[Heyday Books; 2024]

In 1988, the psychotherapist Satsuki Ina unexpectedly encountered her parents in a D.C. museum exhibit about the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. First, there was a photograph of her mother, Shizuko, worried, standing in line to register as “Japanese” in wartime San Francisco. Then, by an unbelievable coincidence, she saw a blurry photo of her father, Itaru, standing in a crowded room in a North Dakota prison. Satsuki Ina knew she had been born in a prison camp during the Second World War, when the US government incarcerated at least 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West coast. Ina’s first memory is a train ride, her family’s journey from Texas to Ohio following their release from four years of imprisonment. Satsuki’s father, only recently reunited with his wife and children, appeared a stranger to that two-year-old girl on the train.

In her new book, The Poet and the Silk Girl: A Memoir of Love, Imprisonment, and Protest, Ina tells this history from the perspective of her parents, Shizuko and Itaru Ina, with historical research and newly translated letters and journal entries. This beautiful hardcover edition from the Bay Area publisher Heyday Books features the pair’s wedding portrait on the cover, along with large reproductions of those fateful photographs on the endsheets: Shizuko in the beginning and Itaru at the end. Ina has made several documentaries and written widely on Japanese-American history and state violence, but goes somewhere new in The Poet and the Silk Girl, a memoir not only of Itaru and Shizuko, but of Satsuki herself. With its blend of personal narrative and professionally researched history—and its author’s crisis in the halls of a museum—Ina’s book recalls Saidiya Hartman’s pathbreaking Lose Your Mother and Gabriela Wiener’s recent book, Undiscovered. These works suggest the limitations of memoir, a genre that tends to reinscribe the primacy of the individual subject in western thought. A practicing therapist and emerita professor, Ina has grown weary of the “micro” approach of individual therapy. Instead, she searches for the community histories nestled in bodies like hers. As a writer, she expands the genre of memoir to include a constellation of interconnected “subjects”: Itaru, Shizuko, Kiyoshi, Satsuki, other people in the camps, as well as memory workers and incarcerated people today.

At first, Ina wanted to write a “straight” history of her parents without engaging her own voice. She recognizes, however, that “attempting to avoid my presence in this book was a symptom of my own trauma, a kind of intellectual dissociation, a self-imposed silencing.” In the end, it was the person who gave Ina linguistic access to her parents who also gave the author emotional access to herself. Ina co-translated these letters and diary entries with Iko Miyazaki, a colleague and native speaker of Japanese. Translators often witness the trauma of the writers they translate; Miyazaki took on this trauma, in addition to that of her co-translator. Ina recalls:

As I busily typed the words she translated into English, Iko suddenly stopped speaking and grew quiet. I glanced over to see tears streaming down her face. She had been deeply moved by my mother’s account of the day of her removal. My response shocked both of us, as a flash of intense anger rushed through me. I leaned over to her, and with the urgency of thwarting danger, I raised my voice, echoing my father’s childhood directive to me: “Be strong. Don’t cry!” Iko’s tears were my tears. In that uncanny moment of my outburst, a switch was tripped. As if I were roused from a dream, the sadness and longing, feelings I had deeply buried from awareness for most of my life, rose painfully to the surface. Ungrounded and flustered, we returned to translating. . . . From that moment forward, as we worked together, we freely cried and laughed and raged. I had entered my mother and father’s world, but more important, I had allowed them into mine. Through this long and often arduous process, Iko became my compassionate witness, a dear friend and fellow traveler who stood with me to look back at the trauma that previously had no words.

In The Poet and the Silk Girl, co-translation is a healing encounter. Paradoxically—and powerfully—Ina must reach beyond her family to write a family memoir. And the story that she and Miyazaki uncover in the process is, in large part, about Ina’s parents’ own relationship with language and literary expression. Itaru was a poet and Shizuko was a committed diarist. The couple’s linguistic agility became useful when they were imprisoned in separate US states, their letters subject to censorship from readers fluent in Japanese. Throughout the book, translations from Japanese are rendered in italics, while English is in regular typeface. Shizuko and Itaru’s visible interlingual games remind me of a Nabokov novel—all three writers negotiating their relationship to the US and the English language in the 1940s, only the Inas’ writings are not hubristic, individualistic attempts at literary genius, but urgent, tactical attempts to communicate across prison lines. “In hopes of evading the censor’s razor cuts,” writes Ina, “my parents managed to communicate using vague allusions, code words, and double entendre in their letters. Itaru relied heavily on kanji, which took up less space than words written in the phonetic hiragana alphabet, to stay within the twenty-five-line limit.” At first glance, The Poet and the Silk Girl is richly visual, with many photographs and documents reproduced alongside the text. But it’s also a book about language: the familect of a second-generation couple and their children, and the therapeutic powers of translation and writing.  

The backbone of this book is Shizuko’s diary entries and her correspondence with her fiancé and later husband, Itaru. Throughout the narrative, Ina offers the necessary historical background to appreciate the turns in their personal lives. Shizuko and Itaru were nisei, second-generation Americans, who spent their childhoods between the US and Japan. Itaru was a kinei, a child who had been sent back to Japan for his education. Shizuko had grown up in both countries, ultimately moving back to Japan to live with her grandmother after graduating from high school in the US. Thanks to her multilingual upbringing, she was chosen to work as a “Silk Girl,” a representative of the Japanese silk industry at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940. Something of a local celebrity in San Francisco, Shizuko met Itaru, a serious photographer, actor, and poet. As she narrates her parents’ courtship, Ina deftly suggests how, long before the explicit violence of imprisonment, these young nisei were traumatized by racial segregation in the US and the separation of their families across the Pacific. Itaru and Shizuko were determined to become each other’s family—to never be separated. After the pair married in 1941, Shizuko recounts, by turns, the vagaries of early married life and the increasing hostilities of the US government toward Japanese Americans. “Made waffles for him this morning. He complained, ‘I don’t want sweet food in the morning. I feel upset to think that I have to eat this for breakfast.’ He reluctantly ate one waffle and left.” In her next entry, Shizuko notes: “The relationship between Japan and America is worsening.”

Ina describes the imprisonment of the San Francisco community in early 1942, as “thousands of people of Japanese ancestry put on their Sunday best, stored or rid themselves of any material affiliation with Japan, packed their bags as directed, and waited in line.” Itaru and Shizuko stored their belongings but, as Ina notes, a key axis of this anti-Japanese violence was material: west coast white communities regained market share in key industries and stole the valuables that Japanese Americans had stored. The majority of Ina’s story takes place in the prison camps, where Shizuko maintains her journal. Soon, the prisoners are faced with a government survey that threatens to alter their individual and collective fates. Two questions were especially controversial: the first about willingness to serve in the US military, and the second about “unqualified allegiance” to the United States. The prisoners who answered “no” to these questions, including Itaru and Shizuko, were segregated from the others. Later, because the couple had expressed their desire to repatriate to Japan, Itaru was separated from the family and moved to a prison in North Dakota; both members of this US-born couple lost their US citizenship; and the family, including the toddlers Kiyoshi and Satsuki, was released from prison only in June 1946, far after most inmates. Unable to return home, they moved in with their relatives in Cincinnati, Ohio, until Itaru received a job offer in San Francisco several years later.

Throughout the book, Ina emphasizes her parents’ practicality in violent, uncertain circumstances. At times, however, this emphasis on her parents’ almost apolitical stance seems to reinscribe the carceral logic it seeks to critique. According to Ina, many who had entered the camps with little resistance were moved, in the camps, to organize and revolt. She asks: “Were there truly violent individuals in the camps? Yes, there were bullies, thugs, and gangs, whose behavior, fueled by the smoldering discontent throughout the prison camp, threatened the administration as well as other prisoners.” She clarifies that her parents, like most incarcerated people, were “ordinary, non-violent people.” These passages left me wondering about the stories of these “violent individuals.” Wasn’t their violence in some way practical, as well? Why rely on Itaru and Shizuko’s ordinariness to win the reader’s sympathy? These are large questions about the narration of trauma—the strategically chosen representatives of a group’s traumatic experience, and the proposed audiences of such stories—that Ina leaves unaddressed.

In fact, it was not her ordinariness, or her law-abiding tendencies, that endeared Shizuko to me: instead, it was her extraordinary writing. Though Ina does not discuss her mother as a stylist (Itaru, after all, is the poet in the family), Shizuko is the book’s most poignant voice. She does not avow any diaristic mission—to record “history,” or to stay sane­—but amidst hunger, heat, cold, and exhaustion, she writes detailed and evocative prose. After Itaru is taken away, their son Kiyoshi comes to believe that a framed picture of Itaru is his father. In a letter to Itaru, Shizuko writes:

Kiyoshi is often asking, “Where is Oto-chan? He’s not here!” so I tried to show him your picture, but he wouldn’t calm down. He insisted that “Oto-chan is not wearing his shoes! I want to see his feet!” One night while I was busy, he sneaked the picture to his bed and carefully removed the picture from the frame, then he came running to me and said over and over again, “Mommy, Oto-chan’s shoes are gone and his feet hurt and are bleeding.” Of course, the picture does not show the bottom of his Oto-chan’s body and so the shoes don’t show. I tried to explain this to him in many different ways, but he doesn’t seem to understand. For days he would say over and over again, “His shoes are gone!” In the past few days he has finally stopped. He doesn’t seem to understand that his Oto-chan is gone. Now he looks at the picture and believes that the picture is his Oto-chan. When somebody asks him about his Oto-chan, he answers, “He’s sitting at home.” Every day he asks the picture, “Oto-chan, I’m being a good boy, so please make me a boat and an airplane.” His belief that Oto-chan didn’t have his shoes was very difficult for me.

Shizuko recounts this anecdote with the rhythm of a fairy tale, inhabiting Kiyoshi’s perspective and ending incisively with her own grief. If writing is a gift, then I think Ina inherited hers from her mother.

This is a book about inheritances. For Ina, writing was a “painful process to separate out the real stories from the false internalized stories, and to unearth deeply held emotions of sorrow and rage, especially in the face of the almost universal silence that was a predictable coping response of the traumatized adult victims.” In one memorable passage, Ina describes being a student at Berkeley during the 1964 protests for the Free Speech Movement. Her parents implored her: “Do not protest. Bad things will happen.” But when Ina went to class, her professor said, “Goddamit! If you come to class again, I will flunk every single one of you!” She remembers: “I left campus in a daze, caught in a double bind.” Ina suggests the predicament of many current student protesters who are low-income, students of color, and non-citizens. But, like many protesters, Ina draws strength from her position. The Poet and the Silk Girl is her memoir of moving from internalized fear to collective power. “Just as my parents had experienced a renewed sense of dignity when they chose to protest their incarceration,” she writes, “seventy-five years later we felt purpose burn through our cloak of compliance, conflict avoidance, and silence-symptoms of our own trauma.” Ina is recalling her organization’s protest against the incarceration of people from Central America at the US border, very near where her family was released from Crystal City Camp in Texas. “Protest was our healing,” she writes,

bringing to life the part of us that had been deadened by trauma . . . The state violence inflicted on us had fractured our families, our hearts, and our spirits. In protest, we felt strengthened and connected. It was as if we all had to be together, to speak with one voice, to stand up for others targeted by racist injustice. Only then could we reclaim our wholeness and fully realize who we were always meant to be. Every child in detention today is my brother, my community. I am every child in detention.

The Poet and the Silk Girl begins and ends a family memoir—only, in the work of writing and gathering, Ina has widened her family.

Fiona Bell is a writer and translator from St. Petersburg, Florida. Learn more about her work at fiona-bell.com.

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