By Leslie Entsminger
David Mura is a poet, writer, critic and performance artist. A Sansei or third-generation Japanese American, Mura has written two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of the Year; and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity (1996). His novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire (2008) was a finalist in several contests. Mura’s newest poetry colleciton is The Last Incantations (2013) and joins Angels for the Burning: The Colors of Desire, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, and After We Lost Our Way, 1989 National Poetry Series Contest winner.
David Mura, a third generation Japanese American poet, playwright, and performance artist, arrived in Norfolk for the Literary Festival in the pouring rain. Despite the damp weather, he was in good humor when Maggie Libby Davis and I picked him up at the airport. He had barely settled into Maggie’s car when we asked him our first interview question: “Hyphen or space?”
“What?” David asked politely.
“Would you put a hyphen or a space between the words Japanese and American?”
“Space.” David replied firmly.
This characterized his answers to our interview questions over the next twenty-four hours. A quick reply, but not an ill-considered one, for if there is one thing David Mura does well, it is to consider and weigh.
Mura’s parents were interned during World War Two. They chose not to discuss the internment with him and raised David in an upper class white Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. He felt a strong desire to fit in and to be perceived as white, which did not change until he made a trip to Japan.
While there, even though he did not speak the language, he felt the comfort of being lost in a crowd of people who looked as he did. He began to write as “a person of color” and started to investigate what it meant to find a community of writers who spoke to his “wound of difference.” He began to write about the effect of racial identity on sexuality, considering deeply the effect of internment on Japanese couples.
When asked about how these two issues are related, he said, “In the internment centers, the internee’s crime was their body—their ethnicity. Standards of beauty and sexuality have been skewed towards the idea that white beauty is the pinnacle. Typically, people of color are stereotyped, but the Asian American experience is largely one of isolation, so, yes, it would directly reflect on one’s sexuality.”
Shori Matsumoto, a first year fiction MFA student, took the opportunity to ask, “Do you consciously write politically?”
“All writing,” David said, “presumes certain ideological assumptions. Shakespeare wrote from his perspective, to say he wasn’t political makes no sense. We are subsumed into our own political climate.”
The questions then turned to writing and the writing process. When asked which form of writing he is most drawn to, David said, “Essays are the easiest, fiction is the hardest and poetry is the most pleasurable. Emerging writers don’t experiment enough. When teaching all mediums I like to encourage my students to try different voices… improvisational acting would help them. Think about scientific discovery: there are three conditions for discovery—one: basic knowledge about one’s field; two: the discovery is not what they set out to discover; and three: accidental. Writers need to be open to the accidental. Students are taught to prize the conscious mind, but what we need for creative writing is to discover what we didn’t know we knew, to search for a language to express what we know unconsciously. Writing is a game between your consciousness and your unconsciousness. You might intend to get ‘A’ but you end up at ‘B’. We stumble onto what is more powerful and more creative.”
The next question asked had to do with the process of writing: “When writing, occasionally it’s as if we were voyeurs staring in at our characters and watching them make independent decisions. How do your regard and challenge your characters?”
“The principal of storytelling,” David said, “requires that a protagonist take action. One can set no obstacles in the path of a character, or conversely, you can set irreconcilable conflicts that cause a character to stumble. If a writer makes these conflicts difficult—puts their character under more pressure—the more that character will reveal. The author is either God, as in the Book of Job, or the devil, finding ways to tempt a character in pursuit of a goal.”
We spoke for a few minutes about writing itself.
“I became a writer,” Davis said, “because I fucking hate being bored. I find such pleasure in the discovery of the ‘new.’ I want people to imagine and think. In both society and art, people are far too ready to accept what is and what is dominant. They have an inability to think outside the boxes that have been prescribed. People are asleep and don’t even realize it. We must ask, what actually is the world? We must imagine the possibility of other questions.”
At the reading that night, David Mura, in the poetry he read, the resonance of his voice and the expressions on his face, woke us up. His interpretation of a boy, struggling to learn the English language—his mouth “containing a color I could not eradicate”—was heartbreaking. “Letters from Tule Lake Internment Camp 1942,” the poem of a separated couple was intimate. His call to Garrison Keillor to wake up and notice the difference of culture and race in Minneapolis was amusing and ironic. The audience listened intently and beyond the collective laughing that rumbled through the auditorium after each of his jokes, faces were filled with introspection. When audience members got up from their seats at the end of the reading, it was clear that the room was full of the questions that Mura strives to ask his readers.
Leslie Entsminger is a first-year Fiction student in Old Dominion University’s MFA program.