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Expressions of ‘everyday immortality’

by William Clark

UNFINISHED MESSAGE: Selected Works of Toshio Mori. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2000, 242 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Toshio Mori (1910-1980) was one of the founders of a distinctively Asian-American literature. He lived in and near San Leandro, Calif. except for the World War II years, which he and his family spent in the Topaz internment camp in the Utah desert.

Through most of his life as a writer he worked in his family’s nursery by day and wrote at night, setting himself the strict schedule of writing from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. — every day. His “Yokohama, California,” set to be published in 1942 but delayed by the war until 1949, was the first collection of short stories ever published by a Japanese-American.

In spite of critical acclaim and continued success in selling stories to newspapers and magazines, Mori’s next book would not be published for another 30 years. By the 1970s, however, the rise of the Asian-American movement had opened up an audience of young Asian-American readers interested in discovering their literary forebears. The process of challenging the American literary canon and reclaiming important and talented minority writers resulted, in Mori’s case, in the republication of his first collection of stories and the publication of a novel and a second volume of stories in the last years of his life.

“Unfinished Message” is a rewarding selection of Mori’s best stories, his wartime letters to literary supporter William Saroyan, a revealing biographical interview with the author, as well as the surprise of the book, the previously unpublished novel “The Brothers Murata.”

In his words of appreciation that open the volume, third-generation Japanese-American poet and editor Lawson Fusao Inada notes that “Mori’s manner is not so much one of action but reflection.” The stories and novel collected here, arranged in roughly chronological order, are reflections on a fictitious American community of the late 1930s (called Lil’ Yokohama by its children), the coming war and the war’s consequences on this community and its individual members.

In the vignette “1936,” the narrator (never far, it seems, from the author) says the everyday, “the days that come around simply and plainly every day, became my interest and love.” Much of this interest is in the variety of his community. In the local barbershop he finds a Spaniard, an Italian, a Mexican and “I, a Japanese.” This is America’s meaning, he reflects, “where the brothers and the races meet.” Several such minitours of the neighborhood harmonize disparate elements and activities: birth and death, commerce and leisure, young and old.

There is equal interest in unique individuals who stand out against this neighborhood backdrop. Mori partly acknowledges his debt to Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio, becomes Yokohama, California) in his elaboration of local “grotesques.” Togo Satoshima, for example, retreats to a room behind his house, representing his separation from society, to practice his shakuhachi. In spite of the opinion of his neighbors that he is a bit cracked, Togo perseveres, entering a long series of amateur talent contests until he is vindicated by winning a modest prize.

And then there is Motoji Tsunoda, “the Seventh Street philosopher” who loves to talk, especially on his favorite subject — individualism. The townspeople, mainly reticent first-generation arrivals either are impolite or ignore him entirely, but the narrator finds him “magnificent . . . inspired” as he delivers a three-hour lecture to an audience of 11 people. Mori’s uniques elicit a range of emotions: They are at once isolated, somewhat sad, and yet endearing, often noble, in their expression of what he called “everyday immortality.”

As Mori’s fiction moves into the 1940s, this tidy world, simply and lovingly described, unravels. A series of stories and sketches focuses on many of the dislocations and tensions of the Pacific War from perhaps the last moment when the brothers and the races meet — as two young Japanese-Americans share a table with an elderly white woman and her son in a tearoom at the World’s Fair in San Francisco in September 1940 — through internment and a “nisei” (second-generation) soldier’s irony-charged visit “home” to camp, and to the dispersal of nisei to points east in the closing year of war, boarding their train with “solemnity and independence.”

“The Brothers Murata” takes the reader inside Topaz. Hiro Murata has volunteered for the U.S. Army, seeking to fulfill his dead father’s desire that his children claim America as their own and serve it well. His brother Frank has refused induction to protest the internment policy’s violation of his people’s civil rights and to show his commitment to pacifism.

In increasingly heated arguments, Hiro charges Frank with betraying the family, while Frank claims to be fulfilling the command of the father by holding fast to American principles. Their conflict takes place in a whirl of gathering acrimony, hatred and violence in the camp. The accelerating pace of the novel creates a rising tension, the disastrous climax of which offers scant hope for resolution of the conflicts and contradictions of the war years for Japanese-Americans.

Mori’s style and language in the stories may seem to some readers unsophisticated, even simplistic. In part this is due to the fact that, like many second-generation Asian-American writers, he began learning English only when he started school; in part it is due to the influence of the pared-down prose of Modernists Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. Whatever the sources, this lean, direct expression seems to emerge from the neighborhood folks of whom he writes and for whom he has such obvious affection. “Unfinished Message” offers a well-chosen and nicely contextualized selection of fiction by this no-longer-forgotten father of Asian-American writing.