The man with the giant head is Leone Sinigaglia, a Jewish Italian who, at 75, died as the Nazis arrested him for deportation to a slave labor camp. His picture does seem grim, but almost too solemn for the occasion of the portrait. I'm not even sure I identify with his music but when I listened, it evoked something in me...something indescribable and entirely vague. Who can tell what he was thinking at this moment? I think, however, that his dome only because of the length of his face, itself being more narrow and elongated than the average human. I can't even say he's tangential to our discussion as, other interest of full disclosure, I had to look him up on Wikipedia, the source of most of my current knowledge on my Italian and Jewish heritage.
As for Missoula, perhaps it was just serendipitous, an occasion for two histories to cross in a most unlikely way. I'd like to think that it was preordained, that yours and your grandfather's lives needed to meet there. Is it possible that this intersection hastened you more fervently to Japan? Was there ever fervor? I realize that your preference for lack of reason to open opportunity is exactly what I'm attempting to reason out.
I'm curious about the other story you mention about Ridgefield; however, regarding the one you told, it is amazing how kids behave. Clearly, the child who belittled you knew nothing of which he was speaking, yet something within his own self urged him to act so malevolently. As children, we're so impressionable, which, of course, is nothing new. Now, a father myself, I keep a minute-to-minute monitor on the language I use because I don't want her to ostracize people unlike her, whether they're Japaguese or Portapanese, or even chasing a penny down on the school's gym floor. I may have mentioned that in the past, when I was ridiculed in middle school for acting like a Jew, when I swiped a penny up from the ground. I feel somewhat indifferent to that now, similarly to your feelings about your bus incident. But, I never forgot that either.
As for self-hatred and its transference into love of a history I don't fully know, we so often love what we hate and vice versa. I can't say I love being either Italian or Jewish...I don't fully identify with either and always identify with one or the other when it's convenient. I became intrigued when my grandmother told me of relatives we lost to the Holocaust in Romania, especially because, at the time, I felt that it validated my Jewishness. There was nothing else to prove. But, of course, it validated nothing more than that one day my great-grandmother stopped receiving letters from her half-brother's wife, most likely because she was forced onto a death train.
I can't say I inherited a mission to write but it -and the approaching birth of my first daughter- inspired me. How was I going to explain our heritage to my children knowing full well that I didn't (and still don't) understand it myself. It's not something I agonize over but it is something that I need them to know. My two daughters are only a quarter Jewish, a quarter Italian, and then it's anybody's guess after that. Just throw a dart at a map of Europe and it'll likely land on one of their nationalities. Sometimes, I think I identify more with being Jewish than anything else because of our dwindling numbers, now only thirteen million, and it saddens me that my daughters would have been considered non-Jews, according to the Nuremberg Laws. The Jew would have been sufficiently bred out. Should I be heartened to know that they're more Italian than any other nationality in their blood?
This brings me to the one question I have for you, Brandon. In THE GIRL WITHOUT ARMS, you write about how you want children, when formerly you did not. In wanting children, do you wonder how you will explain to them the histories that comprise their beings? Will you explain it to them?
I apologize if I've not answered all of your questions...there's simply too much to try to answer. And, I haven't proofread this, so forgive any inconsistencies.
Your friend, always,
There's a photograph further up in this conversation of a man with an enormous (hydrocephalic?) head. Who is he? Did you mention him already? His head is terrifying. I cannot help but think that his enormous head is concealing something truly monstrous, something struggling to break free from the confines of the man's enormous skull, a secret (or maybe a sick joke) that if released would become an unstoppable contagion, you know what I mean? And the look in his eyes: the look of pure, calculating death. I hope you don't take offense to this -- I mean, if this man is one of your ancestors. If so, and in exchange, I've posted a photo of my grandfather (above). This was taken at Fort Missoula's Department of Justice camp, in 1943. He's getting fitted for a wig in preparation for a performance. To answer Liz's question as to whether or not it was coincidental that I chose Missoula as a home for four years, knowing that my grandfather had been incarcerated there: I don't know. Yes and No. I've been asked this question a lot, and especially since I've written so much about his imprisonment, and I'm still not sure, though I suppose I cannot deny at least the subconscious understanding that I had to be there, to live in that environment, in order to know, if only fractionally more, my grandfather and his experience, and especially if I had any illusions of writing about him. I think I only realized why I was there after the fact, though I'm still trying to understand why I've lived anywhere. For example, I just moved to Tucson, Arizona three weeks ago, and I have no concrete reason why. Which I prefer, actually. The gap in pure reason allows for much greater possibility.
Two quick things, because I can't even begin a gloss on my time in Japan. Ostracism: I was never ostracized, but I was called out once for, as I say, not being white, I guess: on the school bus, first day of first grade, Scotland Elementary School, one of the older kids started making fun of me for being "Portuguese." He pulled at the corners of his eyes with his fingers, you know, in that typically offensive manner of depicting Asian eyes, and in a high-pitched voice, yelled at me, "Portuguese, Portuguese!" Of course, he had no idea what he was talking about, but I was offended, and since "Portuguese" sounded close enough to "Japanese" (the "-ese"), I felt like he KNEW something about me that I didn't yet know. I blushed, and was quiet. I haven't forgotten that. That was the extent of being picked on for NOT being white, though not necessarily for being something else, since the dude misfired. I have another Ridgefield, CT story related to this, but I'll save that shit for later ...
Anyway, brother, there is so much to respond to, and especially in the field of SELF-HATE, and in the proposition of it being an inherited trait passed down through the ages of a particular ethnicity or community. Perhaps we should spin off another page on this blog devoted exclusively to the topic: a private confessional. I could find so much there by which to be confused and angered and INSPIRED. Of course, what is most interesting to me, right now, anyway, and in the context of this conversation, is how that, and your, self-hatred, has engendered the urgent attempt to "uncover and archive as much family history as possible" before your ancestors have all finally broken with this earth, this incarnation. What I find most interesting is the idea that HATRED, self- or otherwise, could be transmuted into LOVE, and in the form of rescuing the casualties of that self-hatred and preserving them in a way that not only might put them beyond the reach of malevolence, but also return them to life and to liberty!
This might be rewinding things to the very beginning, but good: Why do you think or feel that it is important to "uncover and archive as much family history as possible"? I mean, you personally. At what point did you realize that this was important? What do you fear in not being able to achieve what you're envisioning -- that is, as family members continue to pass away, and the individual histories go lost to the ages? And how is this related to the investigation into your identity, as taking place, partially, on this blog? Wherefore the fire inside you? And lastly, how does this all relate to writing? Do you ever feel like you've "inherited" a particular mission?
By the way, I realize these responses are LONG, but they can only be long, right? Until we blow up our fucking computers and move down the street from one another. The problem, of course, is that so much falls through the cracks in our responses -- so many questions left unanswered, so many profound statements and stories left unaddressed. But such is the flow. Missing you deeply,
Welcome home from your travels, of which I'll ask momentarily.
In answer to your first query: self-hate. It is the reason for the nascent denial and subsequent attempts at "exorcism" of my Jewish heritage and yet the most trite characteristic description of Jews. The two may as well be synonymous. And, while I was terribly insecure as a teen, what teen isn't? Surely, this is not an adequate reason for such disgust. I'd hypothesize that after millennia of external, targeted hatred bent on Jews for so many centuries, what else could this who are Jewish feel toward themselves? If you hate a child long enough, if you belittle and bully a juvenile from the moment of his or her existence, won't that child believe it? Won't that child hate himself, too? Maybe that's too easy. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that there's truth to the self-hatred that courses through American Jews. Perhaps it's reaching. Perhaps, it simply exists because so many influential Jews say it exists. Philip Roth, of course, the extreme example, harps on it, feeds on it, brands it into his work. As much as I love and embrace his novels, as much as I write under his pervasive influence, if Philip Roth were your cultural leader, wouldn't you hate yourself, too.
I don't recall the "moment" when I realized this, although there were certainly defining events: one of our mutual friends attempted to convert me to Catholicism, insisting that I pray each night in order to avoid Hell; I was ridiculed for picking a penny up from the gym floor, the money-hoarding Jew image clearly portrayed by this act; and, of course, my fervent participation on those Christian weekend retreats in order to get laid. Whether these events were formative or coincidental, I could argue for both. Undoubtedly, though, the self-hatred persisted sufficiently enough to place me, now, in the position of scrambling to uncover and archive as much family history as possible before the last of my elders leaves this existence. Within this, there is a defining moment that has summoned back to my Jewish lineage: the discovery that Romanian relatives were, in fact, victims of the Holocaust. There is shame, of course, that it took such a realization to endear me to Judaism but I suppose it's never too late.
As for your second batch of questions, my parents and I never discussed our ethnicity because I was never interested until much later in life. Where this trip to Japan may be a defining moment for your self-understanding, my visit to the National Holocaust Museum and every viewing of Goodfellas are defining moments for me. There were never real discussions about these things with my parents because we wanted to blend into the Ridgefield pastoral; the was no room for yarmulkes or unibrows. My brother's bar mitzvah may as well have been a confirmation ceremony as given the Gentile:Jew ratio of 3:1. It's not that we actively discouraged discussion of the topic. It's more that we became complacent about being Italian or Jewish. This complacency, in my case, offered no resistance to my rampage of assimilation, albeit a transmogrification into the fringe.
My questions to you: what was it the majority saw in you when you write that you were ostracized for being "something?" Was it that you were Japanese or simply edgy and apart from the norm? More importantly, what of your travels to Japan? I wonder if they have influenced your self-understanding or if it is just my hope that this is the case or even, perhaps, that I hope you want this to be true.
And, a question from my wife: was it coincidental that you chose Missoula, the city of your grandfather's incarceration, as your home for the better part of the last decade?
At the risk of breaking the narrative, let me apologize for the lapse in response. We're now in Kaohsiung City, in southern Taiwan, and much movement has transpired since you last wrote. And yet, I've been carrying this conversation with me, as it feels as important to absorb it as it does to unfold it, or let it unfold. We are flying to Japan in fifteen days, so an immediate relevance here, in thinking through some of these things.
Before confronting your battery of questions, one persists for me, and maybe unanswerable -- and that is: What is (or was) the source of your "self-directed anti-Semitism"? Where did this come from, and when did it arrive? Do you recall a point, or moment, in your youth, when you suddenly felt this specific animus, at least ambivalence, towards being Jewish? Did it originate purely within a certain regard, or lack thereof, you held for yourself? Or did it arise from some external source? Was there some kind of personal or familial crisis out of which these feelings arose? No doubt this is a supremely difficult question to answer, and one likely at the root of this entire inquiry. Maybe we could take for granted the grace of objective distance to the subject. But, I'm curious -- and especially because you reference it as a fact, having "wanted nothing to do with being Jewish," defying it with your fleeting turn to Jesus, etc., without establishing the conditions that made it so. A lot of hard-hitting questions up front, I know, and maybe better addressed in the midst of some other thought, or walking in the woods. But here we are ...
I'm perpetually struggling through my own take on things, and part of that struggle is in understanding -- to address one of your parting questions -- whether or not I embrace/embraced both my Japanese and "English Isle" selves equally. The answer is no, though perhaps I would also qualify the word "embrace," since I do embrace all of my facets equally, however I might be more interested in investigating the nature of one facet over the others. My mother did not imbue my sister or me with a foundational curiosity in the ethnic heritage/history of her side of the family. She rarely referenced her Caucasian (Scottish, Irish, English, Welsh, etc.) roots, and in fact, was much more invested in the culture and history of far-eastern Asia than she was in her own culture and history. She has traveled throughout Japan, China and Korea, speaks a little of the language of each country, and for a time, was friends primarily with Asians and Asian-Americans. She studied East Asian religion and Japanese art history in college. Though she didn't reject her own ethnic heritage, she certainly did not embody an active interest in it. This has changed a little bit in the intervening decades, but so it was true as we were growing up. What complicated this further was the fact that my father -- himself Japanese-American, the second son of two Japanese parents -- was NOT particularly invested in his own cultural heritage, at least as far as I could perceive. The origins of his more "passive" relationship to Japanese culture and history, for example, can be traced back to his own parents' experience as "enemy aliens" during World War II; they emerged from that experience determined towards a more inconspicuous citizenship. So while my father is Japanese, my sister and I inherited our Japanese culture primarily from our mother, who is Caucasian, and if we didn't exactly inherit our Caucasian culture from our father, we at least inherited a complicated relationship to cultural heritage, in general. So, some things to sort out. In the past decade or so, my father has thrown himself fully into a different relationship with Asia -- he runs a non-profit organization based out of Laos, and travels frequently to southeast Asia and China.
So ... my interests began locally, and were also related to immediate conflict. Let me put it this way, for a second: I was never picked on for being white. I was however picked on for being ... something. These encounters have been infrequent, since I believe I am more nebulous than not, but ... I'll write about this later. Anyway, I have always been acutely fascinated by the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans, and have also always been acutely fascinated by the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. My grandfather was born in Hiroshima, and he was imprisoned in a federal detention center in Missoula, Montana, in 1942. So my interest begins there, with the locality of my grandfather, and the locatable experiences of his life. I know very little about my mother's parents -- again, partly because of something that wasn't fully transferred between her and me, and partly because that history is more diffuse. Maybe it only feels that way. After all, my father's parents are both 100% Japanese. Any investigation I might initiate has at least a superficially concentrated source. My mother's parents, however, are each a different combination of Caucasian ethnicities; in addition to those of the British Isle, there is also a low percentage of each of German and Italian on my grandmother's side. Any investigation I might initiate through that side of my family must already begin in numerous landscapes at once. Of course, it is monumentally worthy, and I will get there. I'm being slightly reductive in everything I'm saying -- there is boundless complexity on all sides, and especially in my parents' respective relationships with their own backgrounds. But ... there must be something else at the root of this, as well, above and beyond what I just said.
While the delineations are fresh on the mind, I'm curious now about your parents, and about each of their relationships to their ethnic heritages. What was imparted to you and your brother, what was withheld -- what seemed absent from the conversation, and what maybe still is absent? Were they vocal about their own feelings and questions about their ethnic backgrounds? Wasn't your father excommunicated from the Catholic Church for marrying your mother? I vaguely remember this, though more as a headline than a multidimensional story. Have their relationships to their own backgrounds changed as they've gotten older? Do you talk with them about any of these things -- what we're talking about now?
Much then as it is now, my "private" and "public" lives were entirely at odds with each other. They chose not, or rather I refused, to let them coexist. And, it was very much a result of my own self-directed anti-Semitism. I had no knowledge of being Jewish or Italian, wanted nothing to do with being Jewish, and further denied it's existence in my DNA, if I may suggest that there is a genetic code for such. My fleeting relationship with Jesus was in fact a denial and largely a defiance. Simultaneously, it validated my Italian heritage and allowed me to create a life of half-truth.
Perhaps it might have been different had I had a similar experience to your trip to Japan. Regardless, I was quite willing to accept the Italian and shun the Jew. Had I the knowledge of my perished ancestors during the Holocaust in Romania, I wonder if that would have affirmed to me that I was a "certified" Jew. Would I have embraced it? I don't know. I had the melodramatic and adolescent notion that history with the Holocaust would have authenticated my Semitic roots. But, even my "private" self was conflicted as I wanted the authenticity but refused it with inaction: I chose not to be bar mitzvahed because, as I write in Mischling, I didn’t want to learn that “froggish language.”
I struggle to understand the need for this authentication and all I conclude is the invisibility of my heritage; I didn't and don't appear Jewish. Perhaps I look a little Italian but do not exhibit any of the stereotypical Jewish traits. Being "American" or an Italian American or a Jewish American was simply not enough to satisfy or interest or engender investment in familial history.
When finally I resolved that I could not understand it, I isolated it, disguised it, neglected and forgot it. So, when you ask, "What did you know, and not yet know?" I answer, "Nothing, and everything." I often speak in hyperbole but any knowledge of my separate selves, anything other than superficial facts, was limited to what I learned in movies and books.
And so, Brandon, I ask you is whether you isolated one of your "selves," consciously or unconsciously? Did your selves isolate you? If you didn't segregate either side, then why not? Did you embrace both Japanese and English Isle equally? Certainly, as I've written elsewhere, I've rarely acknowledged all of my selves equitably. In asking, I feel as if I've loaded the question. You seem to have had a much different experience in relation to your ethnicity.
There are so many ways to think about this, and so many of them will prove ineffectual against the wall of what is true: Who knows? There is no way of going back to truly know, and yet in every sense, the past has become the present.
I think of a couple of things right away. One: that as teenagers we took a great deal for granted. This is beyond dispute. And this includes, among an enormous swell of other ideas, places, possibilities, et cetera, each other, as friends, as individuals in the world. However unfortunate this was then, I don't see it as necessarily a bad thing, since we come into our curiosities and appreciations organically, when we do. But even more so, part of this "taking for granted," when not due to a lack of awareness, attention or respect, helped us be present, in a way, with each other, without feeling the need to form totalizing pictures of each other. We enjoyed hanging out, and that seemed to be justification enough for who we were, why we were friends, etc. Deeper inquiries into our identities would come later, once they were made vulnerable and explicit by the world beyond childhood ...
Of course, it feels like a cop-out to articulate it this way, because we did talk a lot back then -- we spent a lot of time talking, discussing things, figuring things out, as friends, as friends within a group of friends. The specific question is why didn't we talk about our ethnicity, our backgrounds? And I might ask in return: Didn't we? I don't remember talking about this in a focused way (i.e. in the way that we are starting to now), but I also don't remember NOT talking about it at all. Certainly these things were on our minds. But, this brings me to my second thought ...
And that is that our identities are always divided, and in a primary sense between our "public" and "private" selves. I know that my "private" self of the 1990s spent a great deal of time thinking about my ethnic heritage, and in relation to the cultural and social context of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Admittedly, this thinking revolved around being half-Japanese, more so than being of Scottish and Irish ancestry, since there were so few people of Asian descent then living in Ridgefield. My family visited Japan for the first time when I was 10 years old, and that trip had an enormous impact on me, primarily in the form of opening up a wealth of questions about my relationship to being Japanese, and especially a new understanding of not being Japanese, but being Japanese-American, and the differences there. My awareness of Japanese-American internment during the second World War began intensifying around this time as well, with my grandparents at the center of my concern. But all of these engagements -- questions, considerations, researches, etc. -- were more or less "privately" held. What I shared "publicly" was different. That is to say, what I withheld, or (maybe) sublimated, or hadn't yet been able to articulate to my "private" self, or just didn't feel confident enough to express, was vast. And so, despite reveling in the fact that my friends were so good at helping to talk/work through the problems and questions of life, some things were left out of those conversations. Of course, there is nothing extraordinary about the divided self, in this explanation -- its how we live our lives! And often needfully so ... And yet, its not so simple. There were certainly obstructions to talking about these things, you and me, and whatever those obstructions might have been, owe some debt to the "cultural and social context of Ridgefield, Connecticut." It was an age, we were young, we were just then coming into the world, but we did so in a very particular place.
So I'm curious then about your "private" life back then, in the early-to-mid 1990s. Are you able to differentiate your "private" life from your "public"? Are you able to make sense of what you withheld from one or the other, from one or the other? You were writing poems and short stories, reading novels by Andre Schwarz-Bart (The Last of the Just) and Philip Roth (right? or was he later?). Hell, you were even investigating your relationship to Jesus H. Christ -- which didn't seem so much an investigation as a reaction, in fact. But a reaction to what? Do or did you feel like your "private" and "public" lives/selves were at odds with one another? What was your relationship to your ethnic heritage at the time? What did you know, or not yet know? That's a huge question, I realize, but maybe to begin placing us individually -- beginning to understand who we were "privately" -- in order to better understand who we were "publicly," and therefore why we did or did not ever talk about things that were obviously so important to both of us ...
Why, my good friend, do you suppose that after nearly twenty years of friendship, only now are we discussing each other's ethnicity? That only now are we beginning to ask about questions of heritage, if one might call it that? Was I do afraid to ask? Too concerned of offense? Too disinterested? Too complacent? Perhaps, there's no need for dialogue or even thought or attention to the topic. Perhaps, such over-thinking is uncomfortable, even melodramatic. Perhaps, I am over-thinking that we were ever uncomfortable about it.
A little exposition for the casual reader: Brandon is a Japanese and Scottish-English-Irish American, I am an Italian Jew. We've been friends since 1992: freshman year of high school in a quaint New England town known for many events in history, not for its diversity. In that time, we've recently determined that we've never discussed our ethnicity. Not once.
Shouldn't we have, if only once? I'd like to think that our friendship transcended such a necessity. I'd like to think that we never knew about such differences between us, that I never noticed the Asian features of your eyes, that you never heard me mention Yom Kippur. This, however, is hubris.
Why didn't we ever talk about this? Was it repulsion or disinterest? Even now, why am I writing with you on this in a forum where I may censor my language, revise my thoughts, and calculate my intentions without fear of the misinterpretation of dialogue?