Q&A with Brandon Shimoda: ‘The Grave on the Wall’ and Writing with Ghosts

Brian Shimoda book The Grave on the Wall

How to capture a life, how to represent it, is a difficult if necessary question to address in writing. Brandon Shimoda’s The Grave on the Wall (222 pages; City Lights Books) relentlessly contends with this concern as it recounts the story of Midori Shimoda, the author’s grandfather, within the entangled histories of immigration, Japanese incarceration during World War II, mourning, and memory. The book is also an examination of writing itself, the mechanism available for, and sometimes burdened with, conveying these stories; with relaying and reimagining them, opening them to visitation.

A chronicle of the living and the dead and the places where delineation between the two is impossible (and perhaps inaccurate) to locate, The Grave on the Wall composes a careful, often prescient look into what it means to remember someone, and in the process, to build an understanding of oneself. Or if not an understanding, a vision: Shimoda is a poet, and this book––while technically a nonfiction memoir––holds space for the uncertainty and song of the lyric. The Grave is not a book of poems, Shimoda explains. But it could be a book of poetry.

This is an important book. In the ever-coming present of government-imposed trauma and concentration camps and graves, its importance is years in the making. Shimoda, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, discussed The Grave on the Wall with ZYZZYVA via email.

ZYZZYVA: The role of the grave, both as place and concept, is traced and transfigured throughout The Grave on the Wall. Much of your prose centers on the visiting or imagining of graves—the African burial ground, a home in the northern Japanese region of Tohoku destroyed by a tsunami, a photograph of Midori. Many of the graves visited are built intentionally, meant to memorialize a person or event. Others, however, such as the photograph, unexpectedly present themselves as graves; graves that are revealed rather than fashioned, which seem to have agential power outside of any human-directed scheme. The book itself might also be said to function as a kind of grave, offering a place where loss can be recalled, visited. This is all to say, who produces a grave, if anybody? Do all people (places, memories), once dead, have one?

Brandon Shimoda: A place “where loss can be recalled, visited.” That is an incredible definition of a book.

I wish I could sit with these questions longer and let the answers grow, like moss or vines or fog, around me. Then maybe they would become my grave, or one of them: the ruin that follows the invitation to think about what I have done, or what I, or we, are doing…

My impulse is to say (because I don’t know, but will likely find out exactly how little I know in the hours or minutes before I die) that we all produce graves not only once we are dead but while we are still alive, because a grave marks anywhere a part of us has ended, and parts of us are always ending. Or as I wrote in The Grave on the Wall: “A grave is anywhere we leave an unrepeatable part of ourselves. A part that has broken away.” To which I would add: a part that has been arrested. A part that has been unrealized, unconsummated, starved, stripped, stolen, disappeared. A part that has died. I think about the places we go, or can go, to visit or revisit those moments when part of us ended, or died. Those places are graves. And the things, including people, a person’s face, who remind us—not out loud but by the fact of their being—of those moments, are graves, too: ritual graves, where we go to visit or revisit, often unconsciously or without wanting to, those moments.

The insularity and isolation of graveyards is absurd, dishonest, frustrating. Although I love them, I don’t understand them, because they prioritize, among other things, culmination and finality, while diminishing or utterly rejecting the fact that death is a multifarious and omnipresent interweaving.

Have you ever visited a place where a part of you or your life ended?

There are so many places, even right here where I live, where I, when I go or pass by, am startled into the awareness of being in or passing by a place where a former version or aspect of myself remained, was not carried forward. Then I begin to see, everywhere, across the landscape of my life, therefore everyone’s lives, all of these markers: a date, a description of what ended:

Here lies the love that was felt…

Here lies the dream that motivated a year…

Always get the last word.

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Are they always losses?

But there is a difference between one’s own grave and the graves of others, and the meaning they embody and offer to each visitor, each mourner, each remaining, looking over. And the enormous consideration of who or what is given the power or right or space to nominate and/or claim and/or legislate and/or maintain the grave or graves, and the equally enormous consideration of who is permitted access to and/or withheld and/or prevented and/or barred from the grave, and the equally enormous consideration of those graves that have been disappeared, by force, from existence.

I was thinking about the people who have been dispossessed of, or withheld from, their graves. It is, to me, similar to people who have been dispossessed of their corpses. The people who were turned, in less than a second, to ash, in Hiroshima, on the morning of August 6, 1945, for example. The dispossession of a vital transition: between one phase of existence and another.

What happens to the soul of a person whose body has been dispossessed of one of its vital transitions: from life to corpse, from corpse to grave?

There are, I think, others…

The ruin that follows the invitation…

Z: In recounting and uncovering your grandfather’s story, government documents —such as Midori’s FBI file—constitute a central component of your research. How did you approach crafting a work that both interrogates imperialism and state-sanctioned violence, while also relying upon accounts of the state to understand Midori’s life? Was there a particular methodology you employed, or certain questions you asked yourself, in undergoing this excavation and critique?

BS: My grandfather’s FBI file, which my Aunt Risa obtained and shared with me, is a work of (subtle yet insidious) violence masquerading as bureaucracy. It is less a compilation of facts about my grandfather, and more a compilation of the ways the FBI (therefore the U.S.) shined a light through my grandfather’s body and life and into the abyss of its own demented subconsciousness. But it proved to be very useful. It introduced me to people the FBI felt were relevant to my grandfather’s life. Some were, including the Mormon man in Utah who offered him asylum during the war. I was able to track down the Mormon man’s granddaughter, and meet her, ask her questions. Through her, the FBI file came to life. And I was reminded, also through her, that the FBI file was the bureaucratization of real anxiety, paranoia, and rage, and that the anxiety, paranoia, and rage still exist, and are active. When I was paid that reminder, the FBI file became a relic then, practically quaint.

I wrote about the Mormon man’s granddaughter in the Monument Valley chapter of The Grave on the Wall. I don’t want to repeat too much of what I wrote, but to say: I encountered in her a kind of overt and evangelical racism that the FBI file very efficiently withholds, as you figure it would. And though the FBI file could not have predicted the Mormon man’s granddaughter, it became clear to me that the FBI file was working on her behalf: was securing not my grandfather’s future, or his place in the future, but that of the Mormon man’s granddaughter.

Here are two things I learned about the Mormon man’s granddaughter: One, being a Mormon, and the granddaughter of a man who offered asylum to an enemy alien during World War II, she was very proud of her grandfather, and believed that his act of colorblind charity was both a selfless act and an act mandated by God, and two, she believed that Middle Easterners were dying and being resurrected in the form of Mexican children who were crossing over the border into the United States and were coming to kill her and her people (who, I gathered, were Mormons or whites, or both) and take over the United States.

She was like a minor character in one sitcom (the FBI file) who was given the starring role in its spin-off (real life), and everything she said seemed to be plagiarized from the 1940s, not to mention the 1930s, 1920s, 1910s, 1900s, 1890s, and so on, backwards and forwards.

I sometimes feel that The Grave on the Wall is a counternarrative to my grandfather’s FBI file, if not a rewriting of it, one in which the obscured or suppressed or erased voices have been permitted to speak, and the violence, subtly yet insidiously outlined in the fog of the original FBI file, is exposed and examined and re-situated in the corroded hearts of power and authority.

I was thinking this morning about how interrogations without answers become, over time—and in their repetition and perpetual descent (you used the word “excavation”)—monologues, soliloquies. Like shouting down a well. Because who and what is being interrogated is often silent, unforthcoming, which forces the interrogator to turn inward, so that their body becomes like a labyrinth, folded—multiply folded—down the passages of which the verses of the monologue, the soliloquy, touch, overlap, become gills.

Z: In the chapter “Thunder Hill,” you are visited by Midori, perhaps in a dream, perhaps by his ghost, and tell him that you have been writing about him:

“I want to show him things I have collected about his life –– photographs of him, by him, his FBI file. Everything feels miscellaneous, misguided, pathetic. Also: presumptuous and intrusive, as if I have assumed the role of the FBI.”

The Grave on the Wall feels, overwhelmingly, like a book that listens well; you stay close to images and lived truths, allowing so many things to breathe. But perhaps writing the stories of others, even when intimately tied to your own life, felt differently. Could you talk about this moment, the anxiety of facing Midori?

BS: Yes…anxiety! I’ve been waiting, since The Grave on the Wall came out, for my grandfather’s response. His feedback. Less so his approval, than his…feelings. About the book. About the fact that I wrote a book, which could be an honorable or dishonorable or otherwise completely inexplicable thing to have done. About the way in which his life was represented or misrepresented, or the extent to which he even recognizes himself in the shards of what I ultimately feel a book, in its truest form, cannot help but be: a broken mirror. He has not, since the book came out, visited me in my dreams. Nor have I visited him.

A large part of the anxiety of facing my grandfather (in my dream, in the book, in life) comes from feeling both the privilege and the burden of being the inheritor not only of his life but of his struggle to become an American citizen (that is, the privilege and burden of citizenship). I wonder what he would think of what I have made of that inheritance, his struggle. On one hand is the miserable question: do you recognize me? Behind that question is the anxiety, or melancholy, of being biracial, and not recognizing myself, or, more accurately, being raised within a culture whose insistent, willfully obtuse, and never-ending questions about what I am has enforced, in me, a kind of self-doubt about what I am, including my ability to recognize myself.

Would my grandfather recognize any part of himself? And … why should he?

Do I recognize any part of myself in him? Why should I?

I’m not seeking his approval about The Grave on the Wall, but maybe I’m seeking his approval about what I have done with his struggle to become a citizen, with what I have done, and am doing, with my citizenship. Because one thing I have done, and am doing, with it, is saying, here and elsewhere: citizenship is, at best, a Faustian bargain. With American citizenship, in particular, the bargain is that of a kind of life in exchange for subscription into a terrorist organization.

But also, I did not want to objectify my grandfather. Maybe I failed in that. Is it impossible to translate a person’s life into a book while not, in some way, making an object of them/their life? By installing them in the altar? But then is the book different from, say, a photograph? (I have many photographs of my grandfather, which are as mundane as they are talismanic; I do not mistake them for my grandfather, though I often visit with them as if they are, so maybe I do.) Do I risk, in writing, or this kind of writing, objectifying myself by becoming a recording device, like a camera or tape recorder (although, that is not writing)?

When I met my grandfather in my dream, when I faced him, before the book came out, he seemed, at first, to be another feature of the room. And yet the most sentient, alive. But there was something about him that felt installed. It did not take long, however, to realize that while he was at one with the room, even the dream, I was at odds with both, therefore the interloper, the outlying object, who did not understand anything about the room, or the dream, I was crashing. So then it became a matter of how to assimilate myself, so as not continue or deepen the offense, which seemed impossible, and seems, also, the definition of being a writer, or writing: attempting to articulate one’s status in a situation that seems, at first, to derive from one’s consciousness, but derives, instead, from a world to which one has not been invited.

Z: Knowing you first and foremost as a poet, much of reading The Grave on the Wall carries the feeling of verse: its nonlinear understanding of time, its careful rhythm, its attendance toward image. In terms of process, did writing The Grave on the Wall feel far from the act of producing poetry? How did your poetic practice influence, or abstain from, this project?

BS: I like the idea of my poetic practice, or poetic practice in general, abstaining, or taking a vow of abstinence or silence. That poetry might find it necessary and, ultimately, the responsible thing to do. Hold its tongue.

There are certainly many occasions for which I wish this had been the case.  But much of what I wrote in The Grave on the Wall is a more fully incarnated version of what I wrote about first in O Bon (Litmus Press, 2011), a book of poetry also tending (to) my grandfather’s memory, and in Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions, 2015), a book of poetry I wrote over two summers in Japan. There are, for example, poems in Evening Oracle about the same landscapes, the same people, the same perceptions, the same moments, the same minutes, even, as those in The Grave on the Wall. A poem about a monk who kills himself beneath an 800 year-old tree became a chapter about a monk who kills himself beneath an 800 year-old tree. A poem about the asses of old men in a bathhouse in Nagasaki became a chapter about the asses of old men in a bathhouse in Nagasaki, and so on. O Bon and Evening Oracle could fit inside The Grave on the Wall, like dolls inside a larger doll. They are, in the end, the same doll.

The Grave on the Wall is a book of nonfiction. But there is also fiction in it. Stories. And it used to include, many drafts ago, poems. There are also photographs. Documents. Emails. No, The Grave is not a book of poems. But it could be a book of poetry. I have always felt that poetry and poems are not the same thing: a poem is only one form of poetry; poetry does not always manifest itself in a poem. I don’t think this is a distinction without a difference. I think poetry is often better suited, and more wondrously and powerfully and responsibly revealed, in forms other than poems.

All that being said, I did not intend to write a book of poetry. I originally intended to write an essay about my grandfather’s body and face that converged around and diverged away from my grandfather’s body and face. And I wanted to do so in a way that contributed something to the space of literature made and inhabited by the writers whose lines, sentences, and paragraphs I love, like James Baldwin and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Etel Adnan and Yasunari Kawabata and Bhanu Kapil and Karen Tei Yamashita and Maxine Hong Kingston and Malika Mokeddem, among others.

Oh, but to answer your question: yes, it felt much different.

Z: There are plenty of ghosts in this book, both remembered and forgotten, dead and living. I’m interested particularly in incarceration and political persecution as spaces in which The Grave on the Wall locates ghost-making. What does it mean, to you, to write with ghosts? To write ghosts?

BS: That is so much better: to write with ghosts! That kind of collaboration is, to me, synonymous with writing at its most humane.

I have this belief that ghosts are not only who or what haunts us, but are also what we carry within us that haunts others. Or haunts, in general. An excess of wound or woundedness, an overflowing of the energy, the potential, that was stripped from us by someone or something else, including the part of our own divided selves that is dominant. An excess of moral consciousness, conscience. An excess of our most deeply buried awareness and understanding of the crimes we’ve committed, or have benefited from. I also believe that these forms of ghosts, or this form of ghost, are what is being written, maybe even what is compelling the writing, at least what we are writing beside.

Just now, while thinking about this, I read this tweet by [scholar and author] Katherine McKittrick: what of the ancestors, ghosts, spirits, (the lost) that do not want our input? what if our analysis is making them restless? what if we are wrong? why do we impose our knowing on them? I believe in ghosts and this worries me a lot. decades of worry.

Now I feel like I’ve been running a thousand miles an hour down a hill in my thinking about ghosts, when really, the hill hasn’t moved, nor have I, but only the hallucination of my thinking. I am going to (have to) take a break, a hiatus, from my answer to think about this, to feel this…

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