David Mura’s Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, and the Spaces that Precede Media

In deep conversation with the brilliant Linda Hawj, I started reflecting on how we come to media, and the spaces it opens to us. After all, I was someone who grew up being one of the only Asian American kids in school, and didn’t find either the spaces or media to describe my experience until I was older. Part of my desire to do this POC media challenge is, in some part, a desire to go back and redo those years. To have conversations that different media might have helped me have.

I originally was going to write about how David Mura’s Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire opened up a new space for conversation around personal history and the Japanese American experience in my family. It helped me connect with my father. It’s strange, the Japanese American community is a couple generations away from internment, and yet this is one of the first pieces of literature I’ve read that deal directly with it. (Perhaps not so strange. A lot of internees wanted to move on with their lives; a lot of American readers and publishers were probably not demanding stories about internment).

Originally, I wanted to talk about how hearing narratives like our own (or our families’) lets us reflect on our lives. Mura explores the generational trauma that came as a result of the war and internment. Specifically, the main character believes his father was a No-No boy, one of the Japanese American men who, when asked to sign papers renouncing allegiance to the emperor of Japan and agreeing to serve in the American armed forces, checked “no” to both. Last year, when we moved my grandmother into an assisted living facility, we found the documents my grandfather signed. He had signed “yes, no.” So, he renounced loyalty to the emperor of Japan (my grandfather was a US citizen, born in Hawai’i), but refused to fight in the American armed forces. He’s no longer here to ask about it, so we imagined that he was too Buddhist to fight. Instead he taught Japanese to American GIs, but not to his own son. He’s been gone almost twenty years and we can’t really know how to interpret his actions.

After my dad read the book, I asked him about it. He told me this wasn’t an easy or fun read for him.

“I wanted answers, and I didn’t get any.”

“What kind of answers?” I asked. My dad thought for a minute.

“Answers to questions that I haven’t yet answered for myself, that my generation hasn’t.”

But he passed the book back to me, because he knew I wanted to read it. “I thought we all could read it,” he said.

In reflecting about all this, I realized the media wouldn’t have come to us without a space preceding it. The truth is, while the book did create space in my family to talk about these things, I wouldn’t have found it if not for intentional Asian American activist space in the first place. Sometimes the media comes to us, and inspires us to seek out spaces. But sometimes we need space, and relationships, to get that push.

Linda invited me to a planning meeting for a protest of Miss Saigon in fall of 2013, and this was the space that pointed me towards more Asian American artists who could recommend books like Mura’s (who is a leader in the Twin Cities coalition against Miss Saigon, among other things. You can read his essay about Miss Saigon here). Despite all the possibilities to find his book or others like it on the Internet, it took a physical space and conversations in realtime to get this book in my family’s hands, and to get us talking. So although Asian American media created space for dialogue, it took an Asian American space to bring that media to us.

I kicked myself for awhile for not “getting conscious” earlier, and tuning in to critical Asian American voices that became available as the Internet developed during my coming of age years. But it makes sense too that when I was growing up around mostly-white peers, I sought myself in a mainstream media that reflected my space. I sought myself in the set of references white culture provided. Sought myself and did not find a reflection, so identified with white “alternative” artists like, uh, the Smashing Pumpkins. (Despite all my rage…) Mainstream media acted as a gatekeeper* by providing me with white protagonists and flat side plots about people of color; but my space normalized that invisibility. I only talked about race to make self-effacing jokes for my white friends’ benefit,** and sometimes, rarely, in a clumsy effort to acknowledge the weird pull, or longing, or something, that I felt towards other Asian Americans.

There’s just no substitute for community. In the years since, I gradually sought Asian American spaces where critical dialogue was happening. The first spaces I came across were in college. In higher education it’s media, mostly written, that is the vehicle for conversation. But there is no replacing a peer space. I remember the giddy-bittersweetness I felt at the first potluck held by our small APIA group on campus. Giddy for me because it was a naming and an embracing of an old longing; bittersweet because it was one of the first API spaces I’d ever had outside of family and I was already a grown person.

That being said, that space was gone when I graduated. And whatever my privilege allowed me to gain from them, the spaces of academia are steeped in whiteness and elitism that keep the doors shut to people. So I’m interested in those spaces that we create ourselves. Spaces that however liminal and momentary, exist for us when we need them. Even if they are in the space the shape and size of a paperback novel as it is passed between hands.

*Hawj 2013

**David Byunghyun Lee’s essay hit home so hard. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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