty issues. Thankfully, both Jeanne Sakata’s writing and Blake Kushi’s performance are excellent. The script has many upbeat—and some downright funny—moments. Kushi has a great stage presence, and is very likable, which this role requires. Throughout the play, Kushi also portrays Hirabayashi’s father, mother, college friends and lawyer, as well as several other characters, all with great skill.

As always, Ron Celona’s direction is quite good. The simple set is effective, and the use of newsreel photos (flashed on downstage screens) and radio broadcasts from the era take the audience back in time.

Hold These Truths is a fabulous choice to end CV Rep’s season, which carried the theme “The American Melting Pot.” Don’t miss it. It will make you laugh, think and perhaps shed a tear or two. And it reminds us all that rocking the boat is sometimes necessary—in fact, it can change history.

Hold These Truths is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 3, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is now show at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 18.) The running time is just less than two hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Tickets are $45, with a special rate of $15 for children and college students with an I.D. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit

Published in Theater and Dance