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The Way of the Nisei Artist: A Tribute to My Uncle, Hiroshi Kashiwagi

Tamiko and her uncle Hiroshi at their family New Year’s gathering, January 2018.

In 1993, I was at long choir rehearsal in college. My friend Marcy was taking Asian American Literature that semester, and during one of the breaks I glanced over at what she was studying.

The book was thick with small print, and was the first of its kind that I’d ever seen: an anthology of Asian American literature, called The Big Aiiieeeee! At the top of one side of the page was a title: “Laughter and False Teeth.” At the top of the opposite page was a name that startled me: Hiroshi Kashiwagi.

“That’s my uncle!” I said to my friend. This is when I learned—or perhaps when I truly realized—that my uncle Hiroshi was a writer.

There were small glimpses before. As a child I remember going to see his play Live Oak Store, performed in San Francisco. I remember a crowded movie theater, maybe the Crest in Sacramento, showing the Japanese American movie Hito Hata. I remember a crowded convention center lobby in downtown Sacramento and seeing my uncle’s poetry on the wall.

As a child there were hints. Dots to connect. But I did not see those connections until later as a young adult. In private, or at least with our family, my uncle was quiet and shy, not one to strike up a conversation easily with his youngest nieces—me and my sister—at our family New Year’s gatherings. He always smiled when he saw us. I remember how his eyes would light up at the prospect of a glass of fine red wine. I remember him generously pouring sake for everyone for the annual New Year’s toast.

However in public, in print, or in front of an audience—there was his voice. Deep, measured, slightly gritty, resonant. He’s been recorded in feature films, on Internet video, on podcasts, on television, on clips produced for newspapers. We have his voice still in so many ways, and I’m grateful for that. A long life, at the age of 96, and yet it’s hard to believe that I won’t see him again.

I’m still trying to write into and through the sadness that I feel now that I know he’s gone.

Our first reading together at the San Francisco Public Library, shortly after I graduated from college, is a memory I treasure. My auntie Sadako, his wife (and my father’s younger sister) was a children’s librarian, and she had arranged for me to give a reading from a short essay about growing up Asian in America that I won an award for. Afterwards, I turned to introduce my uncle.

I remember his smile though, as he turned to me after my reading. “That was beautiful,” he said.

I introduced him as a pioneer of Asian American literature, and confessed that I hadn’t realized it for so long. I later found out, in his memoir Starting from Loomis, that he disliked the label “pioneer,” perhaps disliking the term as a relegation to a dusty past. Through his art, his words, and his actions, he refused to be labeled obsolete.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Washington, we performed his writing together for an Asian American literature survey class. As a graduate student, I felt lucky to teach the class on my own. I invited my uncle to come and visit; together, we read Act I of his play The Betrayed for the 35+ students in the class. He took on multiple roles in our performance, playing both narrator and Tak, his alter ego in the script. His voice took on Tak’s grin, his country boy grit and determination. As he narrated the stage directions, his voice took on a special kind of gravitas, one that kept the group of college students enthralled. He especially loved stage performance, the ability to connect with an audience and to hear their response.

Not long after I became a literature professor, my uncle asked me if I would help him edit his memoir. He had already titled it Swimming in the American. And while I had just started teaching, I had always wanted to edit a full book project. I was eager and honored.

He mailed me printouts of the manuscript. I would mark them carefully and return them with letters. We experimented with the arrangement of the vignettes. Though the memoir is largely chronological, I asked him to experiment a bit by opening the memoir with “A Dog Story,” which is a funny school-day vignette about the nature of stories and storytelling. I also asked him to write a piece about the role that reading, writing, and acting have played in his life, as a way to conclude the memoir. The piece became part of a work celebrating his 80th birthday—in the past tense!—for the book.

Cover of Swimming in the American.

The production of this first book stayed and felt like a homespun book, largely funded from a grant Uncle Hiroshi received from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. His friend Pam Matsuoka did the graphic design. I served as both developmental and copy editor. My husband Josh took the photo of the American River in Sacramento that graces the cover. And San Jose’s Asian American Curriculum Project, led by Florence Hongo and others, published and distributed the book.

Note from Tamiko’s uncle in Swimming in the American.

My uncle sent me a few copies. I sent one to my mentor Shawn Wong, thanking him for publishing my uncle in The Big Aiiieeeee!, so many years ago.

A year or so later, my uncle called me. He sounded both amazed and puzzled. “Do you know anything about the Before Columbus Foundation?”

I did. My poetry teacher at Berkeley, Ishmael Reed, had founded it, along with a multicultural group of writers, including Shawn Wong.

“I...got an award from them,” my uncle said. “It’s the American Book Award.”

Later I talked to Shawn, and he revealed that he had submitted the book to the Foundation for consideration for the award.

Swimming in the American was the first of his four published books. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for that first one, because it showed my uncle what a wide audience his writing could have. His poetry collection Ocean Beach earned him an invitation to the White House, meeting President and First Lady Obama. He began to give more readings, and publish even more.

More recently, in 2017, I had begun to work with my uncle again, this time on a different project. Journalist Frank Abe and I are co-writing a graphic novel called We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Acts of Wartime Resistance. My uncle’s story is one of the featured storylines in the book. He was the last surviving main persona. We had hoped we could have finished the project early enough for him to see it.

I’ve returned to my uncle’s voice over and over again, through interviews, videos, and his own writing in plays, essays, and poetry. Frank and I have also talked to him about the project multiple times. Doing so has reminded me of the achingly human stakes of the project. The people in our book are not “characters,” nor did they exist in an eternally sepia world of the past.

As long as my uncle’s life was, I know that certain events and aspects of camp life (and its aftermath) remained traumatic. What happened after camp as well as in camp shaped my uncle, and stayed with him indelibly.

What I know of his trauma—and I’m sure I do not know it all—makes his generosity of spirit that much more incredible, nearly unthinkable. He was one of the very first Nisei to speak about his wartime incarceration. He was one of the first Nisei to speak at pilgrimages at Tule Lake, back in the late 1970s. As far as I know, Swimming in the American was the first published memoir of a “No-No boy,” and it wasn’t published until 2005. He gave interview after interview, spoke at public events. I remember listening to him read at the 2014 Tule Lake pilgrimage, the first one I was able to attend.

At the Tule Lake Pilgrimage 2014, left to right. Hiroshi and Sadako Kashiwagi (front), Soji Kashiwagi, Tamiko Nimura, Hiroshi F. Kashiwagi.

The Washington Post followed him at the 2018 pilgrimage, and wrote a story and produced a video from the experience. Already I have heard from others who interviewed him for other media outlets, including NBC Asian America. His oral history interviews are on Densho, as well as a San Francisco public high school collection. There are documentaries featuring him and his experience, including “A Meeting at Tule Lake” and more recently, “Resistance at Tule Lake” (which he narrated). He spoke at vigils in San Francisco’s Japantown in 2016 and 2018, organized against the Muslim travel ban and against family separation. At the 2018 Tule Lake pilgrimage, he read his poem “Fences” in protest against the potential construction of a fence at that historic site.

People asked him to speak his truth, to bear witness to this very painful history, and he did so for decades—longer than I have been alive.

I think that for this reason, at some level, it was difficult for my uncle to read his most famous poem, “A Meeting at Tule Lake.” (Similarly, it’s said that the composer Ravel tired of hearing his most popular piece, Bolero.) He wrote it in the late 1970s, and it has become the anthem of Tule Lake pilgrimages, if not the anthem of the site itself.

But I think that as an artist, my uncle kept on creating, whether it was on stage or on the page. His latest film KIKAN just came out this year, and he was able to see it in the theater. He was also taking art classes, returning to the painting that he’d loved as a college student. I remember him showing his paintings with some shy pride to my sister Teruko, who’s also a visual artist.

I know that lately he was frustrated, as so many of us are, with the daily news, and the state of the world. With the 2016 presidential election, and all of its aftermath, I have struggled in my own way to show him and my family that we will not give up.

My daughters—who were like his granddaughters—are acting in plays with roles which delighted him. We will speak our own truths to history, and we will continue to create on pages, on stages.

I thought that it would be difficult to write this essay, just a few short days after his death. The day he passed away, friends and family called with messages of sympathy but I could not call them back. I could not speak my grief out loud. I don’t know when I will be able to do so. I take some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in missing him, that there will be many more tributes to come.

Over the years, I have studied my uncle’s words as an editor, as a scholar, as a creative writer, as an audience member, as an artist, and as a niece. In this way, I am beginning to realize what I have learned from the artistic example of my uncle’s life. I have his voice, his words, and his life within me as I have internalized few other writers in a lifetime of reading.

I believe now that making art was not only crucial to his very survival, but it is also what enabled him to thrive as long as he did. I hope our community can take this as a lesson to support its artists. When we read his work together, I was able to learn from my uncle as an actress, as a performer. This truth remains, though: I will forever miss him, even as I carry him within me. This is the nature of grief, and it is the nature of art, which are both forms of memory. I can only use words, which were our shared medium.

There is so much, my uncle taught me, so much that you can do with your voice.

So perhaps it’s best to end this in gratitude by echoing his words back to him, from his poem:

“It’s right, it’s right
and I’m glad
I went back to Tule Lake
with you.”

 

© 2019 Tamiko Nimura

artist author Hiroshi Kashiwagi nisei playwright