Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
The evocative poetry and insightful nonfiction of David Mura (MEW-rah) is unusual for being both very private and very public. In his writing, Mura processes painful issues that have haunted him all his life and that are familiar to all Asians and Asian Americans. A third-generation Japanese American—a sansei—Mura grew up in an Americanized environment in a Chicago suburb where he heard more Yiddish than Japanese. He avidly read white male writers, and he identified with European-derived culture at the expense of his Japanese heritage. His parents seldom spoke about their ethnic roots and never mentioned their experiences in the Japanese relocation camps during World War II. The family name had originally been Uyemura, but Mura’s father, a journalist, shortened it to make it sound less exotic. Obliterating their ethnicity was a way to claim the American good life for themselves and their son.
Only when he reached adulthood did Mura come to realize the devastation that such denial of identity could wreak on an individual. He succumbed to an addictive cycle of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity that only gradually led to a period of difficult self-interrogation. His passage to awareness and self-esteem was painful. In A Male Grief Mura powerfully examines child abuse, addictive family systems, and the adult male’s consumption of pornography. He acknowledges that his early destructive behavior, which continued until he was in his late twenties, was a self-hatred resulting from a learned repression of his sansei identity. When he began to feel shame about racist images, such as submissive houseboys and geishas, he realized that he was really ashamed of himself. It became necessary to smash the stereotypes so as to be able to claim his identity and, as he writes in the poem “Nantucket Honeymoon,” to learn “—how else can I say it?—to love my own sweet skin.”
Mura’s embrace of his own ethnicity is a major theme of his work. A picture of a sixteenth century Japanese patchwork coat appears on the cover of his first poetry collection, After We Lost Our Way, and many of the poems have haunting open endings that characterize Japanese verse forms. His Japanese ancestors play an important role in poems that open the collection, particularly “Grandfather and Grandmother in Love,” “An Argument: On 1942,” “Suite for Grandfather & Grandmother Uyemura: Relocation.” and “A Nisei Picnic: From an Album.”
An important part of the process by which Mura claimed Japan was a long visit to that country after Mura and his wife were awarded a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship for 1984. He captured his experiences there in a book of memoirs, Turning Japanese, in which he explores where it is that he really belongs. The book is painful, political, instructive, and movingly descriptive. It explores transformation and reclamation as it wrestles with the complexities of self, sexuality, politics, cultural mores, and literary criticism.
His portrait of Japan does not easily resolve Mura’s questions, but the peaceful ambiguity of the book’s end does seem to dissolve some of his anguish. Mura’s year abroad was significant for convincing him that, although he would continue to embrace his Japanese heritage, the physical and psychological spaces in Japan were too restrictive for him and made it impossible that he live there permanently. In the book’s closing pages Mura defines the cultural equilibrium he has discovered: “Either I was American or I was one of the homeless, one of the searchers for what John Berger calls a world culture. But I was not Japanese.” Turning Japanese affirms the reality of hope, relationships, and identity, themes continued in Mura’s memoir Where the Body Meets Memory.
In The Colors of Desire Mura analyzes both his private infidelities and the more public wounds of racism. “Gardens We Have Left” is a moving poem about preparing for his young daughter those Japanese delicacies that, as a child himself, he “could not love.” He worries about her experiencing some day those racial slurs he endured. He muses about her legacy of ethnic history and the “rumors and stories” of her Japanese ancestors that he can pass on to her. He contemplates the obscenities and deceptions from his past that he has worked through but not forgotten. A final image of marital harmony leads to an affirming insight: “When you hold a great sorrow, it lasts/ almost too long. And then it lasts some more. But the same is true also of a great joy.”
Among the notable grants and awards that Mura has received are two NEA Literature Fellowships and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award in 1995. In 1991 Turning Japanese was listed in The New York Times as one of the “Notable Books of the Year.” Mura’s maturity, introspection, intelligence, and honesty give powerful literary voice to his discovery of the meaning of self.
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