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Imagining Memory
May 6, 2010

This essay will be presented at the Imagining Memory panel, Hawaii Book and Music Fest 2010.

I just read Miguel Syjuco’s novel, “Ilustrado,” a good novel. In it one of the main characters, a famous older writer, says, “When you get to my age, the most insignificant memories take on significance. Unrationalized blame, casual kindness, random gestures—one day you just need to tell someone about them.”

I think that is largely true, at least it is for me. But why? It must be that the older we get, the more we have experienced, largely these experiences are in great bundles of similarity, like CostCo packaged bulk products. The little but rich memories stand out in their singularity. They produce a visceral emotional response, increasing the feeling of being alive. And when we feel like this we want to share that feeling.

My latest novel, OH!, looks at this idea of memory, emotion, and expression through the Japanese aesthetic/poetic term ‘mono no aware’, roughly translated as the emotional essence of things, most often thought of as the sadness in beauty. Cherry blossoms are the prototypical mono no aware objects, exploding in beauty for only a few days before they die. It is what we feel when we experience something that makes us exclaim “oh!” and express our feelings in poetry, prose, art, or song.

The concept of mono no aware was introduced by the Japanese scholar, Motoori Norinaga, who lived from 1730 to 1801. Norinaga, a physician and expert in Chinese classical studies, was a leader of the national revival movement (“National Studies” or “National Learning”), which focused on studying ancient Japanese texts to rediscover the intrinsic values in Japanese life. “Intrinsic” refers to that which is more purely Japanese, before the great influence of foreign, primarily Chinese, ideas.

Norinaga especially refers to The Tale of Genji as an example of mono no aware. Genji was written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, the court name of the author, a woman distantly related to the powerful Fujiwara family who ruled Japan in the name of Heian-period emperors. Genji is largely about the romantic encounters of “the shining prince,” and is rich with poetic metaphors of longing, passion and sadness. In it, the word aware appears on average once per page-a total of 1,044 times.

OH! follows Zack Hara, a young Japanese American from Los Angeles searching for an emotionally meaningful life while traveling in Japan. Zack finds an ally in a professor and underground poet who introduces him to the concept of mono no aware. The professor, grieving for a missing daughter, assigns Zack a set of mysterious tasks, among them: find a pear-shaped stone, learn of a memory of Zack’s grandfather in his childhood village, commit a petty crime.

As Zack finds out, these tasks all deal with memory and their emotional content. They guide the story and are uncovered gradually, giving heightened power to their meaning to the characters. In the end, the memories coalesce into the idea of the “beauty of any memorable emotional experience.” Here are a few paragraphs from the novel to give you a flavor of this.

The professor gave me a new task. Apparently not satisfied with my artistic rendition of the suicide scene he asks me to write a poem. About what? I asked him. He said, “I know you came to Japan to discover some of your grandfather’s life here. How is that going?”

I told him about Katsuyama and not finding anything there. He suggested that I go back and try to find some memory—maybe remembrance is a better word—of my grandfather. When I’ve found it, he assigns me the task of writing a poem about the remembrance.

It seems like a difficult task. Not just because of my poetry skills. My grandfather left Japan such a long ago. Surely, anyone who would have known him would be dead. And I know only a little about his side of the family. I have a vague recollection of an old genealogical chart. I should email my uncle, my dad’s oldest brother, who keeps a box of my grandfather’s papers and ask him to send a copy.

After a brief, weak protest, I agreed to the task.

The village is quiet when I get there, no one in sight. When I walk past the agricultural cooperative, I hear machinery start up. It sounds like a metallic grinder, maybe a blade sharpener. I walk over to the store, make the floorboards on the porch creak, and hear the old woman yell “Quiet!”

Inside, I nod to her. She says, “Still no Hara around here.”

I laugh and she squints at me like I’m a lunatic. “You have a good memory. How about Shimokihara?”

“What’s that?”

“My grandfather’s real family name.”

“Shimokihara? No, doesn’t ring a bell.”

“How about the big flood in 1925? Do you know anything about it?”

Her eyes get wide. “The flood? I was a little girl then. But of course I remember it.”

I show her the photos I got at the museum.

She nods at each one. Then I show her the news story of the boy named Shimokihara.

She reads it then says, “That’s your grandfather, eh? I don’t remember him or his parents.”

“How about after the flood, do you remember anything about what might have happened to the orphans?”

“No. We moved to another town until they rebuilt Katsuyama. Only a few of us moved back. Hardly anybody stayed.”

“Would anyone else here remember the flood?”

She laughs. “I’m the only one left.”

I thank her for the information. I walk back down the street toward the fields I’d seen the first trip. I’m trying to think of a poem. Something that would capture the success of discovering the story of my grandfather’s past, of finding some memory of him, if only in a news report. Writing a poem should be easy, there’s a lot to work with: a son losing his real parents then watching his adopted parents drown, leaving his devastated village on a ship to a new country where he knew no one, didn’t know the language. It should be there.

But I’ve got nothing.


Number of comments: 1
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Lee Witte
Memories are weird things, we need them but they can also deceive!


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