First and Final Thoughts: Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

It’s Wednesday, and Demi Lovato’s song “Cool for the Summer” could possibly about experimenting with chicks. What does that have to do with this post? Absolutely nothing, but I just listened to the song and now it’s stuck in my head. I don’t know if I should say “you’re welcome” or apologize. You’re apologies. There. That works, right? (Humor me.)

As you know, we kicked off Idaho this week, which means a new book. This novel is fairly short, you can probably read it in a day (like I did).  Anyway, since it’s so short, I figured one post would do the trick. =)

Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

The next note lay waiting 

under Mrs. Gilbert’s finger; our mouths kept 

the O shape, when a man yelled, the Japs bombed 

Pearl Harbor. The world stopped. 

The next words got lost. Oh, oh, oh, 

someone wailed, until I realized that it was 

coming out of my mouth, 

my body shaking, trembling. 

And the world started again 

but we were no longer singing as one.

taken from Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

Published in 2014 the book is a fictional account that follows a Japanese American family who get moved into an internment camp in Idaho after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The peculiar thing about the novel, and what made me want to read it, is that it’s told in verse. Rather than use prose like most novels, the author crafted a series of poems that tell the story of this family’s journey from Seattle to Idaho and the years they spend there. Although the finished product is far from perfect, the text is still immensely powerful.

As you read, you can almost see the child peeking out through the words of the adult. The child who lived through it, felt all the things the adult now writes about. You can feel her innocence slowly being taken away by the events that change her life. It always fascinates me to learn about the different lives people live or have lived. I know I’d heard about internment camps in the US for Japanese Americans, but it was a distant enough memory to feel like it was the first I’d heard about it. The books focuses a lot on this dichotomy of being Japanese, but also being American. Nagai’s characters have to reconcile their Japanese heritage with their American reality and none of them come out unscathed.  It’s interesting to see not only their journey, from cozy home to barren internment camp, but also their internal journey of coming to terms with who they are.

 For me, the first few poems felt inspired, but, while her poetry is good, the rest were a mix of mind blowing and alright. When I found out it was a novel written in verse, I wondered how it would work. I thought it would feel forced, like trying to be something it’s not. Those initial poems made me want to burst with feeling. It was like going through someone’s memories and feeling their pain as your own. Unfortunately, that feeling wasn’t consistent. There were poems that seemed like the only reason they were poetry was to continue the format. The other thing that bothered me was feeling like she cannibalized her own metaphors – fishing them out from other poems to be reused later on. After a while, metaphors that felt ingenious came to feel clichéd. I was really rooting for all her poems to be as magical as the first and it was a bit disappointing to find they weren’t.

Even through the disappointment though, there were lines and entire poems that made it all worth it. That dimmed the disappointment until it was just a background thought. There were a couple of times when I almost cried and a few I definitely did. It’s a powerful text, because it’s based on a powerful moment in American History, one that is often forgotten. I read it and I keep wondering if I would’ve had half the courage and the strength that these characters, like so many others before them who lived through great injustices, mustered to survive. I’m not sure that I would’ve, to be honest, which makes these stories so much more valuable.

Strength and courage come in many forms, to all you survivors, fighters, non-quitters, keep on keeping on. And as always, stay golden. Until next time readers.

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