Last week, I was invited to talk to a class at City College in New York. Someone asked me about structure; specifically what I thought of the fact that none of the books on their syllabus, including my memoir, had a traditional structure. It wasn’t until that moment – when I learned that the class I was visiting was called Reading/Writing the Asian American Diaspora – that I considered that my own obsession with fractured structures might be more than individual taste. I am writing from the margins, about otherness, about race. How could I do that with one voice?

One voice is representation. One voice could be all there is. It is only through a multitude of voices that we can get a truer picture of who we are.

This is not a problem faced by those writing about a mainstream, dominant culture. It is essential, though, for those whose stories have been erased, or defined falsely; whose histories have been rewritten. For me, as a half-Japanese American (Hapa) woman from Hawaii, my subjects are secrets, missing inheritance, and erasure because these are part of my family legacy. I write to discover. And the artist in me creates my structures so that my readers will experience that as I do.

(c) National Archives:  "Persons of Japanese ancestry arrive at the Santa Anita Assembly Center from San Pedro. Evacuees lived at this center at the former Santa Anita race track before being moved inland to relocation centers. Clem Albers, Arcadia, CA, April 5, 1942. Photo No. 210-G-3B-414"
(c) National Archives

My first novel, Why She Left Us, was inspired by my discovery that my Japanese American infant mother and her family were interned behind barbed wire in a camp in the middle of America during Word War II. I quit my job and traveled through time, across the country, to a place of tumult and shame, where people were treated like criminals and stripped of their citizenship, possessions and dignity because they looked (physically, in the way we choose to differentiate people) like the enemy. I found a history of racial discrimination and hatred that had been stripped out of our America-is-the-good-guy narrative, that was not spoken of in families. My answer to “Who am I?” was incomplete until I listened: to the many former internees who shared their stories with me, their secrets, a passing window into their lives.

Splintered truths, disappearances, mysteries: was it any wonder that the structure of my first novel reflected all of these? There was no single “what happened.” There was, and is, a still-shifting, still-surfacing truth.

(c) National Archives
(c) National Archives

My memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, also deals with an erasure: the experience of what happened when the first atomic bomb was dropped on people. Again, this history was redacted not only in our textbooks, but also in families, mine included. The survivors’ – the hibakusha’s – stories had been stifled by death, family, time, and repetition, but the facts were censored from the beginning by the U.S. government, which confiscated pictures, film, and restricted journalists’ movements and stories. The very few accounts that are available are representations of scientific achievements, a life-saving victory, a generous American response to rebuild the faces of a handful of long-suffering “maidens.”

These are not the only stories.

Perhaps because I am the child of a mixed race marriage, I feel these stories slipping away, a drop of ink dissolving into water. I write about them, not as a historian or to establish facts, but because we hide what we are ashamed of. And in our sweeping human history of what “we” did to “them,” our most powerful justification is explicitly or implicitly the concept of race.

Race is not biology. It is a social construct that we use to separate. But it is not the only one. We define all sorts of categories, roles and identities (even motherhood!) to separate ourselves from ourselves: to belittle, or reward, or limit, or control. The beauty of Goddard College is that it attracts writers, thinkers, people who are trying to overcome divisiveness by finding common ground in difference. Another way to say this? MFA students come to Goddard because they have something to say – a way of seeing the world that is uniquely theirs and that they want to share. They don’t come to write like someone else, nor do they come to tell a story that has already been told. They are standing in the margins – whether one we already have a reductive label for, or from a line of sight and an experience that is entirely their own – and they are doing it on purpose to shift their readers’ reality. It is the artist’s calling, and her gift, to challenge our assumptions, to rewrite the victors’ history, and to remind us that the destruction that we cause is our choice and the categories we force upon each other are our fiction.

That’s why we write. And, maybe, why some of us in the “Asian American Diaspora” choose a multiplicity of voices and non-traditional narratives to offer a glimpse into what our collective humanity might look like from a different point of view.

Writing From the Margins
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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a National Book Critics Circle Finalist, an Asian American Literary Award Finalist, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee, and the winner of the Grub Street National Book Award. Her first novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award in 2000. Her third book, Shadow Child, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2018. She is also a recipient of the U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. She was Associate Editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City and is a Hedgebrook alumna. Reiko has been interviewed widely on motherhood including on The Today Show, 20/20, and The View. Her articles on motherhood, Hiroshima, the Japanese internment camps and radiation poisoning have been published globally, including in the L.A. Times, Guardian UK, CNN Opinion and Salon, and through the Progressive Media Project. She is a faculty member at Goddard College in the MFA in Creative Writing program, and is the advisor of the national literary journal, Clockhouse. Reiko is Japanese/Caucasian and was raised in Hawaii. She is the founder of the writing retreat Pele's Fire on the Big Island of Hawaii.

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9 thoughts on “Writing From the Margins

  • April 29, 2015 at 9:40 am

    So glad this is resonating… Thank you for all for sharing the thoughts that were provoked! This was a hard one to write because there is so much to say, and I kept wanting to go off on rants, throw the net wider. But I leave it to each of you to pick up with your own rant, your own perspective, and deepen the conversation. Please keep sharing this so others can do the same.

  • April 28, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Beautifully written and thought-provoking piece, Reiko. This line says volumes about the value of writing from the margins: “…to offer a glimpse of what our collective humanity might look like from a different point of view.” This is also what we come (or came) to Goddard to find.

  • April 28, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    thanks for a beautiful post, reiko.

    it’s interesting to think about what we take for granted–e.g. how does one write about a fractured past without having a fractured narrative. it is questions such as the one posed to you that make you realize how much of ourselves we bring to our work. and the importance of that. and the importance of writing within an environment that honors the individual voice and does not force it into a preconceived idea of what a narrative needs to look like, act like, feel like. as I’ve said a million times–sorry for the repetition–we are not running a creative writing factory . . .

  • April 27, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Reiko, thank you for articulating this. As an ESL teacher of many years, I’ve endeavored to help my students dig into their own histories, locate their own margins and begin transgressing them. It’s nearly an impossible task in a second language, but for the two or three who work at it, a rewarding one. Censored history, I’ve learned, is a universal experience, a nationalist deception aimed at cultural unity, if not sanity. It seems, likewise, we’re each walking around with a “fractured structure,” seeking the fragments of a truth we somehow know exists.

    I appreciate your thoughts, too, on the Goddard emphasis on discovery and the embrace of writing from the margins, whomever we are and whatever our background. As a white male whose ancestry runs to the first American colonists, I suppose the margins I seek to cross will always be those represented by the monolythic lie of race. The Other is in all of us and should be celebrated.

  • April 27, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Thank you for writing this, Reiko. What struck me most was this line: “They are standing in the margins – whether one we already have a reductive label for, or from a line of sight and an experience that is entirely their own – and they are doing it on purpose to shift their readers’ reality. ” I came to Goddard after quitting my first semester at the University of East London MA in writing program because I felt a pull from a community of writers more inclusive than where I was, and I felt I needed Goddard in a way I couldn’t explain then, and now recognize on that drive to shift my readers’ reality by sharing my own. I come from what I consider an invisible minority – those of us who grapple with illness or disability that renders us other – a position Goddard helped me not only accept, but embrace through writing.

  • April 27, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Wonderful, Reiko. Thank you for putting this out there. It reminds me of a project I’m working on with students about the relationship between diverse perspectives and resiliency.

  • April 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Reiko, I appreciate how you allow yourself to express your stories as fractured bits, rather than trying to make a fractured story, full of mystery and loss, into something linear and “whole.” It gives me permission and inspiration to continue to follow that pattern in my own writing. By fracturing story, to me, both of your books let in a rainbow of experience.

  • April 27, 2015 at 11:11 am

    Thank you so much for this, Reiko.

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