During World War II, my Japanese American father and his family were incarcerated behind barbed wire on the West Coast. Some thirty years later, just as I was about to be born, my dad finished writing a memoir about his incarceration (often known to the general public as “internment” or “camp”). Ten years after that, he died. Some twenty-five years later, I reopened the envelope that contained my father’s unpublished, typewritten manuscript. Through meeting his words on the page, unexpected and lovely gifts appeared along the way: I began to learn how to grieve his loss, how to grieve the unexpected loss of my career, and how to become a writer.
Tamiko Nimura is a Tacoma-based Asian American (Nikkei/Pinay) writer. Her recent publications include Modern Loss, Full Grown People, Heron Tree, HYPHEN, HistoryLink, and the anthology Ghosts of Seattle Past. A regular contributor to Seattle’s newspaper International Examiner and the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei project, Nimura has read at the Looseleaf Reading Series, Evergreen State College, and the San Francisco Public Library. She was a 2016 recipient of an Artists UP grant, given to eighteen underrepresented artists in Washington. Her work has been translated into Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese and reprinted in several countries. Among her current projects is a graphic novel project, Future Generations: Challenging the Forced Incarceration through Acts of Resistance.
In this interview, Nimura talks about how her parents’ early support led her to become a writer, creating a private MFA program, and her generational memoir-in-progress.
The Rumpus: A while back on Twitter, I noticed you tweeting in response to #whyiwrite. So let’s start with what you write and why you write.
Tamiko Nimura: So lately, I’ve been calling myself a community journalist, arts writer, and creative writer. I have a few different hats because I’ve been feeling my way into this writing career, really only for the last five years. Some of my essays are based on community or regional events in the Pacific Northwest around being Japanese American. There’s a commissioned series that I write for Discover Nikkei, which is the web project of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. So, that’s one big piece. Another big piece is the arts writing I do for the International Examiner, which is an Asian American newspaper based in Seattle. They asked me to do interviews, book reviews, profiles of artists, sometimes coverage of events, but mostly it’s been arts writing. And then I have what I feel like is my own creative writing, which is personal essay, the kind that you would know from Full Grown People. And I’ve been working on a memoir and a kids’ book.
Why I write? It is to honor all this astonishing love that came before me. I think a lot about what my ancestors, my relatives, and my parents endured so that I could have the life that I have. Both my parents, I think, wanted to be artists. My mom wanted to be a visual artist, my dad wanted to be a creative writer, and due to different circumstances, they weren’t able to pursue those dreams as thoroughly as they might have wished. And so, I feel really fortunate that this is what I get to do.
Rumpus: What are your parents’ backgrounds?
Nimura: My dad is Japanese American. He passed away when I was ten years old, so he’s not with us. He was born in the United States. His parents came over from Japan in the early part of the 20th century. My mom is Filipina American. She came over in the 50s and became a naturalized citizen shortly after that.
Rumpus: Was it because of your parents’ interest in the arts that they nurtured that in you, to become a writer?
Nimura: I’ve always been writing, off and on, since I was a little girl. If you’d asked me up until I was in college, I would have said I wanted to be a writer, or an editor, or both. But once I hit college, I really was not excited about what editing seemed to be.
My parents took us to plays and opera and movies, a few museums. I think they saw lots of creative impulses in both me and my sister. I remember making a Ms. Pac-Man figure out of cute strawberry baskets. I covered it with paper and colored it yellow and brought it to my mom, and, being the good mom that she is, she said “Oh, that’s so great. You’re so creative!” And I remember that amazing feeling, being praised, that resonated with me. “You’re so creative!”
My sister is a visual artist. She had been drawing since practically infancy. She drew on herself and the furniture when she was little. I think our parents really wanted us to do whatever we wanted to do, but especially if we wanted to create. They always encouraged us to create.
Rumpus: And when did that creative impulse shift specifically to writing?
Nimura: I remember writing haiku when I was very little. Someone came into our class and taught us the rules of writing haiku. And I had written in journals and diaries for a long time.
I’ve been a reader [ever] since I can remember. My parents tell me that I was reading when I was a year and a half old. So, they always gave me as many books as I could read, trips to the library, trips to bookstores. And even after my dad passed away and things were so financially tight, if there was a book that I wanted, my mom said, “That’s okay. We’ll just find a way to make it work.” And she would get me the book that I wanted.
In college, I was encouraged to write more personal essays. I was taking this class on teaching high school English, and all we had to do was turn in an essay every couple of weeks, and we would workshop it together. But the topics were very open, so I ended up writing these personal essays that my classmates and professor really responded well to.
But I still didn’t think that was what I was going to do. I thought, fiction is still my first love, I would love to be able to write a novel. But I think because it’s so important to me, I feel like I had incredibly high expectations for it. I’d been writing personal essays for longer—I never wrote fiction in college—so I had more practice in it, and it satisfied some impulse in me, that I didn’t know if fiction would. So, eventually, I hoped to work up to that.
Then, I went to graduate school and got my PhD, went through the whole path of becoming a professor, and became a professor. And that didn’t work out, so I left academia and found that personal essay writing was probably my salvation.
#WhyIWrite: to honor the astonishing persistence and love that came before me, passed down from my ancestors and parents, sustains me now.
— Tamiko Nimura (@TamikoN) October 20, 2015
Rumpus: Can you say more about it not working out in academia? Because for a lot of writers, there’s the question about how do we sustain ourselves.
Nimura: I haven’t really spoken publicly about what it is to go through academia as a woman of color and to be denied tenure, because it has felt like a shameful thing. But in the last few years, social media has brought to light petitions started when people have been denied tenure.
What I vowed to myself was, first of all, that I wanted to fight my tenure decision all the way to the very end of the process, so that took about a year, and it was painful. I wanted my daughters to see that I believed it was wrong, and I would fight it with everything I had. And [I also vowed] to myself that I would not have any ugliness about the process. I didn’t want to be the one spouting vitriol or poison about any particular people. So one of the things I did was write, “The Rules of Tenure Denial.” You know, like the Fight Club rule? That the first rule of tenure denial is that you don’t talk about it. And then I went on to write other rules about it. That’s never been published or anything like that.
Rumpus: Why is that?
Nimura: The tenure denial happened five years ago, and then a little over three years ago was when I wrote that essay. And when I wrote it, I didn’t feel like I could put it out into the world. People hadn’t quite started doing those petitions and noticing a pattern of tenure denial for people of color. So, there’s lots of anecdotal evidence out there. And if you look at say, The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, which is academia’s big journal newspaper, there are a few things about tenure denial, but they’re more personal and less about qualitative patterns.
Since then, there have been collections [of anecdotal accounts and qualitative studies]. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia is one. And then there’s another one that just came out, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.
But at the time, I still felt like to some level that it was a shameful thing, that this was my personal failing, and I wasn’t ready to open myself up to the world of internet comments. Comment sections would have just been more than I could have taken. And really, the audience for that kind of essay would have been in some ways the Chronicle of Higher Education itself. But they had a very open comment policy, and it can get very ugly. And that’s just not something I was ready to do. But I have a few other friends in academia and out of academia who I shared my “Rules…” with.
Rumpus: In your bio, you mention “writing your own MFA,” and again, that’s something a lot of writers struggle with—with some people saying not only do you not need one, but that MFA programs actually hinder writers, for various reasons. So, given that whole debate, what does it mean to “write your own MFA”?
Nimura: Writing my own MFA meant that I recognized my need for some kind of structure. And in grad school, one of my best friends and I were both in the PhD track, but we always said to each other, “Don’t the MFAs look like they’re having more fun? ” And we had both written poetry and different kinds of creative writing, so we thought, “Actually, maybe we should be getting MFAs.” And really, part of what I wanted to do was to turn to writing that brought me solace and comfort and connection. And so, I thought, I can do whatever I want, so why don’t I just do that?
I had made friends with a blogger, Shauna Aherne. She’s known as Gluten-Free Girl. And she said, “Why don’t you just make a blog?” And my husband also encouraged me to create a blog. So, and at that time—this is 2009— the blog became a way for me to work my way through, feel my way through, give myself assignments, and then put up the results of the assignments and just see how it works.
One of the pieces I put up on the blog was called, “How It Feels to Inherit Camp,” meaning the history of Japanese Americans during World War II. Another friend, who is a book writer and blogger said, “This really deserves a wider audience. Please promise me that you’re going to submit it elsewhere.” And so, I submitted it to an Asian American literary journal, Kartika Review, and they accepted it. [Later], it got anthologized in a book called New California Writing. This press in California puts out an anthology every year called New California Writing and they picked it up. So to be in the same pages as people like Maxine Hong Kingston was just a huge thrill.
And, from there, the [private] MFA became, “Well, let’s try some structure. Let’s think about maybe working on a memoir as the big project thesis. But mostly, let’s get into the practice of writing and putting something out there.” The stakes being really low. It didn’t have to be perfect, it didn’t have to be beautifully polished, but I’m a perfectionist so I tried. But it was all in the name of practice and self-imposed discipline. And then I asked other people, other writers that I knew, to talk about their writing process, and the role of the MFA. What can I learn from people who have MFAs? What can I learn from writers who don’t have MFAs? And that would be the mentoring process that’s part of the MFA.
And then, I started to make all these writing connections, and people started to say, “Hey, I know this writer named Tamiko, and she writes these things.” And I started to write for other outlets, and I submitted to a bunch of places, like you do, and I realized that maybe the blog was not necessarily what I needed. So I hadn’t finished my big, private MFA project, but I had still done a lot of what I needed to do, which was to get myself into the practice of writing and to think myself into the identity of writer.
For a while, especially right after I left academia, the question was, “So, what do you do?” And I was like, “Well, I…” I was applying for unemployment and applying for different jobs and thinking, “What am I going to be next? What am I going to do next?” I did so many things. I went on job interviews, and I applied for adjunct positions, and I read books on transitions and career changes, and I even started to do the whole, What Color is Your Parachute? quiz. And my husband finally said to me, “You know, these are all well and good, but as long as I’ve known you, you always wanted to be a writer. So why don’t you do that?”
Rumpus: Um, yeah! [Laughs]
Nimura: [Laughs] Which is all very intuitive now!
Rumpus: You know, it’s how we see ourselves versus how others see us.
Nimura: Yes. And I think I was really afraid to claim that. It didn’t seem like the practical choice, right? By that time, my husband had made a career transition himself from being a professor and composer of music into software development. That career transition freed us financially, as a family, so that I could be selective and write what I want to write.
Rumpus: When you were in academia, did you identify as a writer?
Nimura: No. Professor and scholar. But my scholarly writing was a lot harder. I loved the close work with texts and historical context. I fell in love with ethnic studies, with social justice, and storytelling, and telling stories that get suppressed and oppressed and repressed. So, it was always that. But the dissertation was hard. It was unwieldy, and I wanted to write it in a year. I had gotten a scholarship from the Ford Foundation, just to write the dissertation, so I felt like I had to be finished in that time.
Rumpus: So circling back to the “what” of your writing. Can you share more about your current projects?
Nimura: What seems to always come up in my writing in some way is memory and history and family. Those are some of my central themes. And really, silence, I would say, too. All of those things working together and against each other, especially my family’s personal histories. So certainly, the concentration camps in World War II for Japanese Americans —that comes up a lot in my writing. My dad and his family were incarcerated and that history, once I learned more about it and knew more about it, in maybe fourth or fifth grade, I never really left it. Or it never really left me, let’s say.
And my mom’s personal history as a Filipina immigrant is something that I really want to explore, but I know a lot less about.
I wrote an article for History Link, the Washington State online encyclopedia, about Tacoma’s now-extinct Japantown.
Rumpus: What happened to it?
Nimura: Camp, basically. Nobody wanted to come back. But I didn’t know just how vibrant that neighborhood was before the war. They were organized, they had language schools and newspapers and cultural stuff, and they fundraised for temples. So I ended up with this 1500-word essay. When it was published, people were like, “I’ve always wondered about this history! I didn’t know this had existed! This is so amazing!” I got to insert this history into the official narrative, into the history books. And I love that. It was really powerful.
Rumpus: And you’re contributing to a graphic novel series about the history and significance of Japanese American resisters during the war and incarceration.
Nimura: Yes, I submitted to a call for submissions and was chosen by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience to write a book in the series. They chose two of us. My co-writer is Frank Abe, and he is a journalist and documentarian. He produced Conscience and the Constitution for PBS. He’s made it a lot of his life’s work to document the story of Japanese American Resisters during World War II. It was a real honor to be picked along with him by the Wing Luke Museum, which is, I believe, the only Asian American museum in the country. As in pan-Asian.
Rumpus: So it’s a collaborative effort between the two of you and the artist?
Nimura: Two artists, actually. Two writers and two artists which makes it really a grand adventure. [Laughs] Frank and I are technically of the same generation. We both have parents in the same generation who were incarcerated, but he is closer to my mom’s age. I’m closer to a younger generation’s perspective of that history, [but] Frank was part of the 1970s movement for redress and reparations. So he has that background and traditional memory for us. I have the younger generation’s perspective of how it feels to reckon with all of that history in our contemporary lives.
Frank and I are writing the second in a three-volume series. The first volume was about Japanese Nisei [second generation] veterans. This one is about the Resisters. We are in the process of outlining, and we hope to storyboard in September and be ready in time for teacher workshops and training, and for release in fall 2018.
Rumpus: Who is the audience for this book?
Nimura: Seventh graders. In Washington state, American history is addressed in seventh grade and eleventh grade, and part of the grant funding comes from the National Park Service and a Washington state fund for curriculum about Japanese Americans and incarceration. So, I really wanted a contemporary character, and I wanted a girl. Because the first graphic novel in the series was all men, because the graphic novel as a genre still feels to me like it’s heavily male, with a heavily male-targeted audience, and so on. So it was important to me that we have a female character who had a presence throughout the book. There will be a few female characters that we’ll focus on in the book.
Rumpus: It’s exciting for that age group, especially, to see themselves represented. So when a seventh-grade girl is reading this novel, what do you want her to experience?
Nimura: There are so many layers, I don’t think I can do that question justice, to be honest. Part of the seventh-grade girl is going to be based on my daughters. Some of the younger ones have this reluctance or hesitation around how or why does someone protest. [They think,] “There are things that I can do. I’m not sure exactly what they are, but there are things I can do.” So I want seventh-grade girls to see that there is a continuum of resistance. That resistance takes place in a community in a lot of ways, and that this is a history that they also can own and be proud of.
Rumpus: What else are you working on?
Nimura: There is an anthology that was released last month called Ghosts of Seattle Past, and I have a piece in that. The collection is about the impact of gentrification and development and history on the city. I don’t live in Seattle anymore but I still feel very close to it. All of these places are gone. The anthology is created in partnership with Atlas Obscura. So we get to see maps, along with comics and poems and short essays, all based on these places that are no longer with us.
I’m also helping to organize a day of remembrance for my hometown now, Tacoma. A day to mark Japanese American history of incarceration, on the date Japanese Americans left Tacoma from the train station. And then, hopefully, from there, signage, more walking tours, things like that, to mark this history. And another short essay for History Link.
And this summer, I’ll be returning to my memoir. It’s called The Librarian’s Daughters. And it is a generational memoir because it’s a response, in part, to my dad’s unpublished manuscript that he wrote about [being] incarcerated [in the camps]. He was ten years old through fourteen when all of that happened to him and his family. I believe it was some time in the 60s, not too long before I was born, that he decided to write about it. In the 60s, people weren’t talking a whole lot about [the camps]. He wrote this book-length memoir, typewritten manuscript, about it. He had me read it, I remember, before he died. But I was really young myself, right? Not quite ten. I read it, and we talked about it a little bit. But then he died, and I never, I never looked at it again.
It was very difficult. So painful. My dad and I were pretty close. And so, for a long time my breathing mechanism was avoidance. So, I just didn’t really want to talk about it. I didn’t want to write about it. I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to go visit my dad’s grave. Nothing like that. And so, when I was going through my tenure denial, I avoided again, but went back to an older grief, and that one was of losing my dad.
And I missed my dad. I wanted to know what he would have said to me. He had two Master’s degrees, and he worked at a university as a librarian. I missed hearing his voice so desperately. So when I was going through all of my job upheaval, I decided I would re-open that typewritten manuscript. I still have it, these pages. I decided I would open it and re-read it and see what I could find of my dad in there.
I realized that there aren’t lots of personal narratives out there about internment. Personal memoirs and novels, but what’s not out there as much are the after effects, the resonance for the generations that have come after, after camp. Different things have come up in the news about camp. Camp keeps getting revived as this, you know, well, we can do it again! So I really wanted something out there that talked about the effects afterwards.
The memoir talks about my experiences—what it was like to re-open my father’s book, to revisit that older grief, to tie it to the political conversations that [are going] on now, what it’s like for my kids, to grow up with all of this. And overall, what it is to try and learn the skill of grieving, rather than avoiding it.
Rumpus: Grief is its own conversation. Are there any books that you’ve read about grief that really speak to you, to your experience of it?
Nimura: One is my friend Laurie Frankel’s book, Goodbye for Now, which is a fascinating novel, sort of sci-fi, sort of not, about this guy whose partner dies and he tries to use an algorithm and computers and technology—videos, emails, texts, all of this data that he has—to literally bring her voice back. So that’s been something that I’ve thought about, off and on. What is it to try and bring the voice of the dead back? What is it to speak with the dead? I want to reprint pages from my dad’s book. To put excerpts from his book in my own book. To have that kind of two-way conversation.
There’s another book, When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, about the rituals of grieving and so on. She is a Japanese American writer with very close ties to her family in Japan. She visited there shortly after the  tsunami happened.
But I feel like my memoir is going to be a bit more experimental. I want people to see the juxtaposition of the typewritten page and the digital pages. Once I started blogging about the memoir writing process, I put my father’s full name out into the ether because I was reproducing part of his preface to the book. [Once] he became a searchable term, people who knew him found me. One person found me on Facebook and sent me old pictures of him. Another person sent me some poems he had written. Someone else [emailed] me these memories that she had of my dad, and eventually we met in person. So the memoir is partly about grief and avoidance and coping and history and family, but it’s also about grieving in this particular age too. Technology can separate us, but how has technology also brought us together in these strange and wonderful ways.
Rumpus: Speaking of which, let’s talk about our digital roundtable on race and publishing from last year that became an AWP panel this year, “What Writers of Color Want White Editors to Know.” Specifically, what do Asian Americans writers want white editors to know?
Nimura: I feel all the burden of representation! Right? [Laughs] Really, first of all, that we’re not monolithic. That there’s an incredible diversity under that term “Asian American.” And I talked to my sister about this, and she said, “I think ‘Asian American’ is a term that has to be claimed over and over again.” [Because] it’s sometimes externally imposed, and sometimes it is this very political act of ownership and allyship and coalition building. But it’s always in that process of being claimed and negotiated. And so, in this sense, I’m very wary of saying what should Asian Americans tell white editors. We’re going to have really different perspectives and histories and relationships to privilege and power. And also, for many of us, we have a very long history of invisibility, particularly in the context of national conversations on race relations.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about representation. Who are your literary heroes? And do you write with an awareness that you are the representation for a future generation of Asian American writers? If so, does that influence you? Terrify you?
Nimura: Yes! So [to this question], of course you want to say those women of color writers who came of age in the 70s and 80s. Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara have been really powerful and meaningful for me. But I have to trace that influence back to the women writers in the anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.
Rumpus: It’s like thirty-something years old.
Nimura: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Rumpus: But still so fresh.
Nimura: It’s so fresh, it’s so powerful, so daring and experimental, right? I wrote my master’s thesis about women of color anthologies and that powerful act of bringing these people together in the same book. But they were all over the place. Some of them were open letters, some of it was poetry, and some of it was hybrid essay/memoir. That experimentation with form and the audacity of voice is what I aspire to.
And Toni Cade Bambara I love because she has so much laughter thread in, so much love of humanity. She’s gentle and not so gentle sometimes, poking and prodding and fun. And I also have very powerful childhood writers that I love, like L.M. Montgomery and Madeleine L’Engle. They delve very powerfully into female experiences.
Do I feel the burden? Do I feel aware? Because I haven’t come out with a larger project yet, I don’t feel it yet. For now, I feel like I’m writing for my kids. What are my kids going to want, or need, in the 21st century? The Japanese, particularly Japanese Americans, have this saying. Kodomo no tame ni. It means “for the sake of the children.” And my grandparents and the broader Japanese refugee community especially invoked that phrase during their camp experience in the war years and the Depression. What they endured, it was all for the sake of the children. So I keep that as my mission, my motto, what it means to express this love for future generations, this wider collective love. Not just for your [own] kids, but for all the kids.
Author photograph © Josh Parmenter.