Author deftly weaves mental health, myth and multigenerational trauma into speculative memoir


"The Night Parade" cover


By Jami Nakamura Lin; illustrations by Cori Nakamura Lin (New York: Mariner Books, 2023, 352 pp., $30, hardcover)

There is something incredibly bold, brave and culture-bending about a memoir that delves into the deep recesses of depression, bipolar disorder and suicide. A writer with ancestral roots in Japan and Taiwan, where such subjects are not addressed so directly or explicitly, doesn’t often address these matters.

In “The Night Parade,” the title comes from the myth of the Hyakki Yagyō. Jami Nakamura Lin deftly uses Japanese, Okinawan and Taiwanese folklore to embellish her own personal struggles with rage, terror, mental illness and multigenerational trauma. In doing so, she reveals more about herself than any Asian American writer I’ve ever encountered.

Though mythology provides the well-researched graphic and narrative framework for her “speculative memoir,” her most powerful writing comes from her ability to stare death in the eye and describe how it feels. She is never afraid to speak out about all of her most personal and painful experiences — like the death of her father (to whom she devotes and writes her book), her first miscarriage or her attempts at suicide. Wafting above these concrete events are mystical and well-researched references to Japanese, Taiwanese and Okinawan folklore. Yōkai, or Japanese elusive spirits that Nakamura spends several pages struggling to define, travel in, out and through every experience, making the concrete more expansive and mystical, and in many ways less painful and definitely livelier.

This is a book about family. There is palpable family closeness, particularly in talking about the loving father who bookends her stories and whose presence is felt in both life and death. There is her mother whose concern over her daughter’s well-being permeates every line, and her sisters, one of whom provides powerful illustrations and gives life-giving form to the magical folk characters we’ve never met before. More importantly, this is a book about ancestors, both ghosts and human.

Perhaps the most relevant chapter pertains to her Nikkei ancestors on her maternal side who appear near the end of the book when Nakamura Lin confronts the untold stories of her grandfather who was held at the Merced Assembly Center in California and the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado. Here, Lin turns to two shouting men, yelling in upper case font, “WE SHOULD SHOW WITHOUT A SHADOW OF A DOUBT THAT WE ARE AMERICANS WHO WILL DO OUR PART FOR OUR COUNTRY,” as her grandfather rails. Yet, when it comes to sharing with his offspring what happened to him during those horrible war years, he turns silent. The silence is familiar to camp survivors whose trauma cannot be measured in words.

The chapter also explains why and how Nakamura Lin continues to try to write to understand, “In lieu of his memories, you let your imagination wander … trying to create a scene to fill the gap where all the lost stories live.”

“The Night Parade,” for all its mythological references and stark realism, may sometimes seem difficult to get through, but in the end it offers insight and enlightenment in shapes and forms like no other memoir, and certainly none ever written by a Yonsei.

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