Yamashita's portrait For Ryuta Imafuku's Cafe Creole
Circle K Karen Tei Yamashita

2. Circle Trash/Maru-Gomi
3. Touch My Heart Circle K
4. Circle K Recipes
5. Circle K Rules
6. Just Do It in 24 Hours
7. The Santa Cruz of Tofu
8. A Gaveta da Celia
9. Y2CircleK
10. Traveling Voices new!

to read it in Japanese

Karen Tei Yamashita, a Californian-born sansei novelist who magically depicted her 10-year epistemological journey in Brazil both fantastically (in Through the Arc of the Rain Forest ) and historically (in Brazil-Maru ), now lives in Seto, Japan, and continues her search for the Japanese-Brazilian never-ending process of "travessia." Her diasporean and transcultural vision of the world has now lead her to finish writing a new saga, "Tropics of Orange," which will be published by Coffee House Press this summer


The Santa Cruz of Tofu

Tofu. I am standing in the tofu section of New Leaf, a local Santa Cruz market known for its organic produce and products. At New Leaf, you can buy everything organic: shiitake, tricolor beets, penne pasta, canned minestrone, espresso coffee beans, chardonnay, lamb chops, not to mention a choice of at least 4 brands of organic milk. In Santa Cruz, you can lead the life you are (or aren't) accustomed to living and do it all in organic. I call it alternative chic.

But back to the tofu; itユs all organic too, and there must be a dozen brands as well as a dozen consistencies and flavors: tough tofu, soft tofu, smoked tofu, Szechwan tofu, mild and extra hot, jalapena, garlic . . . Iユve become confused searching through the shelves of tofu looking for, well, plain tofu. Other shoppers stop to pick up packages of tofu, reaching past me with the confidence of their choices. One woman berates her partner. "No, no," she says, replacing his tofu choice on the shelf. "Not that one. This one. That one has no taste."

No taste. I think: when did tofu ever have a taste other than its own? My problem is that I am looking for a tasteless tofu, a monastic Zen experience, the tofu of my childhood, the tofu of my culture. My tofu is not on this shelf. But I thought tofu was my culture. I give up. After all, I am in vegetarian country. Tofu here is a meat substitute. As such it is toughened up to give it consistency, flavored to make it palatable.

Vegetarianism in this part of the world has taken on messianic proportions. It's not proper to joke about it because vegetarians and vegans probably are better human beings than us meat eaters. You wouldn't invite Santa Cruzeans to dinner without asking about their eating habits, although my puny research shows that more people around here eat meat than not. Ronaldo who is Brazilian from that third world country where protein in any form is a blessing wonders at all the commotion. During his six months as an apprentice learning to farm organically at the UCSC Agroecology Program, Ronaldo tried to be a vegetarian. He feels that he's physically processed enough squash and tofu to never have to see the stuff again.

But itユs not just about eating veggies, it's also about the way in which food gets reinterpreted and rearranged on the plate in such a place. O'Mei serves Chinese cuisine of exquisite preparation, some of it carefully authentic but much of it the chef's creation for the vegetarian palate. You'll never eat this stuff in Chinatown. One hungry Chinese American looked over the array of artful and delicate arrangements and exclaimed, "What is this? Toy food?" Then there's India Joze where Joe has recreated Indian and Southeast Asian curries into flamboyant pasty stir-fried events over rice. Of course one suspects that none of this is exactly like the real or original stuff, but that's not the point, is it?

Welcome to Santa Cruz, old site of a California mission. Its county frontiers spread out along the California coast pressing against redwood forests, plantations of brussels sprouts, artichokes and strawberries. Stucco cottages mixed with old Victorians, their climbing nasturtiums and roses, begonias and sunflowers, wend through the suburban landscape overlooking the bay. Coffee and movie houses dot the downtown in numbers that only a university town could probably support in a beachtown mosaic of independent businesses, motels, specialty boutiques, farmer's markets, book shops and the usual franchises.

From the west side of the bay, tide pools twist around beach cliffs, the surf crashing dramatically against a lighthouse turned surfer's museum. Surfers in wetsuits straddle boards, bobbing the waves like dozens of sea lions, and along the landed stretch, locals and students walk, run, skate and bike beneath twisted cypress bending immense and dark old trunks with the wind. Further along, the pier extends a rugged arm out to sea, offering a long view of the Boardwalk, its rickety rollercoaster a mechanical mountain swooping into the skyline. East Cliff Road leads to the small harbor where fishing and sail boats slip back and forth, skirt the beaches that follow the curve of the Monterey Bay through local neighborhoods -- Aptos, Capitola, Soquel. Finally across Highway 1 into Watsonville, a rich blanket of farmland spreads across the Pajaro Valley. As Ronaldo says, yes, this is somebody's paradise. Somebody bears this cross.

On the hills above all this sits the University of California, my new employer and the mission that replaced the old Franciscan one below, its presence, influence and priesthood greater than anything the old fathers could have imagined. The myth of this university built in the sixties is that an unorthodox educational proposal would attract the most radical and subversive students while the extraordinary beauty of the site would lull their minds into a sweet and gentle stupor, their energies and passions dispersed in the fog and romance of the wooded landscape. A midsummer nightユs dream. A myth like any other, full of truth and no truth at all.

Old local Santa Cruzeans must wonder about the sense of making their town the site for such a dubious project. For one thing, many of the students never left, and while marijuana may be more prevalent in the town than tobacco, these students have hardly been soporific. In fact they have been actively conservative, used their political wits to preserve the extraordinary beauty of the site. So the Boardwalk retains its old fashioned flavor, and the stretch of land that graces the lighthouse museum has been saved from developers who once envisioned a condominium-hotel-tourist-shopping complex. Instead, flowered wreaths pay homage to the statue of the surfer, his muscular figure beside a tall board -- lord of the lighthouse, the perfect waves, and the fog creeping through the fallen cypress, pines and feathered grasses.

If some students never left, have become old hippies, all have left behind an indelible legacy, the acrid scent of the sixties to be sure -- its waltz with alternatives, its quest for the natural, its empowerment of women, its white liberal guilt. Thus Santa Cruz has become a strange encounter, the crossroads of an old and continuing experiment, vestiges of which abound in evolving and renewed formulations: cooperative life styles, Native and Asian religious and therapeutic practices, an abundance of organic and vegetarian foods, a strong feminist and lesbian community, and likely every martial art and drumming style the world has to offer. While all of this is woven around families and pocket communities of Portuguese, Greek, Mexican, Brazilian, Filipino, South Asian, academics, poets, artisans, homeless, and commuters to the Silicon Valley, to name a few, itユs still guilty of being a pretty white place.

Still the whiteness of the place has an odd quality. It's as if everyone living here believes somewhere in his or her deep interior that in another life they must have been someone and something else: an Ethiopian king, a Hawaiian prince, a Zen monk, Sikh from the Punjab, Brazilian priestess of Condomble, an Italian baron, Mexican toreador, gypsy, beatnik, mermaid, dolphin. If they would only eat the right foods, pray to the right gods, pound their drums to the right beat, the memory must return. Students complain that Santa Cruz is a place of appropriations, a gathering of people fascinated with the exotic, usurpers of the culture of others. Oops, there goes my tofu.

We shouldn't complain. Because of these absorbent propensities, a kind of Brazil exists in Santa Cruz. For example, one day, a young man from Brasilia arrived with a little money in his pocket, the verses in his head to dozens of American rock'n'roll songs, and a dream of America. How could he stick it out in this place of his dreams? What did he have to offer?: Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, brought originally to the southern continent by African slaves. His first classes began with 2 students. In time, he gathered the requisite band of drummers and strummers of the birimbau, taught everyone the songs and rhythms that move the fighting dance. Now Mestre Papiba must have some 60 students, an official T-shirt, and a yearly batizado in which he invites capoeira masters from Brazil and across the country to baptize his graduating students. In Santa Cruz, you can also learn samba, practice Brazilian jujitsu, and celebrate the World Cup with organic feijoada and tofu Parmigiana.

Santa Cruz. The sacred cross marking sacred ground, planting belief. But also, cruzamento. The crossroads. A place of encounters, alternatives and mix-ups, exchanges and choices, possibility and freedom.

Ronaldo looks for me at the very crossroads, the tofu section of New Leaf. Itユs a midsummer night's dream. In a past life he was an Italian baron. I was a Brazilian gypsy. He's holding a container of Nicoise herb and garlic olives from the deli section. I've got a bottle of the local Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Dry Riesling. The label is a clever puzzle of sushi pieces: maguro, ebi, tako, toro. I piece its message together:

This eclectic blend is the missing link, the liaison dangereux, that links New World to Old World, Occident and Orient and is the perfect foil for most foodstuffs pan-Asian or pan-fried . . .The idea of the Pacific Rim appeals (by circular logic) to our idea of and thirst for this connection or closure. We crave the strange and mysterious, knowing well our hearts* unshakable allegiance to the familiar . . . The heart has its Rieslings . . . Our heartユs deepest longing, whether in the realm of romance or restauration, is for union, completion or fusion.

That does it. What the hell. I get the smoked Szechwan extra hot and, of course organic, tofu.

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A Gaveta da Celia

In every house we have ever lived, whether in Brazil, Gardena, Japan or Santa Cruz, we have always established a drawer, usually a kitchen drawer, we call a gaveta da Celia or Celia's drawer. In Celia's drawer you will find stray nails, nuts and bolts, lost buttons, puzzle pieces, the knob to the cover of a pot you have always intended to fix, extra matches and birthday candles, the accessories to some appliance you have never needed, rubber bands, small balls of twine, the hammer and garden clippers you were too lazy to return to the garage, keys for the car you sold a long time ago, locks -- the keys for which are lost, old refrigerator magnets, packages of seeds, a Mother's Day pot-holder made in the 3rd grade. In this drawer is everything you think you may need, probably don't need, don't know what it is, or can't bear to throw away. It's the place for things that have no place. It's a container for our confusion. It's where we store the messy odds and ends of our lives.

Now we are back for a month in Brazil, in Ribeirao Preto, at Celia's place, home of the original drawer itself. Celia is Ronaldo's mother, my mother-in-law, and the grandmother of our children. She is also the first daughter of Italian and Spanish immigrants. At one time, we lived here together under the same roof, four generations: Celia's parents, Celia, Ronaldo and me, and the kids.

In all the years I have known Celia, her home has been a constant swirl of family, friends, workers, and animals, coming and going. Everyone has used her home as if it were their own, using her barbecue and her kitchen to cook up their favorite dishes, her refrigerator to store their beers, planting fruit trees and vegetables in her spacious gardens, even decorating her house, not to mention telephoning, showering, and sleeping. At the center of all this has always been Celia, the homemaker, constantly making home, cooking or washing, a broom in her hands, making beds, spreading table cloths, serving up cafe, and all the time telling stories, catching up on gossip, commiserating or giving motherly advice. Despite the constant commotion, when all is said and done, surfaces shine with a spare simplicity. At the end of the day, the kitchen counter is completely bare, the floor swept. Throw pillows are perfectly arranged against the sofa. A lace doily and a vase of flowers have been placed in the center of the kitchen table. A kind of juggling feat has been accomplished in which, during the flurry of the day, everything has been tossed into the air and then by nightfall magically replaced.

When I finally came to live with Celia, I slowly came to understand her method, her particular organization distinguished by the paradox of her disorganization. While apparent surfaces are pristinely neat, drawers and cupboards and closets often haphazardly hide the clutter. Of course there is an evident logic to the storage patterns; cups are on shelves with other cups, plates with plates, utensils in drawers with other utensils. However, with the coming and going of so many others who also use and store these things, stuff gets moved around . . . and around. Every so often, Celia herself will rearrange everything. As furniture finds new placements, pots and pans and Tupperware also get new homes. This should not be much of a problem, but family and friends who come to use your home as their own suddenly find they need a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, ketchup, a hammer and nails, a shovel, a ladder, mercurochrome, a needle and thread, all of which in the scheme of things, might or might not be where you last saw them. Therefore, Celia has never seemed to be at rest. It's not as if you can find it in the third drawer from the top or the left side of the closet. Celia is keeper of the map even as it may have changed under her very nose. On any given day, it's: Celia, where are my old cleats? Celia, can I bother you for a band-aid? Celia, have you seen the can opener? Celia, do you know what happened to that bag of charcoal for the barbecue?

Living with Celia, I never tried to change any part of these storage patterns even though I imagined that many things could be stored in more logical places or proximity, could be gathered in one dependable place. It was my way of being in Brazil I suppose. I soon learned to memorize seeing things in certain places in the same way you play Concentration with cards. It was my way of helping Celia; two heads would be better than one. But in this game of concentration, there's a card, a Joker in the stack, that Celia has always kept for herself. It's about hiding stuff from others: chocolates from the kids, cane brandy from grampa, jewelry from thieves, the new stuff so the old stuff gets used up first, a worn out shirt Ronaldo loves but she hates to see him wear. Sometimes the stuff gets hidden so well it may be years before it turns up again. If you really need to find it, legend has it you'll have to ask the spirit of lost things, Negrinho Pastoreiro. On the other hand, this is Celia's house, and in subtle ways despite appearances, she's in control. After all, it's Celia's drawer.

Celia's father Antonio, a tough Spaniard from Granada died a few weeks ago at age 96. Celia's mother Gigeta, a northern Italian from the town of Treviso, will be 89 on August 3. When I first met Antonio, he was a vigorous 73 and boasted of a tough life of a man who had performed in his lifetime many jobs. From the time he arrived in Brazil, a boy of 8 years and one of 7 children, he labored, first hoeing and weeding between rows of coffee trees, and later apprenticing himself to a blacksmith. He would later sell fish from a cart, open a bar, run a gas station, construct houses, cast plaster saints, even hand-carve a fine violin. Gigeta's stories were also those of labor. When she arrived in Brazil at the age of 13, she went to work for her stepfather's butcher shop. It was her job to slaughter the small animals -- chickens, rabbits, sheep, calves and goats -- preparing this meat daily for their market. She did this for several years until she married Antonio, raising four children and working at his side for the next 71 years of their marriage.

Antonio and Gigeta have represented for their family the hardships of the first generation of immigrants but also a moral understanding about honest work and frugality. This understanding is represented minutely in the way new things are made from scratch and the way old things continue to have a use, are constantly remade or fixed, are never thrown away. Over the years I have watched Gigeta make gnocchi from scratch, carefully boiling and peeling potatoes, mashing them, kneading, and rolling the small balls of dough over an old grater to imprint a decorative dimple in each dumpling. I have seen Antonio make keys and tools from scrap metal, repair the handles on old pots and pans, restore broken tools to their old usefulness. In the same way, I know that Celia will take apart an old piece of clothing and remake it into something else: old pants become new shorts; an overcoat, a vest; a tablecloth, a set of tea towels; scraps of cloth, a quilt. Because things are crafted from scratch and old things are always repaired, you never know what may be useful or necessary to any such project. Therefore the necessity for Celia's drawer.

Celia used to say that Antonio didn't want to allow the consumer market to make any profits. Yes, you probably could say that Antonio was stingy, but he was also proud of his talents. If he could perform the work himself, why should he pay another to do it for him? It's not only been about frugality but also about work. What Antonio wanted for himself was not different from what he wanted for the old tool or pot he had fixed and remade; he wanted to work and be useful to the very end of life. He did not want to be thrown away. Hours before he died, he had been in the garden hoeing and weeding, doing the work he had come to do when he first arrived in Brazil.

Ronaldo and I moved with our two children from Brazil to the US about 14 years ago. In doing so we left behind a household of stuff collected for almost a decade: kitchen goods, toys, clothing, books, furniture. For awhile it was all stored in one room in Celia's house. Now she's got it spread around in closets and on shelves here and there. Over the years we've returned to give much of it away, but often we find ourselves rummaging around, looking over everything fondly and repacking it all back away, unable finally to part with our things, the significance of our memories. Celia, for her part, has carefully kept everything, and even though we've asked her to give things away or use our stuff, she's mostly zealously hidden it all away. So here we are back sifting through the precious stuff of a gigantic Celia's drawer we've left behind because we never know when we might be back here again, might find this stuff useful, might want to take the scratch from our old lives and make a new project, repair a broken promise with an old memory.

In 14 years, I have only had the opportunity to revisit Brazil twice, while Ronaldo and our children have returned with more frequency. Each time we have tried to pick up where we left off, reach across the gap of time to rediscover the people and places we have known and loved. In many ways, we find ourselves rummaging around an old drawer of miscellaneous pieces, odds and ends, familiar and unfamiliar. Some things are always new; others sadly missing forever. Memories abound, reveal themselves in old stories, continuing gossip. Here's the stuff we can't bear to throw away, that have no place but this place. A gaveta da Celia.

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Whose millennium?

After three generations of vegetarianism in his family, Bruce Willey hunkered down at Sushi Benten with five other writers and broke with the tradition by downing a quart of Sapporo and two couples of hamachi. I know Bruce told us why vegetarianism ran through his Midwestern Christian fundamentalist past, but somehow that story ran out of me like warm sake. Maybe it was the way Bruce studied the menu, the sense of anticipation you could feel emanating from his perusal. He'd told me before that he'd tried in the past to eat beef, but it made him sick. For some reason, I felt protective. Hey, don't do it, I thought. it's all right; we'll still like your writing even though you don't eat meat. This was Santa Cruz after all, the great Mecca of Tofu. Who were we, meat-eating writers, in the context of this more gentle but vociferous discourse? After all, Bruce wasn't a born-again vegetarian; he was the real McCoy. Three generations for godssake, literally.

Author of historic fiction and memoir, Micah Perks, looked at me with skepticism; her eyes said, hey we chose Japanese because Bruce could eat vegetarian, right? Right. But this was my culture, so maybe it was my fault. I racked my brains. Surely Basho was vegetarian. How about Kawabata? Kobo Abe? Kenzaburo Oe? Tanizaki? Mishima? Useless. Effete Epicureans. They'd have eaten the babies, not to mention the eggs, appendages and organs of everything, even vegetables. Still I waged an internal dialogue, decidedly a tofu-sushi binary. Even if writers were food sensationalists, Zen could be appropriated to high truth. Ray Bradbury had written the book, Zen and the Art of Writing . And surely poet Gary Snyder had been up this California coast and through Santa Cruz. Vegetable tempura. Miso soup. Tofu. Cucumber roll. Ume shiso roll.

Ume shiso. Pickled plum with beefsteak leaf. Beefsteak leaf is an unfortunate name, but I didn't mention it to Bruce. Shiso sounds authentic. Vegetarian with a zing. Cleans you mouth of the fishy taste. Our waitress for the evening was Shaina Feinberg, also a writer. She went off with our orders, requesting them in Japanese to the sushimakers. It was really impressive. Shaina spoke Japanese with a New York Jewish accent. I could hear the owner calling her Tomi. Shaina, who writes about New York like a sensual geography laid across the reclining body of Michelangelo's David, had a Japanese name too, and it was my grandmother's name. My grandmother Tomi was born during the Meiji Era in Tokyo. At the last turn of the century, she was maybe 18 years old, newly married to my grandfather and stepping off the boat in San Francisco. Three generations later, Shaina had been bequeathed her name. I reveled in the meaning of it. If Bruce could have his three generational moment, so could I.

So how about it? Pickles. Plain rice. It was too late. This was it. Yep. Bruce'd made some sort of decision. We didn't know if he had anticipated this moment, but it was one of those we wouldn't forget, millennial I'd say, but at least centennial, because it had taken about a hundred years to get from no meat to raw fish, and we were on the raw fish end. Fin de siecle.

We all stared at the hamachi, two perfect pillows of vinegared rice with two coverlets of raw yellowtail. I stared at the white flesh of it and realized that it would be pretty fishy, the oils tantalizing but potent. Maybe maguro would have been wiser, less rich, less exotic, less something. Suddenly I saw raw fish as if I were seeing it for the first time, like an animal eating another animal. The Japanese were crazy to invent such a thing; suddenly they looked to me like two white mice with their feet tucked in. I was communing with a vegetarian trepidation. I could relate. At the same time, I could have easily volunteered to eat the sushi for Bruce. Kyle Petersen, who sat on the other side of Bruce looked with his half-smile at the sushi; he was ready to volunteer too. Maybe we were being sympathetic; at least I felt sympathetic, my own stomach churning with Bruce's possible gastronomic adventure. Then again, maybe we were just waiting there like sushi-vultures. Kyle, a writer fascinated with Bakhtinian grotesque detail juxtaposed with essential tension, would know better how to describe this. Meanwhile, I pointed at the green mound of wasabi next to the fish pillows. Wasabi. Bruce could scrape it off, but it might also kill his sensations. I don't think I said kill , however.

Micah glanced over but continued to engage in an animated conversation with Kathryn Chetkovich. In fact, we were there to celebrate Kathryn's reading of her collection of short stories, Friendly Fire . Bruce had made the introduction at the reading, and his correspondence with Kathryn would be forthcoming in the next issue of the Red Wheelbarrow . Kathryn had divulged her writing process, the secrets to the origins of several short stories, read her work to an attentive audience. I wondered what more Micah could be gleaning from the evening. Even so, Bruce's millennial moment had definitely taken center stage. Never mind Chetkovich's taut careful prose, her crafted endings; this was another sort of ending. Later the AWP (Associated Writing Program) Conference in Albany, New York, would designate a panel title to the subject: Endings as the Millennium Ends. The copy was vague: An analysis & discussion of endings & what's possible in endings as the millennium ends in the three most popular fictive forms: the short-short story, the short story, & the novel . After a panel of writers presented their takes on fictive endings, someone in the audience asked what the millennium had to do with this. No one really knew how to answer the question. The year 2000 was just a number, a fiction like any other ending.

We watched Bruce order another beer and finger the first of the hamachi pair, the tip of the fish flesh inviting him like the tip of a tongue. "Hmmm," he munched and groaned with his mouth closed. "Um hum. Yeah," he grunted and nodded. "Uh huh." But what did it mean? He didn't even use the soy sauce. I think his brow was awash with sweat. I didn't want to look, but I could sense his physical reaction at my side. "Hmmm," he kept mumbling. Maybe he would pass out, I thought. We'd have to call 911. Shaina/Tomi would have to call 911. All the women sushimakers would rush over to his side. I imagined them lifting him up and laying him out across the sushi bar like Shaina's Davidian Odalisque and trussing him up like a California roll. "Fastu taimu sushi? Saa, doo ka na? Neba seen like this. Kawaisoo." Women sushimakers, now that was significant. Sushi-making is traditionally a man's job, but this place, Benten, owned and operated by a woman, only hires women. Wouldn't you know it? Feminist sushi. Lesbian sushi? What had the world come to?

My Parsi friend tells me that according to one of the versions of the Zoroastrian calendar, next year will be the year 1369. She wonders however if this counting is marked by the exodus of the Parsi from Iran or by some other event of equal consequence. I'm also told that it's 2044 in the Hindu cycle, but who's to say which cycle of 2044? And what about the Aztec calendar and its 52-year cycles of doom? The Islamic calendar begins in the year Muhammad is said to have gone into exile, around 621 CE, CE being Common Era as opposed to AD or Anno Domini. Chinese New Year in 2000 will be 4698. Of course the Chinese would have the longest living civilization, but based on what beginning is difficult to say. How many dynasties would involve 4,698 years? Since Chinese tradition follows the lunar calendar, you can say gung hay fat choy around February next year. In Japan, it will Heisei 12, the 12th year of the current Emperor Heisei, but it could also be Kouki 2660, Kouki 1 marked by the birth of the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu, in 660 BC. Gary Snyder once added 40,000 years to his human calendar, reckoning back to early cave paintings and dating the publication of his poetry in 40077. That would make next year 40100. The Time magazine reported that Dionysius Exiguus or Dennis the Short, a 6th century monk, created the basis for the current calendar, but historians argue that Christ's birth was actually 3 years prior, so the millennium, if birthdays count for anything, should have been celebrated in 1997 at the most.

It was difficult to say if we or Bruce were celebrating. If he had partaken of bread as a symbol of the flesh, I wondered if it would have been different. This communion with fish flesh seemed to send chills through his body. He shook and rolled his eyes. We looked on with concern. "It's all right," he insisted. "it's just about eyes," he suggested cryptically. I thought about this. I usually divide my writing workshops up by food groups: carnivores, omnivores, herbivores. Although my research is in its early stages, I imagine that some characteristics about a writer's writing can be ascertained from the food he or she eats. At least, that's the hypothesis. I remember Bruce situated himself in herbivores with the parenthetical comment about not eating anything with eyes. He wasn't talking about potatoes, of course. In the meantime, Shaina arrived with a plate of sushi rolls. "That must be for someone else," I pointed. "It's not ume shiso." It was takuwan, a yellow daikon pickle, stinky enough that the just-opened jar is said to smell like a fart. The Buddhist monk Takuwan had created this delicacy, but I didn't think a fart smelling pickle would make things any easier for Bruce. Shaina took the takuwan away, but to my alarm and further angst, Bruce ordered a second pair of hamachi. Certainly this was the end, and it was my fault. I wanted to assure him: Carnivores weren't such great writers anyway .

I suppose every people on Earth have a different number to date the coming Y2K. The last time I can remember we worried about a year was 1984, an Orwellian prospect, decidedly literary. The predictions for this coming year are Biblical and therefore, also literary. Myth, history, fiction. Human existence like a dot in time. Amazon dot com. The rest of the clamor is about a coming digital disaster, the excesses of technology come to wreak havoc as a test of the survivalist. If you lived through the LA Riots or the San Francisco Quake, not to mention the Holocaust, Pinochet's government, or the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, not being able to access a Versateller or using the water in your toilet tank seem to be small matters. Whose apocalypse?

postcard A few days later, Bruce sent me a postcard, a black and white photo taken circa 19XX, at least three generations ago. A woman stands in a garden, a small field of zinnias at her feet and perhaps a peach orchard in the background. Wearing a white dress with lace features, her eyes focus forward in strenuous concentration. Next to her is a small doily-covered table with a book, perhaps a Bible, atop. Despite the doily, lace, and the zinnias, it's a harsh photo with a rugged sensation of stance and time and flesh set in stone. Someone tried to soften the scene by colorizing the zinnias, dimpling them with yellow and orange, but it's only a momentary distraction. The black and white reign. I'm here and don't you forget it , she seems to say. But, on the other side, Bruce has written: Raw is definitely the way to go . The postage stamp in the corner is purposely a Winslow Homer commemorative of a fisherman in a rowboat at sea with his catch. Yellowtail, no doubt.

So one night, a bunch of us writers gave witness to the millennium, and I can still see Bruce licking the fingers of his digital disaster.

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Traveling Voices

During the war, my father was imprisoned in the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah until he left to study at the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, outside of Chicago, Illinois. Just prior to the war's end in 1945, he returned to California to be ordained a minister and quickly reopened and converted the Oakland West Tenth Methodist Church into a hostel to shelter Japanese Americans returning to the Bay area from camps. Everyday he met individuals and families at the train station, offered them the interim resources of the church until they could reestablish contacts, discover what had happened to their homes and possessions, find suitable housing and jobs.

By the time he married my mother in 1948, the church was no longer needed as a hostel; however a new group of visitors, seminary scholars and students from Japan, arrived hoping to complete their education and training in America. Many of these scholars were associated with Aoyama Gakuin, a university founded by the Methodist Church in Tokyo. My mother, living in the parsonage next to the church, remembers having one or several such visitors every evening for many years. Often they were passing through on their way to religious institutions further east, in Chicago or New York. My mother recalls those difficult years after the war when her living room became a momentary rest stop and meeting place for two communities displaced and scared by war.

Staring up at the massive statue of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, who guards the gate of Aoyama Gakuin, I wondered at the curious coincidence of this invitation to speak at the 50th anniversary of the founding of that universityユs department of English and American studies. I had sent a message to Peter Robinson, professor at Aoyama: Did they understand that I did not speak Japanese? That I was not a literary academician? That my focus on American literature would be narrowed to Asian American literature? I was encouraged not to worry; I was the appropriate speaker. But then, what to speak about? In fact, I should have known to speak about Brazil-Maru, my novel about a band of Japanese Christian socialists who immigrated to Brazil in the 1920s, but I felt loathe to speak about myself in a plenary that proposed to cover something as broad as American literature. But then again, what is American literature? In fact I found myself in this odd middle place between two literatures: American and Japanese. I have always considered myself a Japanese American writer, but having to consider the nature of my work in translation, the idea of Japanese American began to have another meaning, less as a political identification for an ethnic minority, increasingly as a kind of transnational identity.

On the nine-hour flight to Tokyo, I read John Dower's history of postwar Japan, Embracing Defeat, and began to think about a larger picture of that period. The postwar I knew was framed by my family's return from camp and forced relocations to places like Minneapolis, Chicago and Philadelphia. I knew the story of how my uncles reopened the family fish market and grocery on Post Street in Japantown, San Francisco. Miraculously the truck they had left inside the boarded-up store was still there and in running condition. My uncles put it to work to re-supply the store with produce. In a time of scarcity and rationing, they were able to buy from wholesalers who remembered that the Sakais could be trusted to pay their debts. My mother remembers their first customer, an African American man who bought a watermelon. He placed the melon on the scale for her and said, "I don't really want this. I just wanted to welcome you folks back again."

My mother's story is perhaps one positive memory among many very negative stories about this period. John Okada's No-No Boy, probably the best-known literary representation of that time, questions the ideal of loyalty in an unjust and unequal society. Okada's hard-edged prose describes the bitter realities and emotional conflicts of returning nisei men, some of them maimed soldiers and draft resisters facing uncertain futures and shaky identities. Okada's work can perhaps be compared to Mishima Yukio's novel of postwar Japan, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), a tale weighted by the idea of history and aesthetic beauty that strangles the ability to live and experience human desire. If Okada's protagonist is haunted by his memory of prison and draft resistance, Mishima's narrator, prevented by his stuttering from becoming a soldier, has spent the war in a temple -- a kind of beautiful prison. Both men have difficult relationships with their mothers and acquire a set of friends, variously damaged physically and emotionally. While Okada struggles to interpret experience within the postwar exuberance of the American dream, Mishima represents a defeated Japan in which Zen Buddhism is used to justify resignation and violent action as tactics for survival. The violent death of a nisei in a fight and car accident in Okada's novel and the final destruction of the kinkakuji are rebellious but also self-destructive events like war.

In reading John Dower's history of postwar Japan, I was reminded of my great aunt's story. It was her sister, my maternal grandmother, who sent boxes of canned and bottled food from the reopened San Francisco store to feed her family in Japan. "Tei sent baby food for my newborn daughter Masako. I would fill the shelf with the small bottles, using them gradually, wondering where we would find food after the last bottle. Then suddenly, another package would arrive." I also recalled my host okaasan who described her Ikebukuro home in Tokyo as the only house left standing. In all the surrounding bombed out lots, she began to plant vegetables to feed her family and neighbors. My Japanese school teacher remembered that her son, a nisei soldier who came to occupied Japan, found her and his stepfather destitute in a small shack in Tokyo. Every day, he would rush to the front of the military food line, fill a plate and take it to his parents, running back to stand at the end of the line for his own food.

Fragments of these experiences created my particular imagination of hardship and suffering in the postwar. Dower's history filled in various spaces in this imagination, describing prostitution, the black market and incrimination of honest people, intellectual rebellion and decadence, and the pervasive but invisible hand of MacArthur's bureaucratic occupation. This broader portrait of the postwar helped me to understand the sense of nihilism and sensual escapism that seems to be almost a stereotype of postwar Japanese literature.

Thus, another postwar writer, Kawabata Yasunari, examines the relationship of sexuality to memory in his novela, House of the Sleeping Beauties. This narrative is perceived through the point of view of an aging man who sleeps with sleeping women whose presence stirs old memories and dreams of women in his life -- his wife, former lovers, mistresses, daughters. The sleeping virgins are like the kinkakuji, impenetrable, beautiful but also dead. The act of sex which would destroy the beauty of the sleeping virgins could be equated to the act of fire which destroys the kinkakuji. For both Kawabata and Mishima, memory engages regret, a sense of defeat, loneliness and speechlessness. Both authors are concerned with ugliness, the grotesque, freakish quality of physical disabilities or aging. The idea of the manly warrior is replaced by an instinct for survival and by cynicism and corruption -- conditions of postwar Japan. There is a sense of Japan perceived as beautiful, sensual. Its victimization is equated with beauty, yet ugliness and self-hatred prevent the protagonists from partaking in this beauty.

Kawabata's aging character might be compared to the narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, An Artist of the Floating World, an elderly man who is forced to come to terms with his participation in the Japanese wartime government in order to arrange a marriage for his daughter. In this work, Ishiguro considers the integrity of the artist in a time of war. Despite the setting, as the title suggests, in a "floating world," Ishiguro's representation of this artist's life is oddly sexless. If Ishiguro's old man wants to marry off his daughter, Kawabata's old man sleeps with women who could be his daughters.

In a narrative voice whose similarity to Ishiguro's voice is haunting, Chang-Rae Lee in his novel, A Gesture Life, also considers integrity in a time of war, this time the integrity of those in the medical profession. Lee's novel deals with the conditions of "military necessity" and the forced use of so-called "comfort woman" or regulated prostitution administered by the Japanese military during the war. The narrator is another elderly Japanese man of Korean descent who also has an adopted daughter whose memory incites memories of other women and the dark past of war. Similar to Ishiguro's work, Lee's protagonist exhibits a kind of repressed sexuality, but this repression is used to reflect on the horror of wartime atrocities. The sense of victimization, cruelty and impoverished banality resonant in Mishima's work is also present in this novel.

Both Ishiguro and Lee are concerned with ideas of respectability and integrity, of good and evil, loyality and good intentions, tested under the circumstances of war. They take on the task of demonstrating the obfuscation of memory, how what is not said is revealed in silence. Perhaps there is for these writers a kind of recuperation of immigrant fathers through memory and history as figures of flawed humanity. At the same time, there is a political indictment and atonement for actions and belief that have devastating consequences. This is in contrast to the aesthetic and apolitical, nihilistic vision of Mishima and Kawabata's postwar Japan. What comes into relief are the contrasting ethical viewpoint of good and evil of Western humanist thinking and Eastern Buddhism. While Mishima and Kawabata represent Japanese men as selfish and self-concerned, Ishiguro and Lee represent Japanese men as striving to be selfless in their concern for others. Ishiguro and Lee, second-generation immigrants educated in the West, seem to be listening to imagined monolingual fathers while writing or translating their perceptions to English.

In my original investigations, I simply wanted to find the connection of Lee's voice that, in its decorous cadence and subject matter, curiously reminded me of Ishiguro's. In turn, I imagined that Ishiguroユs voice must come from somewhere, perhaps from an understanding of the most popularly translated Japanese writers of the postwar: Mishima Yukio and Kawabata Yasunari. My thought was that readers outside of Japan may have formulated an idea of Japanese literature from these writers, but in the case of English language readers, this formulation must necessarily be framed by the translations of Edward Seidensticker, Donald Keene, Ivan Morris and others. I wondered about the influence of this representation on another generation of writers in another part of the world. As it turns out, the translated voices of these Japanese writers are quite different from their English-writing counterparts, but it is an interesting difference. Mishima and Kawabata's narrative voices are unsympathetic, their descriptions of a beautiful world marred by the crudity and even ugliness of the perceiving minds. On the other hand, Ishiguro and Lee create sympathetic voices, a delicately beautiful language resembling a sensation of text as continuous brushstroke across the page, while describing an oftentimes banal and ugly world.

Then again, why should Ishiguro and Lee choose to carefully craft such a language anyway? I imagine it to arise from an assumed aesthetic tradition, a gracious, polite and considerate idea of Japanese culture in which surfaces and appearances are given importance. The voice located in such a culture must recreate or mimic this visual and cultural sensibility in text. What does this mean? If we write outside of the lived language, do we risk creating a language that is an appropriation of a cultural stereotype? Of course the writer creates a literary construct, and this construct can be said to be another point of view. Yet still there are political decisions to be made in this process. For example, if Ishiguro or Lee had taken on the unsympathetic voices of Mishima or Kawabata, they would risk alienating or incurring the anger of their readers considering the controversial nature of their themes. Perhaps there is here the difference of critical visions that come from inside and from outside.

Obviously the representations of postwar Japan by each of these writers are very different. I won't try to argue the authenticity of their descriptions but rather suggest that the differences have to do with different answers to the question: What do you have left after war? In the case of Mishima and Kawabata, what is left after war are women, the aging and disabled. Therefore, there is a physical and sexual presence that can only be manifested as useless beauty, useless sexuality, love that cannot be consummated, only imagined. As for Ishiguro and Lee, what remains after war is a man's honor, his integrity and respectability. And finally, for John Okada, while home, family, and community may remain, the returning soldier or prisoner discovers that home has been displaced, families and communities divided. For all of these writers, however, the remains of war are ideas, imagination, memories, the witnessing of events.

In my own novel, Brazil-Maru, I created five separate narrators to tell a story based on the history of Japanese immigration to Brazil. I received the complaint by some American critics that they could not hear the differences in the voices of the narrators even though I, as the writer, knew them to be distinct. Still I could understand their difficulty. All of the narrators, except for the last speaker, are speaking in Japanese. (The final narrator is speaking in Portuguese.) It's a very subtle task: how to make English look Japanese on the page. I could not, as in my recent work, Tropic of Orange, coax slang, dialect, or even literary artifice to craft differences. Grammar and rhythm could to be employed to show crudity in language and mis-education, but how to distinguish practicality, arrogance or belief? For two of the characters in Brazil-Maru, I depended at times on the memory of my own paternal grandmother, a Meiji Japanese and proud Edokko, both domineering and practical, who came to Oakland, California at the turn of the century. It's possible to say that the characters in Brazil-Maru who are presumably Taisho immigrants to Brazil are implanted with the characteristics of a Meiji immigrant to the U.S. as remembered by an American sansei who went to Brazil and interviewed immigrants in broken Japanese and Portuguese and created the final product in English.

Obviously for the Asian American or the Asian-Anglo-omniphone writer, a term coined by my friend and scholar Ryuta Imafuku, the blank page is a kind of mine field, a field of pitfalls, over which we struggle with the colonization of language and mind and the difficulty of communicating with our immigrant parents and grandparents -- their difficulty in speaking correct English, our difficulty in becoming completely bilingual -- and thus to pass on memory and truth. We struggle with our own sense of pride, power and authority over language, but realize that there is an absence of history and culture when language is not translated. Still, there is also an uneven presence of history and culture that has been selected for us for translation. We have to question what to choose and what to believe, remembering that our understanding of culture is learned, not necessarily inherited. We may have good English, but work with poor memory, with filtered memory, with the dubious nature of memory and history told by succeeding generations. At the same time, the use of narrative may reveal or heal old wounds, may recuperate dignity from enforced silence, and this is perhaps why Ishiguro and Lee insist on the question and the difficulty of integrity, understanding that it is a writerly truth woven around words gathered from reading, from translation, from experience, from memory, but also from words that travel, migrate, immigrate and settle, settle in other places and inside other minds.

At the end of my talk at Aoyama Gakuin, a retired professor named Kamiyama Taeko came to greet me and told me she had been wondering if perhaps I knew Kay Yamashita of Chicago. I felt a swelling in my throat because she could only mean my aunt who passed away a few years ago. She also mentioned Chizu Kitow, Kay's sister, also passed away, who lived in Oak Park outside of Chicago. Both Kay and Chizu had, she said, in 1950 taken care of her when she was in Chicago. She had always remembered their kindness to her. Indeed it was a memory of fifty years ago before I was born and certainly a connection through the Methodist Church. This 50th anniversary commemoration at Aoyama Gakuin suddenly had a new meaning for me, remembering my two aunts -- daughters of a Meiji Edokko, and their various travels from Oakland to Topaz to Chicago and even back to Tokyo. My aunt Chizu Kitow, widowed in the 60s, remarried late in life to George Togasaki, a nisei who lived most of his life in Japan, and was associated with the Japan Times and the founding of another Christian university, ICU, the International Christian University.

Yoshida Michiko, currently professor of American literature at Aoyama Gakuin, shared her thoughts about the Taisho generation of Japanese, how she found their representation in Brazil-Maru very plausible. Her description of this generation made me think of similarities to the 60s in the U.S., and made me wonder about my connections through my work to those two historic periods and locations. She also mentioned her family connections, albeit rebellious, to Christianity. We both laughed, intuitively understanding our serendipitous connections. I, too, had stumbled back into my family's past.

Boarding the plane for Los Angeles at Narita, I turned around to see historian Yuji Ichioka standing in line. He and his wife Emma Gee had just spent six months in Japan while Yuji taught at Todai and researched a continuing project: the presence and participation of nisei in Japan during the war. I had read his article on Buddy Uno, a nisei who relinquished his American citizenship, left the U.S. and worked as a journalist for the Japanese military during the war; meanwhile brother Edison Uno was an outspoken leader in the Japanese American community. We talked briefly. Yes, he said, George Togasaki was a World War I veteran in 1916. How many niseis could have fought in The Great War? Not many. Ichioka, the historian, could name names and cite dates. I wanted to ask him about Iva Toguri D'Aquino, branded as Tokyo Rose, whose stationary shop in Chicago I had visited many years ago with Chizu and Kay. I also wanted to ask Yuji if he remembered my cousin Ellen Tamaki, a student at UC Berkeley from 1964. Did he remember that she attended a meeting of the Asian American Political Alliance of which he was a founder and that she never returned to another meeting after he discussed the possibility of armed revolution? But he and Emma got front seats, and I was scrunched in a back window seat.

I fell into a swirl of voices -- literary and familial. The traveling of voices that I had set out to map was far more complicated than tracing a line through a stack of books. And yet maybe it was as simple as the tug of coincidence and recognition that awakens understanding. I imagined Kamiyama Taeko as a young woman traveling across America in 1950, a year before my birth. If I searched through Kay's old albums, I might find her photograph, but perhaps these things had long been discarded. Had Kamiyama Taeko also sat for dinner with my mother and father in the Oakland parsonage? It was possible.

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