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‘Letters to Memory’ tells the story of author Karen Tei Yamashita’s World War II internment

By Terry Hong for the Christian Science Monitor 

SEPTEMBER 13, 2017 —“I have no formed definition of this project except an intuition that you would listen and be attentive and somehow understand,” Karen Tei Yamashita writes in Letters to Memory, her sagacious follow-up to her 2010 National Book Award finalist, “I Hotel.” Having built her significant literary reputation on eschewing conventional formats and easy labels, “Letters” is no different. Even her “memory” is made “wary [by her self-proclaimed] propensity for dishonesty or, as you say more kindly, fictionalizing.”

Categorized as “nonfiction/memoir” on the book’s back cover and enhanced with black-and-white photographic documentation, here’s what we know: Yamashita’s extended family, including her paternal grandmother and her seven adult children, were among the 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned during World War II because of their heritage. Designated the family’s “useful repository” – as writer and therefore de facto archivist – Yamashita has amassed “a lifetime of stuff” in multiples, collected as the “Yamashita Family Archives” at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where Yamashita is a literature professor. With the passing of all seven Yamashita nisei (second generation), including her father John, Yamashita has “extracted a sliver of this record to ponder some questions,” she explains in her “To Begin”-introduction. “I admit mine is a different or particular way of reading and seeing our story… Reader – gentle, critical, or however, I count on you, as another guide through this labyrinth.”

Parsed into five main sections, Yamashita writes her “Letters To …” Poverty, Modernity, Love, Death, and Laughter – each addressed to “epistolary muses”: respectively in order, they are Homer (Iliad), Ishi (the last member of the Yahi tribe, but also the Japanese word for ‘stone’), Vyasa (The Mahabharata), Ananda (Buddha’s cousin and disciple), and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). Yamashita clearly has an agenda: she aligns each letter-topic with a specific muse, to whom she reveals a corresponding part of her family’s story, then moves beyond personal details to illuminate a broader, contemporary context such as, say, today’s civil rights.

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