Read this with furikake popcorn

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Sansei and Sensibility

By Karen Tei Yamashita (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2020, 232 pp., $16.95, paperback)

During the pandemic, I’ve been listening to readings of various Jane Austen novels on Spotify. They are familiar and comforting, there’s no earth-shattering action, merely the twists and turns of domestic life, the relationship within families and romantic courtship.

In this season arrives Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Sansei and Sensibility,” a collection of her stories, the earliest one originally published in 1975. Full disclosure: I blurbed the book based on a reading of it in manuscript form and consulted on the Japanese American timeline, included in the collection. I was, however, eager to see the various pieces bound together in a print volume with an appropriate cover of Jane Austen’s image on puzzle pieces.

For your average Japanese American baby boomer, “Sansei and Sensibility” may be Yamashita’s most accessible creative work. I say this because it’s all about Sansei domestic and family life anchored in the postwar epicenter of Japanese America — Gardena, Calif. Although Yamashita is known for her expansive, almost borderless identities, she grew up in Gardena, where she attended high school in the 1960s.

Yamashita returns to this confined world in this collection. There are stories about the truth-telling dental hygienist, Candy Yuasa; portraits of family matriarchs, the cleaning of parents’ homes; and the exchange of international letters, both in English and Japanese. Perhaps my favorite feature is a random listing of Sansei recipes such as Karen Mayeda’s Furikake Popcorn. To see such Japanese American foodstuffs mentioned in a literary collection is delightful — heightening our community’s everyday existence. And why not? The Japanese Americans on the West Coast with all its forced dislocations, great losses and gains, and family trauma definitely have aspects of your classic Austen story.

From her very first book, “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest,” Yamashita has pulled rabbits out of hats, surprising her readers with the unexpected. Now in 2020, when most Sansei are pushing 70 or are in their 70th decade, she is again ahead of trends — telling us what makes us human. It’s clear that the era of the Nisei is now past. What stories do the Sansei have for us?

Yamashita starts us off. I’m eager to hear more from other writers.

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