How do you write the history of a world that never came to be? How do you map it? In Break, Burn, Hoard, Vince Schleitwiler and Tamiko Nimura reflect on the challenges of recording a lost Afro-Asian imagination. Perhaps what survives in memory--quotations from novels, disappeared neighborhoods, family secrets, the words of a beloved teacher--may be consigned to an archive of flames. In a world on fire, as Walter Benjamin never said, nothing that didn't happen should be regarded as lost to history.
Subject: Get lost with us!
This past fall, I had the good fortune to do a residency at this site, producing a couple of rambling serial essays for a blog I called “City of Refuge.” I was still recuperating from finishing a book, but the blog let loose all sorts of questions which I’ve been chasing around ever since. Afterwards, the team here at CA+T graciously agreed to host this dialogue with the writer Tamiko Nimura.
Elsewhere on this site, CA+T explains that its mission “takes the Philippines and Filipinos around the world as a point of departure—rather than a point of arrival—for bringing into focus and understanding other histories, spaces, and communities.” It is a testimony to the capaciousness of CA+T’s vision and the genius of this diasporic perspective that a pair of stealth, mixed Asian Americans could find refuge in these digital halls, to bond over our shared Japanese American heritage. The constitutive absences of JA heritage—of its intimate histories and public memory—operate like a kind of black hole at its center, even as its centrifugal desires spiral across all manner of lost Afro-Asian worlds.
(For what it’s worth, the one with a German name is half-Nikkei, and the one with the Japanese name is half-Pinay.)
What begins as a meditation on our shared investments in recording the elusive stories of the Afro-Asian century becomes, by the end, a deliberate preference for the condition of being lost, for taking refuge in an archive of flames. Just because nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history does not mean that everything hidden is seeking to be found. And if remembering will never suffice to save all those worlds that are forever coming and going, you can still learn to ride the surge and swell of memory’s longing out toward its farther shore.
So this exchange ends—if you are prepared to follow us that far!—with a call to collective action, half-formed but entirely sincere: we would like you to write back to us, for we are interested in making something together and we are looking for collaborators. But this ambition to imagine something as encompassing as a map of lost Afro-Asian worlds becomes apprehensible to us only by means more intensely personal—contemplating the traces of family, or of whatever broken contraptions of intimacy and dependence that carry you here and there in their own blind and weaving course.
This dialogue is dedicated to my late grandmother, the time-traveler Rose Noda Tajiri, who in the long years before her death released her memory to the air like an uprising of birds.
Subject: "All organizing is science fiction"
One of the great pleasures of my residency with CA+T was that it allowed me to have conversations with folks that I should have been having for years. And I was thinking about your writing and your interests throughout that project, because, in all kinds of ways, I’ve been following in paths you’ve travelled ahead of me for many years now.
As you know, I’d planned a project on “Lost Afro-Asian Worlds”—about the ways that black and Filipino people understood their futures, in relation to each other, as they made their way around the planet in the 20th and 21st centuries. Right from the beginning, the project took a more personal turn, and so I included Japanese Americans in the story, as well.
This writing took me in other unexpected directions afterwards, but at its core, I think it was about taking the imagination seriously as a historical force. “All organizing is science fiction,” after all, as Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have pointed out.
This means taking seriously everything that’s supposed to be just imaginary, as opposed to real: grand plans that fell apart, dreams that were betrayed, errors of memory that should have been corrected, homesickness and nostalgia for times and places one doesn’t even pretend ever existed.
And then my residency ended, before I had a chance to follow any of the unexpected openings the writing made for me—speaking of grand plans! But lost worlds are lost for a reason, I guess.
Subject: Whatever happened to Third World solidarity?
I really love the idea of taking the imagination seriously as a historical force. I’m grateful that you think you’ve been following me, but I think of you as companion more than follower. Some historians are going to be upset with us, I’m sure, but I’ve always thought that history had its greatest power for me in the last part of the word, “story.”
Believe it or not, I actually woke up the other night, thinking, “what does the lost geography of the Afro-Asian century look like?” Or rather, I think it was “what does it feel like?” To say that it’s lost somehow implies that we had it in the first place, and misplaced it. The Afro-Asian century feels fleeting. It feels like longing. It feels lost—but I agree with you—it’s one of those geographies of loss that are made more legible by their absence.
For me, as you know, in grad school the Afro-Asian century looked like so many small but crucial moments of coalition, moments that are both hopeful and fraught: the moment in Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters when an African American character mentions camp history, or where a character asks, “whatever happened to Third World solidarity?” The moment when soon-to-be-failed politician John Kwang says in a campaign speech, “I am speaking of histories that all of us should know.” Janice Mirikitani’s poems to her Afro-Asian daughter in her book Shedding Silence. Or it looks like interracial friendships and relationships: Chris Rock and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour. More recently: the young adult novel Under A Painted Sky, about a Chinese American and an African American, both teenage girls on the run and cross-dressing in the Old West. In thinking about the Afro-Asian century, I think I wanted to stay (unfortunately) at the level of individuals. DuBois and Mao. Yuri and Malcolm. I held up pictures of these figures and moments and kept them at the level of “holidays and heroes.” My atlas was beautiful, if incomplete—but the fact that it existed at all? For that I’m indebted to two of my most influential professors, Johnnella Butler and Ron Takaki.
Rarely has the Afro-Asian century looked like anything as epic and cohesive as a century or a geography, which is maybe part of your point. What I keep forgetting is that the Afro-Asian century also looked like the Los Angeles 1992 uprising, like Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story “Wilshire Bus,” the story you mentioned. It looked like rupture.
What has the Afro-Asian century looked like for you?
Subject: The flames of memory
Hey, it’s such a joy to hear an old teacher’s voice out of the blue! When I read what you wrote about history and story, even before you mentioned her name, I could hear Johnnella Butler, years ago now, introducing Ron Takaki at the University of Washington. History is nothing if it does not burst with telling! What does the Afro-Asian century look like to me? It looks like Dr. B and Ron Takaki, on an auditorium stage, speaking in at least two or three languages at once, and telling the truth in all of them.
But it feels like a tear in the fabric, a rupture or gap or opening, edged all around with extravagant hope, so from one side it looks like loss and on the other it looks like possibility, and the feeling sometimes makes you forget which side is which.
Which reminds me of something you wrote recently, in your interview with the writer and illustrator Allan Say. You wrote that your oldest daughter (ten already!) was curious about an episode in one of his memoirs where he burns his sketchbooks. I was just as interested in what she thought of that as I was in Say’s answer! And I couldn’t help thinking about that inevitable scene, in all kinds of stories about the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, where parents burn or bury their family heirlooms—objects associated with Japanese language or culture that might enflame suspicion, as well as treasured possessions they’d rather destroy than leave behind.
Fans of Asian American literature might also recall Frank Chin’s story about rediscovering the novelist John Okada, just a little too late. For, when they finally found his widow, Dorothy, she told them she’d recently burned his unpublished second novel because no archive would take it. And then again, I think about how writers like Hisaye Yamamoto and Cynthia Kadohata transform this trope of immolation into scenes of conflagration—of the destruction of property in urban racial uprisings—which is something I’ve tried to write about elsewhere.
I’m a bit of a hoarder, myself, so I love archives. But I can’t help but admire whatever it is in a person that is willing to release beloved objects to destruction. (And not for the sake of tidying up! That austere, serene, charmingly ruthless aesthetic from Japan that Westerners always imagine as life-changing magic—nothing else makes me feel so hopelessly Japanese American. I dream about it too, but I come from people who ride buses with more bags than hands.)
What did your daughter finally think, about Allan Say, if you don’t mind my asking? What do you think?
Subject: On hoarding and survival
It’s funny, I didn’t make that connection to Say burning his sketchbooks and JA’s burning their family papers before camp. But as Say wrote, the pictures were probably better in his memory than they are now. C really liked his response, and it made sense to her. I’m not sure I would have been able to burn my own sketchbooks, but you know, he had to give up so much in those early years of his life, it makes sense that he had to travel light.
I’m a hoarder, though I’ve been struggling with that. However, there is something to the hoarding mentality that speaks of loss and even trauma. So many of my family members on both sides are hoarders, and I understand that better now. Having lost so much in one chapter of a life can mean that you cling fiercely to what you have in your new chapter, even stockpiling as if to prepare for future loss.
Say also represents for me another pocket of Japanese American history that needs more representation: the stories of those who came from Japan after camp. Those who did not have camp as the touchstone of their history, for better or worse. A little while ago I wrote a profile of the Japanese American artist Fumiko Kimura, and one of the things that moved me the most was just how similar she was to my Nisei aunties, but different—she was allowed (or carved) a great deal of creative expression in her life. I wondered how different their lives would have been, had they too been allowed by space and time and circumstance to be creative beyond survival.
I think about survival a lot as I’m writing about my Filipina mom, too.
Subject: A gang of orphans
Oh, that photograph of your mother in the Philippines is haunting, almost abstract. And you write about it so beautifully that when you stop, it’s wrenching. I was letting myself be carried along, expecting more to come, and then all of a sudden I was left with almost nothing of her story, realizing I’d taken for granted even the few details I’d already been given. Which is how memory works in families, of course. A story breaks off in the middle and you can wait decades to hear more.
(And what if the continuation makes your life or lives different after all? What if the story can alter space and time and circumstance? What you said about your Nisei aunties sent me back to Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” and now I’m hung up on her question, “who else will feed them?")
I was fascinated, too, by the way the picture’s unsettling resemblance to you as a child carries you into a world you have to invent within the walls of your mother’s silence about it.
I thought of all the times I’ve seen my mother’s eyes and expressions in my own daughter, of course, and then of books I’ve read to her where kids imagine that their own parents turn into children in order to play with them. And I realized that I used to be too quick to dismiss grown children for inventing pasts for their parents, to fill whatever silences their parents have handed down to them.
Which reminds me of Shawn Wong’s gorgeous novel Homebase, whose protagonist loses his parents in childhood and comes of age by dreaming of their lives and the lives of his ancestors, and then I think of how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel riffs on his story, making its subtext explicit: what was Asian America but the reckless imagination of a gang of orphans?
Maybe all the stories folks invent and all the clutter they accumulate in those spaces of absence in family memory aren’t meant to fill them, but just the opposite. I imagine that, for a Nisei who spent the war in Japan, the story of camp must feel like a strange gap. It does for me.
Subject: Story as possibility
(Yes—the story does alter space and time and circumstance—isn’t it the way we make sense of things? and the act of making sense makes us act differently in the future? But maybe that’s just my literary optimism? Or maybe it is a belief, both concrete and abstract, in another part of that same Lorde essay: “Possibility is neither forever nor instant. It is also not easy to sustain belief in its efficacy.” What about story as possibility?)
Oh, and the photo of my mom? What I wrote about the picture is really a peek at the novel I’m writing about my mom’s adoption and emigration from the Philippines. So many levels of family secret-keeping went into her adoption. So you’ll have to stay tuned for more. But I’m glad you’re intrigued.
Subject: Where I'm from
Well, now I know we’re onto something. I’ll be waiting to hear more about it, patiently or not. Family secrets! Funny how everyone thinks that keeping secrets is something their own family does, more than any other. I have some relatives who think that keeping secrets is a Japanese American thing, or a Japanese thing, and others who think it’s a Catholic thing. Shame, keeping secrets, drinking, hoarding, being bad about time—everyone always blames these things on the people they came from, whether that’s family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, what have you.
It’s not that some families have secrets, it’s that some secrets will make a family.
And that’s why families always need someone to come along, every now and then, to let those secrets free. A family that keeps its secrets too long is pretending not to be broken, and any family that pretends it has never been broken can only be a trap.
That photo made me think of the work of Lynda Barry, the cartoonist and all-around visionary, whose comics have been a part of my world since I was a kid. I think I’ve told you that it was only years after I began reading her that I realized that these comics were about growing up in Beacon Hill in Seattle, in the kind of multiracial poor West Coast city neighborhood that barely exists anymore.
In Barry’s work, her mother, and her family history, is mostly unknown territory. But I think she’s used the term “lost worlds” to talk about her own childhood. To me, neighborhoods like Beacon Hill are like a lost homeland—my grandfather grew up in a part of L.A. that was very similar, decades earlier. And I only heard second-hand, after college, that my mother had described our neighborhood in Chicago, Rogers Park, as the first integrated neighborhood in the city. (Some folks claim it’s the most racially integrated neighborhood in Chicago. Faint praise, for sure—but I still miss it.)
Subject: Where we begin and end
Secrets and families—yes. Since my Filipina grandma was Catholic, that means I’ve got Catholic secrecy on top of JA secrecy! It’s a wonder—or perhaps it makes perfect sense—that I chose writing as a profession.
Your comments about Lynda Barry—who I’ve just come to know as a stealth Asian!—reminded me of the Asian American newspaper GIDRA. I wanted to wrap up our conversation for now by talking a bit about that. I remember seeing it in college archives in the 1990s—you called it something like “a sacred text,” and that’s what it was for me too. Pan-Asian, “Third World” Sansei activism, documented and fierce. I have an odd sort of nostalgia for that movement, thinking that I was born too late for that wave of activism. That’s a lost world for me.
Thanks to serendipity, Densho’s post that it’s digitized the GIDRA archive came across social media just as I was writing my letter to you. Here’s a statement from Mike Murase, one of GIDRA’s de facto archivists, talking about Manzanar.
Manzanar has no geographic boundaries and is not bound by time. Manzanar exists today … in many forms, in many places. And in each, the people must work together to insure that it will not go unnoticed and unchanged.
Replace Manzanar with “Afro-Asian century,” and I wonder if that’s something that we can use to begin. That it’s about taking each moment as it comes, in its form and place, and working together to make sure it’s not unnoticed. So in that sense, the lost Afro-Asian century is, as you’ve said, a work of the imagination. But we’re literature readers and scholars and now writers. The imagination is where we begin, even if it’s where we might not end.
Subject: Everything that comes after the ending
Let’s not-end here, then—in the middle of the kind of time loop that writing always is, because you started writing that last message before I published the last entries on the blog in December, thinking of Mike Murase’s words, and somehow months have passed, and that beginning became the end of our exchange.
And let’s not-end with a promise: somewhere in our side conversations as we were composing this correspondence, you said, “we need an actual Afro-Asian lost world map.” I love this idea! We need to make one—one, two, three, many maps!
All those worlds—the fleeting "Negro-Nisei" civil rights coalitions after WWII, the Third World student movements, ‘70s-‘80s women-of-color feminism, the segregated neighborhoods of West Coast cities before the 60s, the forgotten darker-races internationalists of the interwar Midwest—ended for a reason. But coming up through Third World nostalgia as a student of color in the multiculturalist ‘90s taught me what a culture of solidarity could be. A bunch of people working on a giant map!
(Clare Counihan, part of the collective brilliance that is CA+T, has tactfully pointed out several continent-sized holes in the map we’ve been sketching: what about indentured Indians in South Africa, what about the expulsion and continued cultural presence of Uganda’s Asians? what about the turn towards a “trans-Indian Ocean” historiography, black internationalism in the South Pacific, and all the reverberations of Bandung and non-alignment that cast U.S. people of color as lost provincial cousins? what about Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, she asks, or Achmar Dangor’s Bitter Fruit? This is why we need so much help, to see all the rabbit-holes beneath our feet!)
Earlier, you quoted The Salt Eaters: “Whatever happened to Third World solidarity?” It’s a lost world! Let’s all get lost together.
Subject: Get lost with us!
If you’ve made it this far and you’re still with us, then in some way you must be partly responsible: we’re serious now about trying to build something together. How do you find a way to a lost world?
Would you be interested in helping us create a map? several maps? an atlas? a calendar or timeline? What does your culture of solidarity look like? What memory or strange dream has stayed with you, all this time, coming back to you over the air like an evening breeze or a muffled phrase of music? Tell us, write to us! Where have you seen ruptures?