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.