Yamashita clearly has an agenda: she aligns each letter-topic with a specific muse, to whom she reveals a corresponding part of her family’s story, then moves beyond personal details to illuminate a broader, contemporary context such as, say, today’s civil rights ... Allusive, quirky, questioning, Letters is a challenging text; for all its brevity, the less-than-200 pages are dense with assumptions of cultural literacy, community insight, historical background. And yes, don’t be deterred: for 'gentle, critical, or however' readers ready for intellectual stimulation, Letters awaits your inquisitive participation and rewarding collaboration.
...what results is not a coherent narrative but a deliberate jumble of genres and styles ... We learn some sweet and sad details, the odd facts of recovered history, stranger than fiction ... But always in the foreground is the meta nature of Yamashita’s enterprise; we are not to experience a story but are prodded to pay attention to the ways of approaching, circling it ... She addresses her sections to iconic storytellers such as Homer and the authors of The Bhagavad Gita, questioning them about the uses of history, especially histories of war and other violence, and the nature of a historian’s or storyteller’s accountability. How did they, and how can she, 'care for memory'? This tactic ultimately feels overly self-conscious, didactic and puzzling: Why compare her deliberately inconclusive enterprise with their very formal, high-styled fictions? Her truth-telling project is different from theirs, humbled by fluid and unfixable lived experience.
In an elegant and searching form, Yamashita addresses letters of explanation and inquiry to Homer, to Ishi, to Vyasa, to Qohelet, 'a preacher’s kid,' raising questions of sin and forgiveness, loyalty, death and laughter, aiming a light on a dark period of American history. It’s a challenging, varied work, in moments deeply personal and impressionistic and in moments pulling back into a voice of epic omniscience.
The narrative is part research, part history, part literary criticism, part spiritual meditation, and part open wound ... This is certainly interpretive history that illuminates the tensions within the Japanese community in America over the war with Japan and the ironies of a country outraged by German concentration camps subjecting the Japanese in America to similar treatment. Shaped and voiced with literary flair, this is clearly a book Yamashita felt compelled to write, and her sense of purpose makes this historical excavation feel deeply personal.
The immediacy and poignancy of the struggles of Yamashita’s family members are deflated by interposed epistolary conversations with five mythic authors and pseudonymous scholars, who never take shape with the richness, complexity, urgency, or character of Yamashita’s family and friends. Yamashita’s hopscotch approach makes the deeper claim that there is no explanation and no possible reparation for events like slavery, internment, or the bombing of Hiroshima—only the disorienting reality they produce and the legacy of pain, distrust, and shame they leave behind.