Vol. 2: David Mura Writes to Empower His Students
In the lead up to last year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, we produced a series that explored the experience of working in a dominantly white industry as a person of color. This year, we're kicking off the #Muse17 conversation with another timely topic. In the face of a challenging political climate and amid reports that the NEA and other cultural programs face significant spending cuts and may be slashed altogether, we asked authors, agents, and editors presenting at the conference: What is a writer for? Why is now an important time to advocate for the writer's -- and literature's -- role in society? This installment comes from writer, memoirist, poet, and performance artist David Mura, who will be leading two Muse sessions: Race and the Situation of the Writer in 2017 and Race & Identity in Fiction & Nonfiction.
I’m a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American. When they were teenagers, my parents—natural born citizens—and their families were incarcerated by the United States government during World War II. Both the military and the FBI found that Japanese Americans were not a military threat, but lied to the public and said that we were. The solicitor general who argued the Korematsu case knew he was lying when he cited military and FBI claims that Japanese Americans were a threat to the nation.
In the 1980s, when the Korematsu case was overturned, and there was the redress movement, President Ronald Reagan apologized to the Japanese American community. He admitted there was no military necessity for the concentration camps and said the real reason for them was “racism, wartime hysteria and a failure of leadership.” At the time, many Japanese Americans felt that America had learned the true lesson of the internment camps—that the constitutional rights of all Americans, no matter their race or religion, must be protected, even in times of national peril.
In 2017, it’s clear much of America has forgotten that lesson, if they ever learned it at all. Attacks on Muslim, Arab, South Asian Americans, as well as other people of color, threats to the Jewish community—they are all on the rise. Just a few weeks ago, a Chinese American writer Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was speaking to a group of high school students in Dallas, and when he mentioned the internment camps, the students cheered, as if the camps were a good thing. Of course, they were also mocking him. None of the adults present stopped them.
Like Jamie Ford, much of my writing has focused on the history of Japanese Americans and the internment camps. In so many ways, I write to expose and explore the truths of American history and of the American present, especially in regards to the issues of race. I write and teach to empower my students to do the same. The election of Donald Trump stems in part from the fear of white Americans at the growing diversity of our nation and the fact that in 2040, whites will no longer constitute a majority in this country. In order for us as a nation to continue to function as a true democracy, as a land of equality and justice, the role of writers as truth tellers and truth seekers is absolutely crucial, especially in this time of crisis.
David Mura is a poet, memoirist, fiction writer, critic, playwright and performance artist. A Sansei or third generation Japanese American, Mura has written two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was a New York Times Notable Book of Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. His novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the John Gardner Fiction Prize and Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award. Mura’s most recent book of poetry is The Last Incantations, published by Northwestern University Press. His other poetry books: Angels for the Burning; The Colors of Desire which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library; and After We Lost Our Way, a 1989 National Poetry Series Contest winner. His critical essays, Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto & Mr. Moto: Poetry & Identity, were published in the U. of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series (2002). Mura currently teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program and the VONA Writers’ Conference. He is Director of Training for the Innocent Classroom, a program designed to address the racial achievement gap by training teachers to improve their relationships with students of color. You can find our more about him and his work at www.davidmura.com and follow him on Twitter @MuraDavid.
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