The International Examiner caught up with Larry Matsuda and Roger Shimomura to talk about their latest work. Matsuda is the author of Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner, a book of poetry about the Japanese American experience. Shimomura provided the illustrations, including the painting that inspired the book’s title. Both spent their early childhood at the start of World War II in a concentration camp in Minidoka Idaho, with other Japanese Americans from Seattle.
International Examiner: Few sansei (third generation Japanese Americans) are old enough to have actually spent time in camp. How does this shared past figure in your friendship?
Roger Shimomura: The fact that we both had direct camp experience really propels what we do creatively. … Larry and I were like two magnets that discovered each other and found that we have a lot in common and that we use it creatively.
Larry Matsuda: I would agree with that. My memories, although I was born there, are largely borrowed memories, from my parents and from other people. … Minidoka was an event that had after effects on the people involved and the children who were there, and the injustice of it carries on.
IE: How did your collaboration on ‘Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner’ originate?
RS: When I read excerpts from Larry’s writings, I told Larry that I might be interested in doing some illustrations for some of the poems. I tried a few out and sent them to him to see what he felt about them. He responded positively, so from that point on, I tried to do one a day over the period of a couple of weeks. Since some of the poems he wrote were about incidents and themes for which I had previously made paintings, I decided to use those images as well. Having always been a fan of Larry’s work, I felt honored to be a small part of it.
IE: In the poem “Concentration Camp Veil,” you refer to Aunt Shizuko, who goes to the latrine at midnight, wearing a paper bag over her head to avoid embarrassment. This is very personal. Is this something that your aunt told you?
LM: That was actually one of the Minidoka stories [told at a pilgrimage to Minidoka by camp survivors]. … You know there’s reality and poetry. Did that really happen? Well it may not have happened to my aunt, but it happened to someone else. The stories are true, but the characters have been changed. I didn’t reveal anything about people that you could identify, because they may not have wanted to be named.
RS: Years ago, [my art dealer] in New York asked everyone in her stable to try to recall our first 10 memories of life. She wanted us to do illustrations of those 10 memories. My first 10 memories, I realized at that point, were all in camp. … Having parents and a community of relatives around me that never spoke about camp, it was difficult, there was so little literature about the camp experience. … Redress [the legal campaign that gained an apology and compensation for camp survivors from the U.S. government] was when the light bulb finally went on and I decided to integrate that experience with what I was doing in my studio. … [Since then] I’ve done a lot of reading and meeting of people, and family history, and talking to relatives, as well as using my grandmother’s 56 years of diaries as inspiration for the work.
IE: The first chapters of the book are stories of Minidoka. Later chapters are set in the present. How did you choose what went into the book?
LM: Initially, I wanted to space out the Japanese American concentration camp poems. But then I decided the hard messages should to be delivered up front for maximum impact. … So Part I, “Minidoka” is about the camps. When you reach Part V, “Friends and Family,” the tone lightens, oftentimes however, with echoes back to camp. … It’s a sad experience that follows me.
In addition, another parallel experience follows me. My grandmother and grandfather were from Hiroshima and “The Way Infinity Turns” [Part VI] brings me back to Japan, to the Fukushima tragedy. … In Japan, I am viewed as an American. In America, I am viewed as a Japanese. You’re always, as Roger would say, a forever foreigner.
RS: My grandmother used to say to me, “Remember Roger, everything you do in your life, good or bad, is going to reflect upon the entire Japanese race.” Now that’s a hell of a burden to place upon a young child, and [yet] it’s an integral part of being born into a Japanese American community, perhaps an Asian American community, and it’s hard to step out of that complete. … Maybe it’s not the right thing to do, to try to step outside of who you were raised to be. But it’s a part of us, whether you accept it or reject it.
LM: This is an American story, and I think that’s something that’s often overlooked. … It needs to be viewed as a piece of American history. … The poems are about real events infused with emotions. That’s one way to look at this book of poems and art; as such they’re largely stories about the immediate and lasting after effects of the camp experience.
Our goal is the same: that it should not happen again. That’s part of the Japanese legacy. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” … It’s our legacy to stand up and say something about an injustice, should it happen again. Educating people through poetry and through art is a good way to surface the issue. When groups that I speak to ask, “Why do you do this?” I tell them about Mark Twain and I say that now that I’ve shared my legacy with you, you have a responsibility. Now that you are educated, you cannot ignore a future injustice like this.
Larry Matsuda will read from ‘Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner’ on December 16 at 7:00 p.m. at Elliott Bay Book Company. He and Roger Shimomura will sign books following the reading.