Tattered Archives: On Stories That Tell Too Much–and Never Enough

This week in North Philly Notes, George Uba, author of Water Thicker Than Blood, reflects on his memoir.

My mother, were she still alive, would feel humiliated, and deeply hurt, to see it in print. I’m speaking of my memoir Water Thicker Than Blood. Even after all the years spent drafting, revising, compacting, and completing it, I cannot escape that hard fact.

That the book also offers an unflattering portrayal of me makes no difference. A cringeworthy childhood, what’s new about that? But the other depiction, she was in certain respects awful, my mom. Explosive, resentful, vindictive. Relentlessly critical. Violent in words, even in actions. And now I am pulling secrets from the family vault. To what end? Even more, at a time when the figure portrayed, the one who did soften over time and was genuinely liked by many, cannot possibly mount a defense.

The glimpse my book provides is partial, fragmented, incommensurate with the complex, wounded, charitable being that constituted my mother as a whole. This is a point I shall return to.   

But first I’d like to comment on a recent Zoom meeting in which I was asked to discuss Water Thicker Than Blood in relation to Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation.

In writing my memoir, I was not thinking of Hartman’s groundbreaking call for a reckoning with the starkly limited archive devoted to African women in the Middle Passage—for a different kind of engagement with history, one amenable to narrative and storytelling, to imagining what cannot be verified even while respecting the limits of the knowable. I was not thinking of Hartman, but I sensed a harmony in our thinking.

One small example is that at various junctures in my book I issue a declarative statement, which I afterwards revise or correct. I use this device in part because I am stating something I may once have believed to be true (“The body is over 90% water”), but in part because I wish, like Hartman, to unsettle the authority of the “author-ized” account, whose command of the truth and of the past should be contested. I am reminded of how in Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” the very act of quoting from a slave ship captain’s trial transcript uncovers the gaps, omissions, and questions latent within the official record.

My forays into Japanese folklore, myth, and legend constitute efforts to introduce cultural elements largely suppressed under Japanese America’s postwar imperative to mimic white Americans and downplay differences. This strategy works in concert, I think, with Hartman’s championing of counter-histories to amplify and disrupt the conventional protocols of history.    

My epilogue contains references to Emmett Till and to a racist, anti-Japanese sign appearing in a store window shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor. While my book’s general trajectory follows my awkward climb toward political awareness and a more complex understanding of myself and others, I wanted to end by reminding readers that racial hatred, as well as racial violence, was the underlying driver behind the damaging postwar ideology of belonging, just as it was the immediate driver behind the concentration camps themselves.

The epilogue doubles back to the book’s first chapter, wherein I describe the impact of Pearl Harbor on Japanese American communities in Southern California, but also to the book’s Acknowledgments pages, wherein I decry the upsurge in anti-Asian hate crimes and hate acts since the start of the pandemic. For Hartman, writing the past is inseparable from writing the present, as well as the condition for envisioning a free future. By violating the presumed boundaries of the memoir as enclosed historical artifact, I attempt to convey a similar idea. My hope all along has been to add something original to the historical archive and to negotiate with it at the same time.         

I mentioned above that my mother could be awful. Would it be a stretch to believe that she saw herself as the exact opposite? That she saw herself as the best possible—because of her unrelenting vigilance—Nisei mother? That the ideology of belonging produced her? At least as I, in my limited capacities as a child, came to understand her?

Being accepted, being accepted specifically by white Americans, even if it meant accepting a second-class citizenship, was an idea familiar to multiple generations of Japanese in America following the war. Sometimes, as in my mother’s case, it became the foundation of their childrearing philosophy, a bedrock principle only heightened by midcentury disciplinary practices, educational formations, and harrowing life circumstances.

But what of my mother’s full story? There was more to it than the anxiety, bitterness, and rage that I dwell on in my memoir of childhood. Saidiyah Hartman tells how, on the slave ship, Venus was one of two doomed girls permanently denied a voice and a full accounting. Their stories were forever cut short, partial, unrealized.

Of my mother, Florence, her story becomes in some ways the same.

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