Photo Courtesy of American Program Bureau, Inc.
David Mura uses his considerable talents as a poet, novelist, memoirist and performer to explore what it means to be Japanese-American.
Music Credit: Excerpts from “Elixir of Life” composed and performed A.J. Racy and James Peterson, used courtesy of Lyrichord Discs Inc.
David Mura: And I think the impulse for literature comes from our need and desire to express what we know unconsciously, but we don’t have the language to express. And so we have to create that language, and we have to-- in creating the creating leashes itself to our imagination.
Jo Reed: That's writer and spoken word performer David Mura. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. David Mura is an award-winning artist who moves from one genre to another with acrobatic ease. He began as a poet but quickly added essays, memoir, and novels to his writing arsenal. While he moves comfortably from genre to genre, all of Mura's work looks at racism, history, and sexuality, examining what it means to be Japanese-American. Furthering that exploration, Mura has also created performance pieces--taking the stage himself-- often as different incarnations-- of the " Asian-American". Or sometimes he joins with African-American writer Alexs Pate to create a dialogue between writers of color. When I spoke with David Mura at a writer's conference in Washington DC, I wondered how his working partnership with Alex Pate began.
David Mura: We were friends, and Alexs is a black writer, and I'm an Asian American writer, and then all the events in L.A. surrounding the Rodney King beating, and the subsequent decision, which where the police were let off, and then the violence that happened afterwards became a huge national event, right. And one of the key images out of that event were images of Koreans and African Americans in sometimes even open combat, right? And certainly there were tensions between Korean storeowners and Korean Americans and African Americans. And Alexs and I decided that if we just sat up on stage and said, "I'm a Japanese American and an Asian American, and he's an African American, we're friends," that that would be an image which people haven't seen before. So we did a whole show about our lives as men of color, and about relationships between the Asian American community and the African American community. And it was both, in terms of the larger broad dialogue that we feel needed to happen, and then the sorts of conflicts that were happening between Asian Americans and African Americans. And then our own personal dialogue of becoming friends, and getting to know each other, and talking over issues of race. And we've continued to do that, and I've continued to do that in a number of different ways, talking with different writers of color about the issues of race.
Jo Reed: Something you examine is your identity as a Japanese American, Japanese American history and culture, and you do it in different venues. You do it in poetry, you do it in memoir, you do it in novels, and you do it in performance pieces. Can you just talk about those different genres, and what are some of the challenges, and what are some of the overlaps between them?
David Mura: Well I started out as a poet, and then I went to Japan -- I got actually an NEA fellowship from the U.S. Japan Friendship Commission to go to Japan and stay for a year. And I realized that if I waited for my experiences to distill into poetry I would lose a lot of what was just happening to me as I was becoming acclimated to the culture, getting to meet Japanese people, and beginning to ask questions about my own identity in relationship to Japanese culture, my grandparents past and my parents past. And so also the American film critic of Japanese films, Donald Richie, said to me, "You should keep a diary because things will be happening so fast to you, if you don’t keep a diary you'll lose it." So I ended up writing a memoir of that year, and...
Jo Reed: And that's Turning Japanese?
David Mura: That's Turning Japanese: Memoirs of the Sansei. And in it I recount what happens during the year in Japan, but I also talk about issues of how being in Japan made me think of what it means to be Japanese American, both in terms of culture and in terms of issues around race. And when I say culture, for one thing, my parents raised me in a much assimilated manner, and so I didn't know much about Japanese culture. And being in Japan I realized I couldn't understand who my grandparents were unless I knew Japanese culture. And I needed to understand who my grandparents were to understand who my parents were. So, I think I wrote the two memoirs because the issues that I was dealing with in terms of my identity, in terms of my relationship to Japanese American history were things that I hadn't seen written about. And especially in terms of my own generation, who was born after the war, and who were not interned during World War II.
Jo Reed: As your parents were?
David Mura: As my parents were. And part of the reason the way I likened it to is if you're writing fiction, and you're told about the show don’t tell aesthetic, right. And my friend Garrett Hongo says the show don’t tell aesthetic is a white boys aesthetic. And what he means by this, we're all taught to read from a white male perspective. We're taught to read the world as Hemingway reads it so that we can understand-- and Hemingway says I just show the surface so that you'll intuit all the depths underneath it, the iceberg underneath the surface. But I didn't even understand what was underneath the surface of my own experience. When I was growing up, for instance, a name would come up at a family gathering, and somebody would say _nihonjin no hakujin____________, and nobody explained to me that nihonjin____________ was Japanese, _hakujin___________ was white person. And then if it was a Japanese American they would say what camp were they in? And somebody would say, "Oh, Minidoka." And then the conversation would go on. Nobody would explain to me, ever, nobody sat down during my childhood and said during World War II, David, 110,000 Japanese Americans, including our family, were rounded up out of the West Coast and put in these prisons in desolate places in the Western United States. And that's what we're referring to when we talk about <laughs> what camp where they in.
Jo Reed: Let me just interrupt for one second, David. So when that was happening at the table, did you say what is that? What camp? Or was the culture of your family such that you knew you don't ask?
David Mura: I didn't have enough context to even ask the question. I had a friend who said, "I thought they were like summer camps until I read about it in high school." So there really wasn't any talk about the past, so it was just this word camps. I mean who knows what that was. So, I felt like I had to write the memoirs to investigate that past, and investigate how my parent's character and identities were formed in part because of that experience of being interned. And therefore, how they raised me. My friend Chris Abani has characterized my work as being the conjunction of biology, by which he says he means race, and history, and how those produce psychology. So it's how race and history produces psychology. And so I was doing this in memoir, but at a certain point my friend Alexs asked me to be in a series of performance pieces by men of color. And at first I didn't want to do it because I'm an introvert, and I didn't necessarily like giving public readings, or being on stage. But if I wasn't in the series there wasn't gonna be an Asian American in the series. And once I started working with the form of performance all sorts of other voices came out. I started doing characters, I started doing sort of SNL type stuff where this was during the time where people were threatened by Japan, so I took over a news studio and started changing everything in the newsroom to reflect Japanese elements. I was selling picture brides from Asia, offering two Ginsu knives. And I had been trained as a poet in a very traditional manner, and a lot of my poems had some sort of form, or written in loose blank verse, and it was hard for me to break out of a certain literary voice. And once I got to performance suddenly I could access a colloquial voice, a speech like voice. And suddenly all sorts of other content and emotion began to come out.
Jo Reed: The Oriental Thug.
David Mura: Yes.
Jo Reed: I saw a YouTube video of you doing The Oriental Thug, and I thought it was wonderful. But what was so interesting was the way your voice absolutely changed, and of course the language did, but physically you can just see this transformation happen and it's a different stance.
<Audio clip of him performing The Oriental Thug>
David Mura: Yes that happened at the first show, and the first show I did with Alex, I played an Asian American DJ, and suddenly the voice, well, well, well, it's the blue of midnight, it's out of sight, and you know. And so this whole other voice came out, and people who knew me went where did that come from? And I often do this with my students now is I have them do performance pieces, and you'll get these very sort of quiet introverted people, as writers often are, and if you give them the venue of an exercise where they have to access something performance, and they're talking to an audience a whole other side of their personality comes out. A whole 'nother voice comes out, and that voice allows them to access areas of their own psyche and experience that they couldn't before because they had this pre-conceived idea of what literary language is.
Jo Reed: And you've also written a novel.
David Mura: Yes. Finally after I wrote my two memoirs I felt like I understood enough about Japanese American experience to actually write a novel about it.
Jo Reed: And that's Famous...
David Mura: Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. And there's a famous Japanese American Novel called No-No Boy, and the Japanese Americans were asked two questions--they were given a whole loyalty questionnaire when they were in the internment camps. And one of the questions was do you forswear allegiance to the Emperor and swear allegiance to the United States? And do you agree to serve in the Armed Forces? Certain people answered no to the first question because they said, "I never had allegiance to the Emperor in the first place." Some people answered no out of protest to their internment. And these people who answered no, no to these questions were called No-No Boys. And one of them said, "I would love to fight for America, but to do that I have to be a citizen, and if I'm a citizen why haven't I been granted the writ of habeas corpus? Why haven't I been given a trial? Why am I been imprisoned with no formal proceedings at all to determine my innocence or guilt?" And during the war Japanese Americans disagreed about how to deal with the governments interning them. Some people felt like they should go along with everything the government did, they should join the Armed Forces to prove that they were good patriots. And some people said, "No, as a citizen I should have the rights of a citizen." And after the war the heroes of the community became the men who fought in World War II. The Japanese American units were among the most decorated units in Europe. And the black sheep of the community were the No-No Boys. The famous Japanese American novel is called No-No Boy, which is about a No-No Boy, and I wanted to write a novel about a son of a No-No Boy. And I knew someone whose father was a No-No boy, and so that became a basis of writing this novel, and how this Japanese American grows up being separated from the Japanese American community, and his family being separated from the Japanese American community, but he doesn't know why this is happening. His parents don’t talk about it; his parents don't say your father was a draft resister, but it's there as a presence in the household. And eventually this, this isn't giving too much away from the novel, his father eventually commits suicide.
Jo Reed: That happens pretty early on.
David Mura: Yeah.
Jo Reed: But the novel also-- Ben, who's the protagonist of the novel, is writing the forever dissertation, which I know something about, and what you do in the book is you actually weave parts of that dissertation in so the reader gets a sense of the context in which this is all set.
David Mura: Yes, he's writing a book called The Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, which are all about famous Japanese suicides. But as he's doing it part of him realizes all this is really displacement, and that he's really both trying to deal with and not trying to deal with the fact that his father committed suicide. And then eventually his brother also disappears under mysterious circumstances, which can be read either as suicide or not. So, it also became a way of-- often times with Japanese Americans, or a lot of ethnic Americans people get confused about ethnicity and race. For instance, people will often assume that I have a greater relationship to Japanese culture than I actually do. I mean Ben does not really grow up knowing much about Japanese culture, like I did. But his being Japanese American, and the way that his family was raced during World War II, in other words it was their race that marked them as the enemy; it was their race that separated them from other American citizens in terms of what they could expect for their Constitutional rights. And so, that is a different category of thought, of ontology, than the whole issue of ethnicity.
Jo Reed: Yeah. You said, and I can't remember where I read it, but that you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago and knew more about Yiddish, knew more Yiddish than Japanese.
David Mura: No, and I knew more about the Holocaust than I knew about the internment of Japanese Americans.
Jo Reed: Your memoirs, and even your novel to a certain extent, they're serious books, and yet there are moments that are very funny. And it's like seriously funny. And that's hard to juggle I think.
David Mura: Well, I think, where does humor come from? Humor comes from either repressed anger or repressed pain, I think. And I think about how my friend Junot Diaz says, "You can't get through a third world childhood without some sense of humor, otherwise you just <laughs>, you don't survive." And so you have to learn to laugh at painful things in order to get through it. And then I think it's just the absurdity of going through human experience. I also feel like one of the things I learned from doing the performance pieces is if I had a tremendously comic monologue that if I did a serious poem after the comic monologue people would hear it better, both of them, because there'd be this contrast in tones. Whereas if I read poems that were just one tone after a while the audience just gets lulled, and that's something, which is, people who write for the stage understand. But often times I don't think poets understand.
Jo Reed: You've also done a lot of work about the representation of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans in general in film, on television most particularly, and that has to inform your performance pieces as well, I would think.
David Mura: Yes. I mean, first of all, I think people underestimate the power of popular culture informing images that we have of who people are racially. And there are very few three dimensional images and stories about Japanese Americans, or even Asian Americans, even up to this day. And you can tell a lot about this society by how you are represented. For instance, just a simple basic thing, is if there is an East Asian character they are almost always gonna be in a supporting role. They're never going to be the star. And it's no mistake that the Asian stars that we have now have come from Hong Kong and China, where they've already been able to establish stardom because Jet Li, I remember when he appeared in Lethal Weapon 2 I think it was, he says, "I've done 42 movies, and every one I was the hero. But I come to America and I play the villain." And that was what he had to do to begin to establish himself in the American market. The series Kung Fu, which was actually thought of by Bruce Lee, they gave it to David Carradine. And that was what sent Bruce Lee to Hong Kong, and that's where he became a star because he finally determined I can't become a star in America. And what that really says is then our position as Americans is at best always tentative. When people say, you know, people want to say race is gone. If that was the case then everything would be cast very differently.
Jo Reed: It's the norm. The norm is white.
David Mura: Yeah. And it's also sexual things because you're much more likely to see a white male with an Asian female than an Asian male with a white female. I mean I often have discussions with African American women about this because on the sort of sexual totem pole Asian males and African American women really are on the bottom. And they've done studies about this in terms of like match.com, where people mark racial preferences. And at the bottom are African American women and Asian American men. And then that is reflected in terms of the way things are cast.
Jo Reed: I think you're right when you talk about it being really kind of a hard slog to have people understand that A, images in popular culture matter, and B, they're not accidental.
David Mura: Yes. Yeah. People make deliberate choices about-- and it's a complicated issue because one of the things Hollywood executives will say, well, Asian Americans don't go see specifically Asian things in the way that the black audience will go see specifically black films, which star black people. So that's obviously true, but it is this inability constantly to really imagine the lead person being Asian American, and that by virtue of just simply ability. Or you just think about all of these doctor shows on TV, the only East Asian doctor that I can think of is Sandra Oh on Grey's Anatomy, whereas if you go to an actual hospital the number of East Asian doctors is much higher. Or even just recently they're doing Hawaii Five-0, and it's nice that they have two Asian Americans in the piece, but the two leads are two white guys.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, you have created a life that supports writing, and performance as well, what goes into making a life that is open to creativity?
David Mura: That's a good question. I think one of the things is that I had to reevaluate my whole education. And what I mean by that is that I was educated like a lot of Asian American kids to get really good grades. And as I tell my students, if you're a really good student what do you do? You don't make any mistakes. You don't stray into an area which you don't know because it's like would I take a class in ballet if I didn't know I was gonna get an A? No. You don't try to look foolish, you don't make mistakes, you don't waste time, and you don't really examine your own subjectivity, or your own intuitions, or your own feelings. Now I think there's uses, obviously, for being a good student, but those rules are almost entirely the opposite of what is needed to be creative. Where you ought to be able to make mistakes, ought to be able to look foolish, ought to be able to seemingly waste time. You go out of your areas of expertise, you rely on your subjectivity, and you examine your subjectivity, your intuition and your feelings. And I really had to untrain the good student in me, and begin to try to release the creative part of me. And I often feel like it's been a sort of lifelong struggle that I'm continuing to do. Whereas some of my friends who were just bad students, they were just born naturally able to access their creative sides.
Jo Reed: And I don't know that I agree with this, but Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I'd hate to privilege one over the other.
David Mura: No what I would say is the knowledge is important, it's like I did a study of scientific discoveries, and scientific discoveries come from three different qualities. One is that the person doing it has to have a background in the field. So you or I might've seen mold on bread, but we wouldn't have thought, "Oh God this might be an antibiotic, and we can use it as penicillin." And then often times, what the person discovers is not what they set out to discover. And the third thing is that discoveries often happen by accident. So it's not planned. Now I often talk about literary techniques to my students as ways of creating those accidents. Rhyme and form is a way of creating accidents because when you're thinking about sound associations, like if I go painting, and I go grading, waiting, mating, I'm doing half rhymes here. These words come up, and they're not really logically associated necessarily with painting, but they lead me off into a different area of thinking about something. And to get back to the issue of imagination, so you have to have this basic knowledge, but the imagination in literature comes through language. And I think the impulse for literature comes from our need and desire to express what we know unconsciously, but we don’t have the language to express. And so we have to create that language, and we have to-- in creating the creating leashes itself to our imagination.
Jo Reed: Okay. And there we'll leave it. David, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It was a nice conversation.
Jo Reed: That's writer and spoken-word performer David Mura.
David has recently published a new collection poetry called, The Last Incantations.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, poet Sheila Black. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.