blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

About Legends from Camp

Bob Grotjohn

Inada refuses to separate the internment from a broader American experience. In a poem that follows his "legends," Inada insistently maps the internment onto the American landscape (here I think of recent efforts at turning the Manzanar camp into a national park). In "Concentration Constellation," he draws imaginary lines from point to point on a map of the United States, each point being one of the ten internment camps, creating

a jagged scar,
massive, on the massive landscape.
It lies there like a rusted wire
of a twisted and remembered fence.

Inada's inclusion recurs thematically throughout Legends From Camp as the poems question both cartographically mapped geographic boundaries and socially mapped cultural boundaries. This questioning recenters Japanese American experience to a mix of other locations. . . .

By relocating home in many different sites and writing the intersections of these sites, Inada makes Japanese American experience a centrally and complexly American experience. While Inada uses the material of Japanese American experience, his poetic comes out of several other American traditions as well--he is not "other" and incomprehensible. Inada refuses an essentialist marginalization and defies the simple ethnically-local sense of community that readers often look for in Asian American literature. Ironically, his own publisher seems to fall into the essentialist (and unintentionally "orientalist") trap by advertising Legends From Camp as an exclusively Japanese American work. Although only one section of the collection deals consistently and specifically with the internment, the Coffee House flyer advertises the book as a "collection of reflective narrative poems that carries a reader into a child's world behind barbed wire."

Inada explicitly argues against such an oversimplified ethnic classification. He writes of Japanese Americans, "we're common as clay, regular as rain; nothing exotic or special about us." He refuses a marginalizing of "Japanese" from "American" when he "take[s] the camp experience in [his] hands ... and [holds] it up to the light." He finds"[w]hat [he] expected to find: Aspects of humanity, the condition."

[. . . .]

African American musical traditions, which Inada calls "America’s gift to the world," flavor much of the volume, not just the third section, titled "Jazz."

[. . . .]

Referring to Louis Armstrong as "Pops" and Earl Hines as "Fatha," he signals his participation in and continuation of the jazz community’s familiarizing convention of affiliative kinship. . . . Inada sees Thelonius Monk "bringing everything we do, / we see, we know, / into melodies focus."

[. . . .]

Monk’s music gets us to a new location, or "region," that has room for "all" to "know. . .home." This remapping gives us homes in other places, other music, lets us gather in other families. In the poem titled "Louis Armstrong," Inada reflects back on his past, on a jazz past, on an American past. We get to Charlie Parker’s yard and find we "never left home," so that Yardbird’s yard intersects with Fresno. . . ."Fresno" is a multicultural, multiracial home—Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, Philipino, Hmong. German, Italian, Chicano, African American, and Okie, according to Inada—"the whole world."

Excerpted from Bob Grotjohn, "Centering Our Legends: Lawson Fusao Inada’s Legends from Camp. Click here to jump to the entire essay at

Return to Lawson Inada