I first met Brian Komei Dempster in Winter 2000 as a student
in his Kearny Street Workshop writing class, held in his grandfather’s Buddhist
church in San Francisco’s
Japantown, and was immediately impressed by his warmth and patience. Brian has
edited two books of personal stories by Japanese Americans who were incarcerated
in WW II camps -- From Our Side of the
Fence and Making Home from War. His debut poetry book Topaz, which won the 15 Bytes 2014 Book Award in Poetry, was
published in 2013 by Four Way Books.
What I admire most about Topaz
is its skillful interweaving of the historical and the personal, which reflects
the way that inherited family legacies are both a burden and a gift for one to
sort through and integrate. Brian’s story -- and the speaker's quest in the
book -- is further complicated by his mixed race heritage and upbringing by a
Japanese American mother and white father. As a Chinese American, I’ve experienced
cultural bifurcation but, through Brian’s work, have discovered a new world of
racial dualism. His fearless
investigation of its nuances and conflicts is inspiring. He can write of a
grandmother’s grief and then seamlessly present the sexual angst of adolescent
males: his ordering and juxtaposition of poems reflects the multi-layered
resonances of the speaker’s life.
Brian’s poetry is carefully crafted, with formal
experimentation, yet remains accessible to a broad audience. It is personally
expressive, though grounded within the context of family and community. His
poems chart new territory and speak hard truths. Most importantly, for me as a
writer, they feel authentic.
Brian's poems have appeared in New
England Review, North American Review,
Ploughshares, and numerous other journals as well as various anthologies,
including Language for a New Century and Asian
American Poetry: the Next Generation. He is a professor of rhetoric and
language and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San
Francisco, where he also serves as Director
of Administration for the Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies.
Jeffrey Thomas Leong: Can you tell us about your name -- Brian
Komei Dempster -- and where it comes from?
Brian Komei Dempster: My father’s name is Dempster, which
has European roots, and my mother’s maiden name is Ishida, which is Japanese. The
name Komei was given to me by my grandfather, Archbishop Nitten Ishida. I
didn’t always use Komei, but as I got older and became a writer, I felt I had
to use Komei; otherwise someone might not know who I was, not get the half
Asian part of my identity. According to my grandfather, the name means “tall,
high, clear --like a mountain. ” The fact that my grandfather -- who's a priest
-- gave me the name imbues it with gravitas.
JTL: Did you begin using Komei after you started writing or
before you started writing?
BKD: Probably the overall shift for me was in my early
twenties when I discovered Asian American Studies. As a professor, I prefer to
be identified as mixed race. And, as I worked with Japanese Americans who were
in the camps, having the name was also very important.
JTL: Do you remember when you first became aware of the
Japanese American internment camp experience? Was it something that your family
on your mother’s side shared with you when you were younger? Or was it a shock at some point?
BKD: I was an undergrad at the University of Washington
taking an introduction to Asian American Studies course, maybe my first one. We
were reading Prejudice, War and the
Constitution. Peter Bacho, the
professor, opened up the lecture one day speaking about the wholesale
incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. And it
was shocking. I honestly cannot recall having heard about it before that moment;
I think I was 20, 21 years old. Why didn’t
my family mention this? I asked myself. So I went home, and I asked my mom
that day, “Were you incarcerated, and do you remember this? ” She said, “Well,
I remember little, I was just a kid.” She was maybe six months old at the time
of Pearl Harbor.
Given that she remembered so little, she added, “Why would I
bring it up to you?” There’s a deeper thing in Japanese American culture that
complicates this telling. I learned that you had to be very careful about how
you navigate the silences, because there’s a reason for them. Looking back, I
might have made some of my uncles and aunts feel uncomfortable. There was this
sense of “Don’t push too hard.” I felt I should take what they were willing to
tell, and if I sensed discomfort, to respect their silence.
JTL: Let’s talk about the poems in Topaz. There’s a juxtaposition of cultural and racial heritages from
your mixed race background. How do you see yourself as a mixed race writer?
BKD: In talking about mixed race issues in this book, issues
of Japanese American identity are addressed in a more organic way, connected to
what happened during camp. As a mixed race person, if I’m talking about the
Japanese part, there’s no way I cannot talk about being white as well. Part of
being mixed race is that there’s these two sides, and at times people only see
one. My poems show how the mixed race issue
gets reduced or simplified by others. The poems are trying to complicate that,
make it more true to actual experience.
For example, in “Origin,” the question, Where are you from? is a reductive one that many Asian Pacific Americans
are asked. I was asked that question even as a mixed race person. What the poem
attempts to do is to question the question, to weave in different parts of an
identity that will, in a sense, counter the reductiveness: Buddhism, sexuality, issues of gender,
Hiroshima bombing, get woven into, Where
are you from? It’s a battle between simplicity and complexity.
JTL: Let’s look at “Temple Bell Lesson.” I’ve heard you read
this poem before. It feels traditional
in form, almost haiku-like with its suddenness of perception and economy of
BKD: This poem went through many, many revisions and at one
point was much longer. There’s this
temple bell in our family church, and I was trying to express what it meant
historically, in terms of the camps, and then, to my son in the future. It’s
using some principles of haiku, focusing on that single image, exploring it,
and a quick entrance and exit out of the poem.
I’m trying to embody the past, present and future, through the simple
image of the bell. You take for granted that it’s there, but it really does
have so much symbolic power.
JTL: In a couple of poems you choose a strategy of layering.
I think your poem “Transaction,” is definitely one of them. The poem starts
with the image of the mother, and then in the third and fourth lines, the
personage of Vincent Chin enters, then the speaker is inside a strip club in
Seattle. So there’s three locations presented here.
BKD: When I wrote this poem, there was no intentional
strategy in mind of juxtaposition. Things
connected in my mind intuitively. At the time, I was researching what had
happened to Japanese Americans, Vincent Chin had stuck with me, the hate crime
and the devastating thing that happened to him. And the strip club. I realized a
linear narrative was not going to work, and I had to keep going back and
forth. It was really a natural way for
me to write, juxtaposing connected but disparate events, seemingly dissimilar
things. For me, it was almost a way of
thinking, and it became a way of writing.
JTL: I’ve thought that readers might like the wartime
incarceration and prison camp poems in Topaz
but find poems about gender and sexuality to be too risqué. There’s the
embarrassment of talking about homosexuality, or any kind of sexuality issue,
in the Asian American community. It’s
traditionally been taboo!
BKD: That was one of my concerns about the book's reception.
But sexuality is natural, intimacy is part of being human. Those who really
understood the book, who supported it the whole way through, never said a word.
In fact, they complimented me for the risks the poems were taking. The Japanese
American community, by and large, has really embraced the book. And I mean the whole book. So I get readers
who are Nisei who tell me things like, "Your book made me believe that
poetry can be something I can love again."
So actually, the reaction has been the opposite.
JTL: Did the subject of the book change over time? Did you think it was going to be, just a book
about the camps originally, then it evolved?
BKD: Perhaps. Especially given that the book has stuff about
Nanking, about Hiroshima, and tries to address some of the atrocities that the
Japanese committed during World War II towards other Asians, including what
they did to Koreans. That part came later, because I started to think, Japanese
Americans were persecuted here, but that doesn’t mean that all those of
Japanese descent were innocent. And it’s also distinguishing between Japanese
in Japan and Japanese Americans, which was not done very well by certain
representatives of the U.S. government.
So it’s acknowledging those two different threads: they were
both persecutor and the persecuted; they
were wrongly conflated -- Japanese in Japan were seen as the same as Japanese
Americans. The fact that my wife is Chinese is also why I reflect that history.
Because my son is half Chinese, one quarter Japanese, one quarter European
American, I had to get that into the book to make it even more integrated with
his mixed race journey.
JTL: Because of your personal background, do you feel that
perhaps your perspective upon these historical experiences is unique, as
opposed to the monoracial Asian American writer? Do you bring something else to the table?
BKD: Well, there’s definitely no sense of judgment. Whether
you’re monoracial or biracial, you bring something to the table. The key is
being really, really honest and specific about what you bring. One of my
mentors, Garrett Hongo, said to me, and I am paraphrasing here: Look you’ve got
to confront the mixed race stuff. You can’t represent yourself as monoracial, because
that’s not even true. Yes, that’s what I
can bring. Though I’m influenced by my predecessors’ body of literature, there’s
an obligation to advance it. I hope poems about being mixed race are bringing
in questions of inheritance.
What are the long term effects of history? In “Transaction,”
the mother is getting a check that redresses injustices done to her as a baby. Vincent
Chin is mistaken by American autoworkers for a Japanese. The mother’s identity
was stereotyped, and there’s the theme of mistaken identities. But the speaker is
an adolescent trying to figure out his sexuality in a rite of passage for young
males, a strip club. The notion is that, if he pays money, there’s intimacy,
even though that’s false. The speaker’s not innocent but participating in a
sexist system of objectification.
Does the speaker feel a need to assert power because his
predecessors were disempowered? Because
his mother was persecuted, does he try to assert his own masculinity to redress
past wrongs, even if it’s not ethical or right?
These are questions I grappled with as a young half Asian American male.
JTL: You have an ability to see both sides, and not all
writers do that. I think a lot of writers of color, particularly of the first
generation, were really strident. Is this due to your personal background?
BKD: It’s probably a result of being mixed race, and having
written the poems over a fifteen year period or so, where over that time I
became a father, married someone who’s Chinese, and started to think about
mixed race children today. If I had written a book just about camp, it wouldn’t
have been true to me. I had to have those poems about Nanking and others, or
the book would never be done. I’m more of a moderate; I can bridge. One person
who read this manuscript said there’s really not much commentary. What they
meant is there’s not much judgment. We all need to take responsibility for our
JTL: You mentioned that part of your journey is getting
married to a person of Chinese ancestry, but also being a father. How does that
play into what you’re writing about now?
BKD: Yes, it’s everything in my new work. So in Topaz you’ll notice that Brendan is
mentioned a couple of times. My son has epilepsy, he doesn’t speak yet, and he’s
nine years old. My next manuscript is
called “Seize.” The primary thread is being the father of a child who has a
disability. It’s like he's trapped inside his own mind and body, wherein his
perceptive intelligence is very high, but he cannot articulate himself with
words, the language most of us take for granted. I feel part of the father's
journey is to understand his son's lexicon, whether it's communication through
babble, eye contact, hand gestures, or other means.
Jeffrey Thomas Leong is a San Francisco Bay Area poet and a 2014
graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program in poetry.
His recent poetry appears in such publications as Crab Orchard Review and Bamboo Ridge.