Japantown, African American voices come together in volume


Standing Strong!
Standing Strong! Fillmore & Japantown

Voices from Write Now! Fillmore and Write Now! Japantown
Edited by Shizue Seigel (San Francisco: Pease Press, 2016. 140 pp. $17.95, paperback)
To order, visit: http://www.peasepress.com/standingstrong

“Standing Strong! Fillmore & Japantown” is a compendium of short pieces authored by Japanese American and African American residents of the Japantown and Fillmore areas of San Francisco. The project stems from the writing workshops put together by local native Shizue Seigel (who previously produced the Kansha project anthology “In Good Conscience,” on non-Japanese wartime supporters of the Nikkei).

After being awarded an individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission for a memoir-in-progress, Seigel proposed six community-based writing workshops in the neighboring Fillmore and Japantown areas. In order to recruit local residents she handed out fliers and stopped passersby on the street. Her persistence was rewarded in the wide variety of collaborators she commissioned, from a 12-year-old karate student to elderly residents. In the end, more than 50 individuals contributed pieces. (Full disclosure: one of the contributors is Nichi Bei Weekly editor Kenji G. Taguma).

Seigel wisely opens the book with a section detailing the history of the Fillmore and Japantown. From its beginnings as a mixed Jewish, African American and Filipino area, it was shaped first by the large-scale settlement of ethnic Japanese, then by the wartime removal of these Japanese Americans and the settlement of African American war workers. Since the war, the district has been variously shaped by poverty, urban renewal and demographic shifts.

The pieces that follow provide various forms of testimony regarding the shape (and shaping) of the district in people’s lives. Alex Damron provides a history of Nichi Bei Bussan, the dry goods store and community landmark long operated by his family, the Tatsunos. Juanda Stewart offers her memories of moving to the district as a 7-year-old from the South and growing up amid its churches, stores and nightclubs. Anthony Brown tells of his experience growing up with a black father and Japanese mother. Roji Oyama, a Japan-born descendant of Nisei, imagines a letter home from a soldier in the 442nd. Charles Dixon provides a reminiscence of his inspiring scoutmaster Rufus Cox, “Rusty Ruff,” who tutored him in geometry and inspired him. Poets such as Jennifer Hasegawa, Juanita Tamayo Lott, Joyce Brady and Ernestine Patterson describe local figures in verse.

I was moved by Mary Ann Hori’s elegy to Japantown. Hori scans each issue of Nichi Bei Weekly to catch up on obituaries for Nisei residents. In an essay that has become eerily current in the wake of police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, Sandra Bass notes that it is twenty-five years since the video showing the police beating of black motorist Rodney King, and asks whether anything has really changed in regard to race and the criminal justice system.

While most of the stories run along separate lines, relating either African American or Japanese community history, there are some poignant discussions of interracial relations. Sandra Yamakishi, who relates being bullied in the playground by black girls in Denver, deplores the prejudice she saw on both sides against the other group. Susan Kitazawa, who attends a black church, expresses her feelings of connection with African Americans and other victims of bullying and prejudice.

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