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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada Session Author and Literary Works: Lawson Fusao Inada

Lawson Fusao Inada

Author Bio

Lawson Fusao Inada was born in 1938 in Fresno, California, where he lived until the outbreak of World War II forced his family into Japanese internment camps in Fresno, Arkansas, and Colorado. The experience was a powerful one for Inada, and much of his writing has explored the complex American identity he forged there.

After the war, Inada went back to school and discovered music. He played bass while studying at Fresno State University and developed a fascination with the rhythms of jazz. This interest is evident in his poetry, which often uses the sophisticated rhythms and musical structures of this truly American musical form. Inada went on to study at the University of Iowa’s writing program, and has taught at Southern Oregon State College since 1966.

According to poet Shawn Wong, Inada’s rise to preeminence among Asian American poets happened almost by accident. Wong and two other aspiring Asian American writers — Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan — had become friendly during the 1960s, and they were looking for other Asian American poets with whom to share ideas. They found Inada. “In a bookstore,” remembers Wong, “I saw an anthology of Fresno poets [Down at the Santa Fe Depot] with a picture of them on the cover. And in the picture I could see a Japanese guy. I called him up, and it was Lawson Inada. I said, ‘You’re a Japanese poet? We want to meet you.’ We all met at a party with Alex Haley, Richard Brautigan, Ishmael Reed, and we talked about how, before we knew we were going to be writers, we were first going to be doctors and engineers like our parents wanted us to be.”

In 1971, Inada’s debut collection of poems, Before the War, became the first volume of poetry from an Asian American writer to be published by a top New York publisher. In 1983, Inada helped to edit Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers. It was the first anthology of Asian American writing, and was co-edited by Wong, Chan, and Chin. The group — sometimes referred to as “The Gang of Four” — has been credited with pioneering the field of Asian American literature; they are known both for mentoring new Asian American poets and for reviving work by earlier writers like Toshio Mori and John Okada.

Inada has published a number of books of poetry and has been recognized as one of the most significant American voices to speak about the experience of the Japanese internment camps. He has won numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, was named Oregon State Poet of the Year in 1991, and won the American Book Award for Legends From Camp in 1994.

Synopsis of Legends From Camp by Lawson Fusao Inada

In this collection of poems, Inada uses jazz rhythms and references to describe Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) experiences. In many of the poems, Inada describes the experience of life in the Japanese internment camps of World War II; he uses the sense of dislocation in the camps to explore what it means to be at home in America. But throughout the volume, Inada offers a very personal, visceral exploration of his experiences. As he has said: “There’s a remoteness to history, and to simply know the facts is not always satisfactory. There’s more to life than that. So you might say I’ve taken matters into my own hands … taken the camp experience in my hands, stood in the sun, and held it up to the light.”

In Legends From Camp, Inada also pays poetic tribute to jazz, the great American musical form. Indeed, Inada has described himself as “blowing shakuhachi versaphone” (referencing a Japanese bamboo flute), while author Leslie Marmon Silko has described him as “a poet-musician in the tradition of Walt Whitman and James A. Wright.” Inada has also performed his poetry with musicians, explaining that jazz performance is his favorite form of publishing. The musical underpinnings of Inada’s poetry link him to jazz poets like Ishmael Reed, Jack Kerouac, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Inada also uses — in a poetic manner — the jazz trope of repetition, but with a difference. The repetitions in Inada’s poems reference jazz riffs, but they are also evocative of the multilayered identity associated with diasporic writers. As the author of the Heath Anthology biography of Inada explains: “[Inada’s poem] ‘On Being Asian American’ refers to an echo generated by the actualization of the racial subject. We can see a poetics of the echo in the repetition enacted in this poem as well as in the poems ‘Instructions’ and ‘Two Variations.’ This repetition is what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls ‘repetition with a difference’: a non-linear, non-teleological aesthetics of change.”

Audio Clip with Lawson Fusao Inada

All I wanted
Was a place to live,

How we had always known,

Women among huckleberries,
Tules that teach
Children of junipers, geese and sky.

All I wanted
Was to fight to live,
To be left alone.

All I wanted
Was a concession to dignity,
Our own reservation.

All I wanted
Was our own

All I wanted
Was to die.


Looking into the eyes
of my children,
the gifted young,

Who wished me in women’s clothes,
Who silently called me
white and compromiser,

I see the why

I am
The renegade
I am
The revolutionary
I will always be.

What land we had
We must have back again.
This is the stronghold,
The heart, the spirit,
The land, the heart.

This termination, this
Extermination, this
Compromise to survive.

The fenced-in barracks
Still stand
Beyond the ancient carvings
Of Prisoner Rock.

The signs are right.
The spirit. The land.
We must have back again.

Those of us still alive
Singing assimilation
With the flick of wrists,
Thrive on the sick
Blood of subjugation
Here on this very land
Where we died.

Captain Jack
Will be hanged
Tomorrow. “Instructions
To all persons
Of Japanese ancestry…

This is the stronghold,
The heart, the molten
Flow, solidified
Blood of ancestors.

The blood of us is the red tule rope.

What are you worth
In the eyes
Of your sons?
The blood of us
Is the red Tule rope.

Q & A with Lawson Fusao Inada

What did you learn from your experience in the camps?
It was nothing but mud and dust, no trees. So for all my years in camp, there weren’t any trees, and so it was so wonderful to return to a place that had trees. Maybe that was the big lesson that I learned in camp — just to appreciate things, because once things are taken away, you really, really appreciate things.

Can you describe the experience of preparing to go into the camp?
When you get a little bit below the issues and the dates and the statistics, you have to think, “Pets, what am I going to do with my pets?” Or, “What am I going to do about my friends?” And so you realize you have to get rid of your pets, and so pets, friends — it gets a little bit more valuable than the material things that we all have to lose. Material, those things are easy to replace. You’ve got two weeks to get ready, you can only take what you can carry. And then your priorities come into focus. My mother had this huge duffel bag, but the main thing she carried were the photo albums, the family history. Each family had a lot of photo albums. These cannot be replaced, and so, therefore, the heart of the family is really the main thing that was taken to camp. The heart of the family is contained — generations are contained in the photo albums.

What was the role of resistance in the Japanese American community during the internment period?
I’m not a historian, I’m an English teacher and a writer. The day after Pearl Harbor, the FBI and the government swooped in and took our community leaders, mostly people about my age now and older — people who were priests, ministers, Japanese language teachers, sometimes even people who were experts at flower arranging. And, in a sense, whether the government planned it or not, I think they took hostages. So it’s like this: If you take my grandpa and I don’t know where he is, I’m not going to go and resist. You come in and you take my grandma, my grandpa, I’m not going to go around with a sign, marching around city hall, because they’ve got somebody. Right now, we would say “no way.” But if you don’t know where your folks are, then I think you have to think about that.

What was it like for your family after the camps?
My grandpa, in Fresno, California, had started the first fish store in the whole area in 1912. So he had worked in the fields and got some money together and started a fish market. It was the only one in town. Everybody came, all nationalities. So when we were going to be taken away, he had some friends who said they’d help us out because they knew the old man. And so an Italian family — we were at war with Italy and Germany — but the Italian family told my grandpa, “We’ll take over your store and we’ll keep it running, and if we make any money, we’ll send it to you.” That shows you the ties. And a German family came and told him, “We’ll watch your house for you during the war; we’ll rent it out and make sure everything’s okay with it.” So the Italian and the German families took care of my grandpa’s stuff, and so we came back from the camps and my grandpa just hit the ground running.

My dad, however, lost everything. He was a dentist just starting out, and when we came back, he had nothing. So we lived in my grandparents’ house and my dad picked grapes and peaches, and it took about a year of just hard labor to save money so he could buy some equipment and start his dental practice again.

Did your family talk about the camps after the war?
Maybe we didn’t talk about it in public. I know, in my family, we’d always talk about it, because it was very common for my mom to use the phrase “before the war.” So we might just be eating lunch and she’d say, “You know, before the war, boy, he was such a funny guy,” or “Then, after the war…” or “In camp…” We might have been afraid that they’re going to get us again because there were always rumors popping up.

Information About Key References

Generational Identity
Japanese Americans have developed distinct terms for different generations. The general term Nikkei refers to all people of Japanese ancestry living in North and South America. Issei are the first-generation immigrants who arrived in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland between 1885 and 1924. Literature written during this era included haiku, tanka, and senryu, which appeared in Japanese-language publications in Hawaii and cities on the West Coast. Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans, began writing poems and stories about Japanese culture in English-language sections of Japanese American newspapers on the West Coast. Sansei, or the third-generation Japanese Americans, sought to expand Japanese American identity with activist writing, and the promotion and celebration of Issei and Nisei writing. Nina Floro, a professor at Skyline College in California, says that a generational approach to teaching Japanese American literature enables the reader to understand the contextual influences on the literature of each era of Japanese American history.

Community Poet
Asian American literary scholar Shawn Wong says that if there were such a position as Poet Laureate of Asian America, Inada would be unanimously elected to the post. Inada has been called a community poet because he writes of and for the community. He has been commissioned to write about and for community events, and he holds deep respect for his audience.

Japanese American Internment
Shortly after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, under President Roosevelt’s direction, rounded up some 112,000 Japanese Americans as potential enemies and put them into “camps” on the West Coast. Because the FBI had already arrested Japanese Americans specifically believed to be security risks, the entire internment is said to be an act of pandering to hysteria and racism. Interestingly, Inada notes that it was a more multicultural experience than is generally believed. Many family members who were not ethnically Japanese (due to interracial marriage and birth) were also rounded up and put in camps. This included many Mexican Americans and African Americans.

Fresno Internment Camp
This camp was actually an “assembly center,” a temporary camp used to house interned Japanese Americans before they were moved to the “relocation centers.” The Fresno camp was active for only six months, between May and October of 1942; at its peak, it housed 5,120 Japanese Americans in tar-paper barracks.

Jazz Poetry
Often associated with the “Beat Poetry” movement of the 1950s and ’60s, jazz poetics have actually been used throughout the world since the turn of the century. Jazz poetry often references great jazz musicians, and tends to use syncopated, unconventional rhythms. Great jazz poets include Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Ishmael Reed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to Legends From Camp by Lawson Fusao Inada

Lawson Inada’s poetry draws upon jazz music sensibilities. Teachers can utilize this musicality in response-based activities by asking students to listen to music as the poetry is read aloud, and to write down or say what they hear. Students can imagine what rhythms would be present if the words in the poetry were sounds made by musical instruments.

An inquiry approach to Inada’s poetry might focus on specific content. Students can explore similarities and differences between the U.S. government’s response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on the World Trade Center, comparing the treatment of members of the Arab American community to that of the Japanese American community.

A cultural studies exploration might involve an examination of Inada’s rendering of Executive Order 9066, which called for Japanese internment. They can analyze the transformation from the cold aesthetic of the original policy to the poetic form. They can think about the particular poetic devices Inada employed to render the text into a poem and to convey the seriousness of the order. Students can produce a literary rendering of another document of similar importance.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Inada, Lawson Fusao. Before the War: Poems as They Happened. NY: Morrow, 1971.
This group of jazz poems reflects on the experience of the World War II Japanese internment camps.

—-. Legends From Camp: Poems. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press; St. Paul, MN: Available through Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, 1992.
These personal, idiosyncratic poems reflect on internment camps, ethnic identity, and jazz.

—-. Drawing the Line: Poems. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.
This rich, varied collection was inspired by Japanese Americans who resisted internment at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming during WWII and were sent to federal prison.

—-. Introduction to No-No Boy, by John Okada. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.
Okada’s only novel, originally published in 1957, deals with a young Japanese American who refuses to serve in the United States Army during WWII and is imprisoned.

—-. “Of Place and Displacement: The Range of Japanese-American Literature.” In Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature, edited by Houston A. Baker Jr. and Walter J. Ong, 254-265. NY: Modern Language Association. of America, 1982.
A consideration of Asian American writing, Inada’s essay focuses on geography as a metaphor.

—-. Introduction to Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori, by Toshio Mori. Santa Clara: Santa Clara University; Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000.
This compilation includes stories and letters by the famous Japanese American writer from California.

—-. Introduction to Yokohama, California, by Toshio Mori. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.
Inada provided the lead-in to this edition of the influential writer’s short stories.

Inada, Lawson Fusao, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, and Alan Chong Lau. The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99: Poetry. Mountain View, CA: Buddhahead Press, 1978.
Called “an exuberant joint collection” by Kent Chadwick, these prose and lyric poems address the themes of identity and place.

Inada, Lawson Fusao (ed). Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books; San Francisco, Calif.: California Historical Society, 2000.
This anthology of writing, artwork, original documents, and propaganda evokes the experience of the World War II internment camps.

Inada, Lawson Fusao and Mary Worthington (eds). In This Great Land of Freedom: The Japanese Pioneers of Oregon. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1993.
Published in connection with an exhibition about Issei life in the American Northwest before World War II, this book includes poetry by Inada and a historical essay by scholar Eiichiro Azuma.

Works about the Author

Chan, Jeffrey P., et. al. “An Introduction to Chinese-American and Japanese-American Literature.” In Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature, edited by Houston A. Baker Jr. and Walter J. Ong, 197-228. NY: Modern Language Association of America, 1982.
The author considers Inada’s place in the developing field of Asian-American literature.

Chang, Juliana. “Time, Jazz, and the Racial Subject: Lawson Inada’s Jazz Poetics.” In Racing and (E)Racing Language: Living With the Color of Our Words, edited by Ellen J. Goldner and Safiya Henderson-Holmes, 134-54. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
This article explores Inada’s prosody and cultural influences.

Krysl, Marilyn. “Literature as the Music of Community: An Interview with Lawson Fusao Inada.” Bloomsbury Review, 17:4 (Jul-Aug 1997): 15-16.
Interview with Inada.

Markee, Michael & Wixon, Vincent
Lawson Fusao Inada: What it Means to be Free
In this video, Inada discusses his experiences growing up as the youngest child in an internment camp and reads several of his poems that spring from those experiences.

PBS Video and companion Web site
Conscience and the Constitution
Narrated by Lawson Fusao Inada, this program tells the controversial story of several young interned Japanese Americans during World War II who were willing to fight for their country, but not unless their rights as US citizens were restored and their families were released from camp.

Salisbury, Ralph. “Dialogue with Lawson Fusao Inada..” Northwest Review 20:2-3 (1982): 60-75. Interview with Inada.

Sato, Gayle K. “Lawson Inada’s Poetics of Relocation: Weathering, Nesting, Leaving the Bough.” Amerasia Journal, 26:3 (2000-2001): 139-60.
Sato’s piece considers the metaphors for immigration in Inada’s poetry.

Yogi, Stan. “Yearning for the Past: The Dynamics of Memory in Sansei Internment Poetry.” In Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh et al., 245-65. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.
This chapter includes a critical analysis of Legends From Camp.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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