Temporal Narrative and Identity in My Memoirs
My first memoir, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, recounts a year I lived in Japan and is set in a temporal order. I chose this narrative structure partly because the setting and meeting of various Japanese people helped make the events singular and, at times, dramatic. The one-year time frame also made it easy to set things in temporal order. It’s the narrative structure of the work that caused one critic to remark that the memoir “reads like a novel” and even caused some readers to mistakenly think it is a novel.
In setting up the overall structure of Turning Japanese, I used Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction as a guide. Specifically, I used Franklin’s outline of starting each chapter with a complication for the protagonist; three attempts or actions to resolve the complication then follow, and before the chapter concludes, a new complication is introduced that will be addressed in the next chapter.
Franklin’s structure is a version of the basic idea of story: the protagonist has a goal and takes actions to reach the goal. In each chapter or section of Turning Japanese, my past self confronts a particular complication/goal; that complication/goal was something I had to uncover and then structure the chapter around. In one chapter, the goal was to find a vehicle to enter and study Japanese culture; that entailed making contact with a Japanese magazine editor, attending a shamisen lesson, which didn’t work out, then attending a class by a master artist of Butoh, a contemporary Japanese dance form that I was able to study (note that this chapter follows the classic three attempts to reach a goal, since any determining pattern can be revealed in three attempts—success, failure, success—or failure, failure, success; failure, failure/success, failure). In another chapter, the goal was getting to and surviving a Japanese political demonstration and avoid being arrested, since non-Japanese were not allowed to attend such demonstrations.
I should note that it was only in my fourth or fifth draft that I finally worked out a chapter-by-chapter outline; only then did I have a firm enough sense of what the book was about and what its general contents should be to do this. My first versions of the book were separate essays, more on the postmodern nature of contemporary Japan than anything about myself. But from the start, my writing group kept constantly advising me, “More narrative, more you.”
Like many writers, though, I initially resisted their advice; then, gradually, I entertained it, and finally, I acted on it. It took four drafts, though, before I was able to craft the opening chapter that anchors the whole book within the context of my identity as a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. In a way, I had been consciously avoiding such an investigation into my own ethnic and racial identity, yet at the same time, I had been unconsciously searching for a language to do so. Only after I found such a language did my writing group confirm that I had found the voice—the present narrating self—to tell the story (and yet, even after I sold the book, my editor asked for “more narrative, more you”). It’s hard to underestimate how much resistance I had to overcome, how much work I had to do—including overcoming my own internalized racism—to get to these opening simple sentences:
I am a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. In 1984, through luck and through some skills as a poet, I traveled to Japan. My reasons for going were not very clear. . . .
I had applied for a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship mainly because I wanted time to write.
Japan? That was where my grandparents came from, it didn’t have much to do with my present life.
But then Japan had never seemed that important to me, even in childhood. On holidays when we would get together with relatives, I didn’t notice that the faces around me looked different than most of the faces at school. I didn’t notice that my grandfathers were in Japan, my grandmothers dead. No one spoke about them, just as no one spoke about Japan. We were American. It was the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Christmas. All I noticed was that the food we ate—futomaki, mazegohan, teriyaki, komaboku—was different from what I liked best—McDonald’s, pizza, hot dogs, tuna fish salad.
Later, after I finished Turning Japanese, when I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces I realized that the structure of the book resembled that of classic myths—a hero is called to leave the old kingdom and travel to a new one, seeking an elixir or gift, in this case, the book itself, to bring back home to renew the old kingdom. Since the classic structure of the three-act play stems from and corresponds to the journey of Campbell’s hero, Turning Japanese also possesses a three-act structure. This structure includes the protagonist’s initial refusal to take up the call to the hero’s journey—that is, part of me was reluctant to travel to Japan, to learn about Japanese culture, or to engage the issues of identity that Japan ultimately raised for me.* The book’s third act involves my parents coming to Japan and my trip to my grandparents’ hometown, a final act of returning to my family’s roots.
Turning Japanese also makes use of the A-line, B-line, C-line structure delineated earlier in my analysis of Junot Díaz’s “Fiesta.” While the A line of my memoir depicts the events of the year I spent in Japan, a B line explores and recounts smaller narratives of my earlier years, particularly concerning my problematic relationship with my parents. The book also includes C material that deals with imagining moments in the life of my parents and my relatives, particularly in connection with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
My other memoir, Where the Body Meets Memory, is an exploration of my search to understand my identity as a Japanese American in America and how my past and my family’s past helped forge that identity. Unlike Turning Japanese, this memoir is organized more thematically, though there’s a loose temporal order to the sections. I sometimes wonder if it might have been a better book if I could have organized it into more of a story. But in the end I was more involved with the thematic concerns of that book, the questions of race, sexuality, and identity. In certain ways, I was using my life more as an example, the closest at hand, rather than because of its inherently dramatic story.
For me, one model for this type of memoir was James Baldwin’s essay, “Equal in Paris,” where he tells of his being arrested in Paris. There the narrative sections are also secondary to the essay sections. The account is interesting, but the conclusions that Baldwin draws about race in America through that experience are really the heart of the essay. In the end, he decides that, despite all he hated about American racism, he was safer and more comfortable living with a racism and racists he understood as opposed to the French, whose racism and racists he could not understand.†
Where the Body Meets Memory is subtitled An Odyssey on Race, Sexuality and Identity, and a major focus is on my racial identity. Narratively, Where the Body Meets Memory follows my life from childhood through adolescence into adulthood, and it parallels that progress with sections of my mother’s life—her childhood in the internment camps—my father’s life—his adolescence and early adulthood after the camps—and my grandfather’s marriage. In this way, the memoir became not just my story but a family saga of three different generations of Japanese Americans.
As I wrote both memoirs, it became clear that without a three-generation perspective, I could not understand the ways culture/ethnicity and race affected my grandparents, parents, and thus me. For example, the internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans during World War II was a clear act of racism, as President Reagan and the government finally admitted in its apology in 1988. Yet the differences in the ways my grandparents and parents reacted to the internment were, in part, a result of their cultural differences; my grandparents were raised in Japan, while my parents were Japanese American and their identities were a mix of their parents’ Japanese cultural values and the American values and outlook that came from growing up in America.
As for myself, I had been raised with almost no knowledge of Japanese culture; my parents did not speak Japanese in our home, and I took this to stem from the fact that they were born in America. What I later came to realize was that their shedding of most remnants of Japanese culture from their childhoods and their fervid attempts to assimilate into white middle-class American life had been influenced by their experience of being imprisoned in the internment camps when my mother was eleven and my father fifteen. Since my parents never conducted acts of espionage, their crime was, implicitly, their ethnicity and race (indeed, no Japanese American was ever convicted of espionage). To explain how this experience affected them, I use the following analogy: If you are convicted of shoplifting, after prison, to show you’re reformed, you do not shoplift anymore. But what do you do if your crime is your race and ethnicity? That was the dilemma my parents faced.
Since I was a product of this familial history of generations, I could not investigate or understand my own identity and story without the lenses of both culture/ethnicity and race.
I suspect that this dual perspective and the exploration of multiple generations may more and more become part of memoirs where white writers investigate their racial identity. For as Baldwin has pointed out in his introduction to The Price of the Ticket, acquiring a white identity has entailed in part losing ethnic identity and forgetting the past:
To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.
This is precisely what the generality of white Americans cannot afford to do. They do not know how to do it—: as I must suppose. They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.
Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World.
Baldwin argues here that the actual identity of white Americans is far more complex historically and generationally than the official white identity allows. For that official white identity is based on a false premise, and in order to maintain the premise, it constantly tries to picture a present without a past or minimizes the effects of the past on the present (e.g., racism is a thing of the past). Ironically, in certain ways, southern white writers have tended to understand this better. Despite his caveats urging those in the civil rights movement to go slow, Faulkner obviously contemplated the sin of slavery and its continued effects on the life of the South. “The past isn’t dead,” he once remarked. “It’s not even past.” Such an understanding is one that fuels most memoirs.
I would add here a word of caution: ethnicity should not be viewed simply as an added flavor or spice or a sentimental familial legacy. White writers who investigate their ethnic identity without contextualizing that identity within the history of whiteness will produce an inadequate portrait of both the present and the past. Similarly, Faulkner’s portraits of whites and blacks, despite their complexity, were also flawed and never overcame the white supremacy he grew up with and imbibed and never adequately interrogated and challenged. In many ways, we as a culture are still waiting for white writers to engage in the difficult and hard work of dismantling white ideology; such work is absolutely integral to keeping us from repeating the past dressed up in new disguises—or given the recent 2016 election, fearfully donning the robes of the past in order to preserve the powers embedded there through systemic racial injustice.
* The middle of the second act, the act of struggle and doubt, is my flirtation with a German woman and how that set off a crisis in my marriage. The third act or final battle involves looking directly at my identity through the lens of my family—the visit of my parents, with whom I’ve had several disagreements, and my visit to my grandparents’ hometown, a trip that I kept putting off.
† In Turning Japanese, I reached a similar conclusion. Though as the title implies, I first found myself in love with Japan, its people and culture, I gradually began to realize in Japan that, in very essential ways, I was not at all Japanese but American (I could not, for example, abide the hierarchical and position/title dominated nature of Japanese society, and I much prefer the more democratic—with a small d—American societal structure). At the same time, because Turning Japanese explores a year I spent in Japan, it focuses more on the cultural/ethnic roots of my identity as a Japanese American and less on my racial identity than Where the Body Meets Memory.