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Letters to Memory (book)

Creators: Karen Tei Yamashita

Incarceration-centered history of one Japanese American family told through short vignettes inspired by letters, photographs, and other objects in the family archive, as written by acclaimed novelist Karen Tei Yamashita.


Letters begins with an explanation of the book's origins. Upon the death of Yamashita's Aunt Kay in 1995, the last of her father's six siblings, she began to collect letters, photographs and other material with the help of cousins and other family members. The book is an her attempt at a reading of some of the material in the family archive with a focus on the events of World War II and the family's incarceration at Tanforan and Topaz . Much of it focuses on the narrator's father, John Hiroshi Yamashita (1912–84), a Christian pastor.

It is divided into five thematic sections, each framed as a series of letters to different historic or mythical figures that contain vignettes of the family history:

• "Letters to Poverty" written to Homer, who seems to be both a contemporary history professor and the possibly mythic ancient Greek author of the Iliad and the Odyssey ; vignettes focus on Aunt Kay and her odd voyage to Washington, D.C. in the early months of the war and of Nobu, a Nisei friend of her father who was killed while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team

• "Letters to Modernity" written to Ishi, supposedly the last of the Yahi people, whose name translates to just "man" in the Yana language and also "stone" in Japanese; vignettes continue to focus on Kay and her dispute with the family about her wartime activities and on her father's imagined life in Evanston, Illinois after leaving camp

• "Letters to Love" written to Vyasa, a scholar of Asians in the Americas and Hindu author of the Mahabharata; vignettes focus on John's loves including Asako, whom he marries, on fellow traveler Mary MacMillan who wanted to marry John and whom the narrator suggests might have been a better match, and on wartime benefactors Alma Gloeckler and Lee Mullis

• "Letters to Death" written to Ananda, one of ten principal disciples of Buddha known for his memory; his name translates to "bliss" in various Indian language. Traditionally male, here she is female. Vignettes focus on John's postwar life in Los Angeles and his decline after a 1965 stroke, his friendship with African American theologian Howard Thurman, and Tomi's (John's mother) turn to art in camp and after the war

• "Letters to Laugher" written to Qohelet, pseudonymous author of Ecclesiastes, one of 24 books of the Hebrew Bible focused on the meaning of life and living a good life. Vignettes focus on the vagaries of what the family took to camp; actor Jack Soo , an old family friend; and John's sermons in camp

The book ends with the narrator's mother's death in 2015 at age 98 and a letter to the book's editor, along with the Yamashita family tree. Reproductions of family photographs, letters, and other material from the family archive appear throughout the book.

Background and Response

Karen Tei Yamashita (1951– ) is a Sansei novelist and playwright who grew up in Los Angeles and studied in Japan and Brazil, the latter for nine years. In addition to a number of plays and performance pieces, she has authored four novels: Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), Brazil Maru (1992), Tropic of Orange (1997), and I Hotel (2010). She teaches creative writing and Asian American literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. [1]

As noted above, Letters to Memory came about out the family archive Yamashita and her cousins assembled. She told the LARB Radio Hour that she was driven "to pull out materials that pointed to context or connections to civil rights." Because the archive was made up largely of letters, she knew the book had to be epistolary, "so I created these semi-fictional muses or epistolary partners with whom to have a conversation." In choosing these figures, she though about what "my father might be interested in knowing... and who he would be interested in being in conversation with." [2]

Reviews were generally positive, though some reviewers were puzzled by the unusual format of the book, calling it "quirky," "challenging," "puzzling," and "intriguing."

Full versions of all the material from the archive included in the book can be viewed online at .

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho


  1. Jelena Krstovic, "An Introduction to Karen Tei Yamashita (1951– ), Contemporary Literary Criticism , edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 382, Gale, 2015, Contemporary Literary Criticism Online , accessed on Nov. 29, 2017 Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, at; Te-hsing Shan, "Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita," Amerasia Journal 32.3 (2006): 123–42. Tropic of Orange , set in a post apocalyptic Los Angeles, includes a character named Manzanar Murakami who was born in Manzanar.
  2. LA Review of Books, LARB Radio Hour , Oct. 15, 2017, hosted by Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher, accessed on Nov, 29, 2017 at !,
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Letters to Memory

This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .

Media Details
Author Karen Tei Yamashita
Pages 188
Publication Date 2017


Frase, Brigitte. Star Tribune , Sept. 1, 2017. ["It’s an intriguing experiment in memoir."]

Hong, Terry. " 'Letters to Memory' Tells the Story of Author Karen Tei Yamashita's World War II Internment. " Christian Science Monitor , Sept. 13, 2017. ["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."]

Kirkus Reviews , Sept. 12, 2017. ["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."]

Publishers Weekly , July 24, 2017. ["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."]