From living in a cabin in the woods to moving to Tucson, Brandon Shimoda may have lost sight of various issues, but one thing always on his mind is to question and understand history, how it is being interpreted and what we are doing with it. As a Tucson-based poet and author, he has published six poetry books and one nonfiction book. Though they all differ, they all maintain similar themes.
“The Grave on the Wall,” released in August, is his most recent and first nonfiction book. It follows his search to understand and question his own family history and the history of Japanese-Americans in the 20th century. Challenging issues of immigration, citizenship and assimilation, Shimoda tries to understand the struggles his grandfather once experienced
This interview was edited for clarity.
You’ve been involved with the UA Poetry Center and have lived in Tucson for several years now. How has living in Tucson and experiencing the city impacted your writing?
I taught a class at the UA Poetry Center a few years ago and I’m teaching another next month. Living here, I think that it would be impossible to not be impacted by where I live. I think there is something about the desert, obviously, there are different kinds of deserts and I am not trying to characterize a single desert with this desert, but it feels like a very important place. It feels like a landscape and a culture that possesses a kind of history that teaches us a lot about humanity, struggles, histories of erasure and liberation.
What does “The Grave on the Wall” mean to you and how is it different from your other books?
In the most basic way, it’s my first book of prose. I’ve published six books of poetry and this is my first book of nonfiction. That is the major difference, even though the other books were poetry and this is prose, it’s completely relatable. They are all part of the same family. I’ve written many poems about my grandfather in particular and in a way, I wanted to re-write some of those poems in paragraphs. I wanted it to be a little more lucid. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that is what I wanted to try.
What are some themes or messages that are common throughout this book?
Being the author, it’s somewhat hard to answer because I would hope that its open enough that the reader could see it. I wanted to write a book about my grandfather for many reasons but one of them was that his life mirrors the trajectory of Japanese America in the 20th century. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a citizen of the United States and especially a descendant of an immigrant who spent a good deal of his life struggling to become a citizen. I feel like I’ve inherited that struggle and that his struggle is not over. His struggle is being embodied in his children and grandchildren.
You also write about the issues Japanese individuals encountered when arriving in the U.S., expected to behave more “western.” You write, “they were not permitted to become American, but they were expected to behave American.” What effect did this have on their identity and culture?
I think the effects of that were as numerous as the people themselves. You know, each individual as well as each community or family, experienced or dealt with that complex situation in their own way. Japanese immigrants were not permitted to become citizens. They were withheld from that privilege but yet they were still expected to display the behaviors of western society, the acceptable norms. It was like they were being forced to perform but without any of the supposed rewards of that performance. That’s always been happening, that’s happening now, the effect that it has on the psyche of one’s sense of identity.
Why was it important for you to learn about the life of your grandfather after he passed?
There was a lot about my family’s history, and Japanese American history, in general, that was never talked about. For me, when he died it was almost like that silence came to life. The silence became a presence that I needed to confront because with his absence, I felt an urgency to ask questions and to understand. The title of the book is related to a photograph of him that I found in the museum for the prison where he was incarcerated. As I started to ask these questions and as I started understand his life, all these different aspects of his existence started to appear. I realized I didn’t know anything and I realized that I was raised to not know anything. In order to know anything, I had to fight really hard and create a life who’s based in investigation. For myself as an individual, I felt like either I had been withheld from history or history had been withheld from me. It was like my grandfather was the portal or the gate I had to pass through in order to understand where I had come from.
“The Grave on the Wall” is currently available via City Lights Publishers (citylights.com). Vianney Cardenas is a University of Arizona journalism student and a Tucson Local Media intern.