Nikiko Masumoto and Brynn Saito are yonsei, or fourth generation Japanese Americans. They’ve often talked about the reality that theirs will likely to be the last generation to know family members who lived and survived through the American internment camps of World War II.
In “Hold This Stone,” an innovative theater piece scheduled for just two performances this weekend (it opens Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Fresno Soap Co.), the two friends and artists collaborate to explore the ramifications of memory — and more. I caught up with Masumoto to talk about the show (which is sponsored by CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP) and the Yonsei Memory Project, which she and Saito founded.
Q: When you were growing up, how much did you know about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II? How old were you before you got the complete story?
A: Growing up in the Japanese American community, I always knew that “camp” didn’t mean a summer camp or an elective outdoor leisure activity. It was/is shorthand for the concentration camps my family members survived through. I think in many families, the issei and nisei (my great grandparents and grandparents – most of whom lived through the concentration camp experience) struggled to break the silence of trauma. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, many of the sansei helped the older generations tell their stories, many for the first time. So for me, it was never hidden or silent, it was a fundamental part of my childhood education (by my parents and family, not from school). From a very early age I understood how wrong, racist, and unjust the incarceration of my family was. For example, by the time I was in 6th grade, I distinctly remember feeling so much anger toward President Roosevelt and President Truman for allowing my grandparents to be imprisoned during World War II, that I hoped and hoped I was NOT assigned either of them for a biography report on U.S. Presidents in my social science class.
As I grew older, I understood more and more nuance of our community experiences during World War II. When given the chance to choose research topics in school, I gravitated toward deeper research and understanding of my family’s experiences; I did many history research projects in high school about Japanese Americans during World War II and interviewed my grandmother and great aunt for an assignment in college. This carried me all the way to graduate school. Still to this day, I can’t say I have the “complete” story, and I will never understand every detail of my family members’ experiences, let alone the entirety of Japanese Americans. But, the more time I spend with the stories, the more power I feel from them and the more desperate I feel our world and especially our country at this moment in history need to hear them.
Q: Tell us about the Yonsei Memory Project.
A: I know I speak for both of us, Brynn and I, we are so moved by the work of the Yonsei Memory Project, and really, we’ve just begun! The Yonsei Memory Project was founded / launched by Brynn and I this year. It is our efforts as yonsei to use our gifts as creative people and artists in service of our community. One of our guiding questions is: how do we (want to) remember Japanese American experiences? We talk often about the reality that many of us yonsei will be the last generation to know family members who lived and survived through the American concentration camps of World War II. We keep returning to this phrase “holding space” — how do we hold space for the truths of our families and communities? How do we create and hold space to share these collective memories? How do we hold space for our own creative practices to contribute to both the preservation of memory and awakening of action?
All these questions thread through our multiple levels of work that we’re collectively calling a “Living Memory Lab.” First, we’re organizing a series of intimate gatherings that invite participants to explore Japanese American memory in relationship to contemporary social justice struggles and civil liberties challenges through arts-based methods. Second, we’re gathering community input to create a digital “collective memory map” that we’ll translate into a public website over the coming months. Thirdly, we’re organizing an open big public event for the weekend of Day of Remembrance 2018 (we’re planning on events Feb 17th ,18th, and 19th). We’ll invite anyone and everyone to use our “collective memory maps” to go on a memory journey, we’re in conversation about planning a service component where yonsei can give back to the generations who came before, and we’re designing a healing performance / ritual. As you can see, we have a lot of ideas and that’s why we’re doing this performance “Hold This Stone” as part of our creative work and also part fundraiser!
The idea came from a couple of converging moments. Brynn and I grew up together in the Valley, both went to UC Berkeley (different years). Brynn then continued her journey and moved to New York to study both religious studies and then poetry and creative writing. She made her way back to the West coast and has been teaching writing in the Bay Area and has published two of her own poetry books. During the same time, I also went to graduate school at University of Texas in Austin to study Performance as Public Practice in the Theater & Dance department. We have been in touch over the years and as our passions and paths unfolded, we’ve met up at community and family functions and said for years that we should collaborate on something together! We realized our creative works shared similar themes. Brynn has written many poems in reference to Japanese American experiences before, during, and after World War II, and I had developed a one-woman show during graduate school entirely about Japanese American memory. Then earlier this year, we saw each other at the Day of Remembrance event at Fresno State and just a few weeks after, we heard about a renewal of state funds for the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (administered by the California State Library with the Fresno Arts Council as our fiscal sponsor). It was perfect timing and a great catalyst. We were both hungry to step up as yonsei and offer something big back to our home communities. We are incredibly grateful for the funds from the California State Library for this work!
Q: What is the format of “Hold This Stone”?
A: You’ll hear poetry and testimony. We’ve designed “Hold This Stone” to incorporate Brynn’s poetry alongside several character excerpts from my show “What We Could Carry.” (“What We Could Carry” is created from edited transcripts from Congressional Hearings in the 1980s, part of the Japanese American Movement for Redress. All of the “characters” are real people and their stories true and factual.) We hope the effect of the combination of artistic forms is that the audience travels through space and time, across perspectives and multiple forms of truth (some factual, historical, and exact, other forms of truth as interpretations, imagined landscapes, and emotional realities), to mimic the ways in which collective memory ebbs and flows across generations, is born through firsthand experience and transmission. We anticipate quite a somber feeling, as many of the truths we try to illuminate are understandably heavy to carry.
Q: Keeping the memory of traumatic historic events alive can be tricky. Keep a horrific event too much alive, it seems, and you can have wars and blood feuds for centuries. Try to move past things that happened generations ago, however, and any lessons we might have learned could be forgotten. You’ve obviously thought a lot about this. What insights can you share?
A: This is such an incredible framing of a question! Brynn and I have been having really deep and rich conversations over the past months about what we’re trying to do in relationship to memory and healing, that I think dovetail with the tensions you outline.
On the one hand, we keep returning to this phrase “holding space” — we want our work / art to create spaces where the heavy and raw truths of Japanese American experiences during World War II are honored and we are helping to transmit / keep them alive for another generation. This means making room for brave emotional landscapes and exchanges; we want our communities, the Japanese American community (including ourselves), to have the freedom in these spaces to express all of the lived experiences and stories we deem important truths and their/our corollary emotions: sadness, anger, rage, hurt, fear, etc. We also want these conversations to extend to other communities who have experienced oppression and injustice as well as engage those who have lived through relative privilege and ease. Investing in spaces of this kind of sharing is so important and powerful; without them I don’t think our world will ever grow or learn.
Part of what I believe is that collective traumas never completely end, how could our government or any entity possibly make up for what was taken from and forced upon our families? It is impossible, the legacies of those losses and suffering continue across generations. But healing, healing is always possible and needed for all generations. I believe healing asks for accountability, acknowledgement, and humility from those directly involved as perpetrators to their descendants or silent bystanders who did nothing. It is different than a search for blame. It is NOT an investment in resentment nor a reproduction of hostility. I believe there is a generosity of in this kind of approach to memory. For me, artistic practice is essential for navigation through memory. We can access and practice memory through art, we can build theaters of empathy that convey the human experience, even if it is full of suffering, struggle, and also survival. In an approach to memory via art, we can breathe life into traumatic histories in order to heal ourselves and invite others to heal with us.
But this is also a choice. We must choose wisely when we practice memory. Memory itself is inherently fragile, as you point out, memory faces competing risks of erasure and appropriation. We must interrogate or own intentions and approaches whenever we work in such important realms and ultimately ask, for whom and to what ends is memory in service?
I will stop there…Donald, you’ve clearly opened a deep channel for me…I think I will forever keep trying to unpack the power of memory and discuss memory and artistic practice, the possibilities of healing and addressing histories of social injustice…this is the stuff that drives my life and my art.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say about “Hold This Stone”?
Just that we are so excited! It might sound odd to say excited, and perhaps we need to invent a new word! But we are truly excited and grateful. The excitement comes from the exhilaration of the process of awakening the archives of our history, from playing a vital role as yonsei in our community. There is beauty in this work. Beauty in hearts opening, people sharing and getting to say their truths aloud. There is beauty in the empathy of listening and power when we can cry and laugh together. We have received so much support already, from our families, from community, from Jerry and Curtain 5, from the Fresno Arts Council, from the California State Library, from all the people who have already participated in our gatherings and those helping us with our Day of Remembrance planning. I cannot wait for this work to continue …. it is a blessing to feel like I get to do part of what perhaps I was meant to do.
“Hold This Stone,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, and Friday, Nov. 10, Fresno Soap Co., 1470 N. Van Ness Ave. At the Friday performance, Fresno State professor Stamina Naomi, who teaches courses on contemporary U.S. multiethnic literature, will facilitate a Q&A with
the audience. $25 general, $20 students. Advance tickets available at brownpapertickets.com.
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