A third-generation Japanese American, a Sansei, Mura grew up on baseball and apple pie in a Chicago suburb, where he heard more Yiddish than Japanese. He cultivated a Eurocentric worldview, avidly reading books by white male authors, cheering for American GIs fighting the Japanese in war movies, and identifying with European traditions. Mura’s conflicts with his parents, which is at the heart of “An Argument: On 1942,” stem from many things. Politically, his father was a Republican; Mura was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and wore his hair long. His father wanted him to become a lawyer; Mura wanted to be a poet. His parents sensed that assimilation, obliterating their ethnicity, was the way to claim the American Dream for themselves and their son. They never mentioned their years in the relocation camps. They seldom spoke of their roots, de-emphasized their skin color, and even modified their surname, which had been Uyemura, to sound less exotic.
The penultimate line of the poem is seeringly telling in its apposition; the poet’s father asks, agonizingly, why his son cannot just accept “how far we’ve come, how much I can’t recall.” The first clause asks for validation, for gratitude on the son’s part for what the parents have attained in fitting into American society and thereby achieving success for the family. The second clause begs respect for their silence, asks their son to back off from subjects they have worked for years to erase and bury. The father wants both acceptance and denial from his son, wants him to value and revere what he does. Yet the very problem is in that juxtaposition: Mura’s parents want him to forget the past, and he knows he needs to reclaim it.
Only in adulthood did Mura come to realize that such ethnic repression was personally catastrophic. He began an addictive cycle of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity that led to self-interrogation, to awareness, and finally to self-esteem as he smashed long-held stereotypes and became able to claim his Japanese identity. The books that follow After We Lost Our Way trace this trajectory and show how Japanese imagery and concerns become increasingly a significant part of Mura’s artistic consciousness..
“An Argument: On 1942” is a significant poem to think about, to teach, and to learn from. Its language and easy diction make it accessible to high schoolers and adults alike. Its generational conflict is an issue that parents and children of all cultures can identify with. It illuminates the cruelties and ironies of history in ways that bear constant investigation and vigilance.