By Hajra Farooqui
Class of 2022
The literature faculty of the Arts and Humanities division at Duke Kunshan University have organized a Literature Reading Series sponsored by the Humanities Research Center. Throughout this semester, the center will host an array of guest speakers from around the world as they present and discuss their work with students and faculty. The first speaker for this series was Brandon Shimoda, an award-winning poet and non-fiction writer. Shimoda’s most recent books are The Grave on the Wall (City Lights, 2019), a lyric portrait of his grandfather which received the PEN Open Book Award, and The Desert (The Song Cave, 2018). Connecting with us on Zoom, Shimoda read sections from The Grave on the Wall, followed by a discussion of his research process and a Q/A session led by students. The talk was facilitated by Professor Stephanie Anderson, Assistant Professor of American Literature at DKU and a longtime friend and colleague of Shimoda.
“A grandfather is a strange, somewhat impossible work of conscience, especially when old, especially when in a state of decline, on the verge of appearing to dream.”
Shimoda describes The Grave on the Wall as a book about his grandfather and a book about being a grandchild. In this work, he explores how to write about somebody who occupies a special place in one’s life. Oftentimes grandparents know about our lives intimately, including the nooks and crevices of our minds. However, the tragedy is that we seldom can say the same about our grandparents and the lives they have led. Shimoda’s work is at the crossroads of this struggle, of knowing and unknowing. This makes The Grave on the Wall a work driven by emotion in which he retraces his grandfather’s life through memory, stories, Japanese folklore and dreams.
“He knew his grandfather was dead. His brothers told him. But how did they know?”
For the event, Shimoda read passages from The Grave on the Wall that pertained to dreams and dreaming. Sitting outside his house in Tucson, Arizona, Shimoda transported us back in time to tiny villages in Japan, his grandfather’s childhood home, Hiroshima, and then Midori’s, Shimoda’s grandfather, passage to America. If anyone has memories of loss and love connected to their grandparents, Shimoda’s work does the extraordinary thing that all good works of literature do—it moves you as you relive your own panorama of disjointed, confusing memories while enraptured in his tales of spectacle bombs, his grandfather’s travel to Seattle and dreams.
“I wanted to sink with Midori through the bed, through the floor, into the ground, to commingle with what of him had been arrested.”
Shimoda explained his motives for choosing not to have a linear timeline in The Grave on the Wall. The book is an attempt to mirror one’s thoughts as you think about someone else’s life—one’s memories are messy and time plays differently in the realm of memory. Frustrated by conventional biographical writings that chronicle the life of their subjects from birth to death, Shimoda’s work tries to provide an alternative. Furthermore, during the last two decades of his life, Shimoda’s grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s, which affected his memory. Thus, his childhood memories of his grandfather include nonlinear storytelling. He wanted to honour his grandfather’s way of talking about his life and how he was able to mix up time and landscapes.
“In what tradition is the washing of the feet a prerequisite to the journey, on foot, of the dead into the afterlife?”
Research for The Grave on the Wall caused Shimoda to reflect on his identity as an American citizen, being biracial and the experience of being American Japanese in the U.S. His grandfather was the only one amongst his siblings that was not an American citizen, as he was born in Japan. This complicated his relationship with himself, his siblings, Japan and America as he navigated the experiences of being an immigrant, a citizen, an alien and an enemy during WWII. For Shimoda, his grandfather embodied the complexity of being a citizen and an immigrant, and what it means to be a descendent of that history. He is deeply interested in these questions and is writing about these themes in his current work.
After Shimoda’s reading, the students were given an opportunity to ask questions about his work and research methods. Students from LIT 106 who are studying excerpts from The Grave on the Wall as part of their class asked questions about the organisation of the nonfiction work, the meaning of the ending and to what extent the process of writing the book informs Shimoda’s perspectives of belonging, identity and otherness. Shimoda concluded the talk by introducing a question asked by Christina Sharpe in her work, In the Wake:
“How do we memorialise an event that is still ongoing?”
Referring to the Japanese American Incarceration and its legacy, Shimoda implored the audience to ponder this question and its implications in their work. He encouraged the students to ask questions they want answers to and to keep reminding themselves of the importance of their questions in the process.