Fresno farmer reinterprets shame and disability through ‘Secret Harvests’

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — David Mas Masumoto called it a “parallel universe.” The Fresno, Calif.-based peach farmer and writer had thought he knew his world, but when his path converged with his thought-to-be dead aunt in 2010, he embarked on his deepest journey of reflection yet on history, shame and disability.

Masumoto’s latest memoir, “Secret Harvest: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm,” recounts the trauma his family faced during the wartime incarceration, while also attempting to piece together the life of Shizuko Sugimoto, his long-lost aunt. Illustrated with 34 hand-carved linoleum block prints by artist and historian Patricia Wakida, Masumoto writes poetic ruminations on his family history.

On April 8, Masumoto and Wakida presented the book and the artwork featured within it at J-Sei in Emeryville, Calif. for the book’s “Northern California launch.” The discussion, moderated by former TV news anchor Wendy Tokuda, delved into the process of the book’s creation. To Masumoto, this was a “complicated book” to work on because of the family secrets involved.

Sugimoto, Masumoto’s mother’s older sister, contracted meningitis when she was around five years old. Being from a poor Japanese American Buddhist family living in the rural Central Valley, Masumoto said his aunt was unable to get the medical attention she needed at the time and the illness left her intellectually disabled. While her body aged, Masumoto likened her mental capacity to that of a five-year-old.

The Sugimoto family eventually gave her up as a ward of the state when they were unsure how they would care for her while incarcerated at the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona.

Since thought to be dead, Masumoto was surprised to find out in 2010 that his aunt was in hospice care just miles from his farm in Fresno. She lived for another two years, and Masumoto began to re-examine his family’s memories.

“We had no photographs of Shizuko. There was no record. There’s no letters. So does that mean she didn’t exist? No, exactly the opposite,” Masumoto said. “So my quest, then, was to start using imagination to start reconstructing this history, which wasn’t how I was taught history. History is supposed to be done by dates and numbers, but, of course, who writes that history? Usually, it’s people in power, so that’s the recorded history we get, but there’s this whole unrecorded history that was vital to understand that emotional aspect of what our family history was like, what many of our histories are like.”

In examining what could be found about his aunt, and learning about who she was during the two years Masumoto got to spend time with her, he began to think about shame and disability. Just as Sugimoto had a mental disability, Masumoto said his Japanese American face was a disability. His racial background sent some 120,000 people to concentration camps during the war and the shame from that experience prevented his family from putting the name “Masumoto” on their boxes of fruit for decades until the 1990s.

“Was Shizuko strong? She was in her own way. She had learned in many ways how to act differently. For her, it was ‘normal.’ And that’s why there’s that phrase, wabisabi, the idea that things are imperfect, incomplete and never finished,” Masumoto said.

“Was Shizuko a mistake? No, absolutely not. She, I think, saw herself as not being disabled. It made me rethink the whole idea of disability in a different way,” he went on to say. “I want all of us to think about that inherited past that we have, and the generational trauma that we carry, … I like to call it the idea of the ‘baggage of history’ we carry with us. Baggage could mean

something heavy, but also could be who we are and who defines us in that sense too.”
Wakida had worked with Masumoto in the past, but he approached her to work on “Secret Harvests” around 2018. Initially, Masumoto had asked her for three prints, however that number grew to 34 by the time the book was completed. The Yonsei artist spent time on Masumoto’s farm, observing their grape harvest to make raisins and also studied various farm implements, including knives for cutting grape vines and bonnets worn by farm workers, as well as historical photos from the wartime incarceration. The cover image features a young Sugimoto wreathed by grape vines and wearing a sun bonnet.

“It took a lot of imagination on both of our parts to come up with some kind of imagery of Shizuko,” Wakida said. “A bigger challenge for me was to age her through time, without knowing who she was.”

Wakida’s art continues to be on display at J-Sei, 1285 66th St., Emeryville, Calif. through May 31. The gallery is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays and by appointment on weekends.

For more information, visit https://j-sei.org or call (510) 654-4000.

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