By the time Brandon Shimoda's grandfather died in 1996, he had been living with Alzheimer's for almost 20 years. Shimoda was then a college freshman, which meant he had had little opportunity to know the man without the disease. Reacting to "the loss--the losing," Shimoda started writing The Grave on the Wall almost a decade ago, collaging other people's memories, documentation and transcripts in search of Midori Shimoda, his father's father: "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." Relying on his skills as a poet, Shimoda enhances the elusive details of Midori's life with his own journeys of discovery, creating an impressive prose debut. The compelling result is a meditative memoir-of-sorts about his grandfather, his extended family, his ancestral heritage and ultimately himself as a 21st-century Japanese American.
Shimoda begins, in typewriter font, with three disjointed paragraphs presented without identification, later revealed to be FBI report excerpts. "Subject stated he thinks Japan is 'Hell,' " the first reveals. And then, "He represents one of the many individual tragedies of the war.... We recommend... he is paroled... as soon as possible so that his spirit may not be broken.'" And the final, "...he has a plan in mind to do something which may be harmful to the country or the people in it and have been thoroughly satisfied to have him interned." Midori, as the "subject," was conceived in Hawaii and born--in 1909 or 1910 or 1911, depending on who is remembering--on an island off the coast of Hiroshima. At nine, he immigrated to the U.S., where he lived the rest of his life. During World War II, he was one of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry imprisoned without cause: his Japanese birth classified him as "enemy alien"; being a photographer with a camera landed him in unlawful confinement at Fort Missoula, Mont., where he was "held under pretext of being a threat to the national security of [this] country."
Decades later, Brandon Shimoda made his first visit to Missoula, "to the ruins of Japanese American incarceration, [and] found Midori's face" in a photograph hanging on the barracks wall. The unexpected discovery becomes, for Shimoda, "Midori's grave, because it is an icon of his arrest, and was the first, most accessible, place [he] could visit [Midori] after death."
To fathom further that grave on the wall, Shimoda travels to ancestral lands, uncovers voices from the past (including Midori's missing first wife), visits peace monuments, burial grounds, burnt-down temples, considers ritualized suicide. Through his expansive pursuit, Shimoda alchemizes his family's recollections and confessions, his country's trespasses, his legacy of loss, into elegant, haunting testimony. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Shelf Talker: Poet Brandon Shimoda makes his elegiac prose debut, seeking to understand his paternal grandfather--and ultimately himself--through the enduring legacy of unlawful imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.