This month, Sacramento’s Roan Press will release Davis author Brenda Nakamoto’s first memoir, Peach Farmer’s Daughter, “an unconventional, poetic, yet gritty memoir [that] evokes her childhood as the daughter of a peach farmer in rural northern California, investigates her roots as sansei (third-generation Japanese-American), and movingly reflects on the decline of her aging parents. Nakamoto’s deep connections to the land, farming, family, and the complexities of personal and family history give her work weight and balance.”
I’ve known Brenda since I first moved to Davis–she’s been in my Creative Nonfiction workshop since its inception, and over the years I have had the pleasure of seeing early drafts of many of these pages. With the publication of Peach Farmer’s Daughter, Brenda earns the distinction of being the first student in one of my workshops to complete and publish a memoir. Those of us who have known her and her work for years could honestly not be less surprised, but this occasion is incredibly moving for me personally because it confirms so tangibly what I have long understood about the power that is available for the taking in community workshops when writers come together, read voraciously, take each other seriously, and demand that each other keep going. This is what comes out of evenings where we throw our drafts into conversations punctuated by pets and gluten-free cookies and knitting projects and babies and allergies and all the rest of the stuff that is always going on, no matter what: books. Books that matter, and that help us live our lives.
I am so proud.
This winter, Brenda and I enjoyed a long conversation about the life cycle of book projects, risk-taking, and the relationship between essay and poetry. (This piece picks up where the interview that appears in this month’s issue of The Yolo Crow leaves off—if you’d like to read the first half, stop by Newsbeat in Davis or Sacramento to pick up a copy. It hits newsstands today.)
RG: I’m thinking about the word root of essay – to try, to attempt; not to prove but to risk. Essays behave in thrilling ways when they break from the expository tradition. What kinds of risks have you learned to take while writing this book?
BN: I’d say the risks I take are many times due to my not knowing better. In your workshop a few years ago we read John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame, which I found quite inspiring. Seemingly distantly related pieces of prose strung together in a stream of consciousness, like nothing I’d ever read before. It was not expository, storylike, or narrative. But I felt something underneath, this argument. There was an idea starting to form. I think we’ve been overtrained in school to write perfect paragraphs, to write lead sentences. We conform to “good” writing habits.
When my dad’s health declined… writing became my friend. It shifted time. I feel like I’ve been trained so much to control my emotions, to live life logically. Perhaps if I can point to an origin for my risk taking, some of it stems from my relationship with my father. He always believed in me.
RG: I’m wondering if you’d like to talk about some of the other influences on your writing.
BN: There are innumerable authors… I enjoyed An American Childhood by Annie Dillard… she put the reader directly into her world as a child… the way that Terry Tempest Williams wove the story about her mother battling cancer in with the Utah landscape… how Joan Didion could write about things like water and dams and making electricity… David Mas Masumoto was my first exposure to contemporary Asian American writing that mirrored my own childhood. We are both sansei, third generation Japanese Americans; we both grew up on farms in this valley.
RG: Aside from the actual shift into verse that happens late in the book, I see at least three distinct poetic functions at play throughout this collection. Most obviously, many lines in this memoir float as recognizably lyrical, poetic lines… there are also a great number of figurative moments in the book, where your message is related via metaphors from the natural world–like when you note that “one’s regrets morph, just like peach blossoms falling and peach fruits fattening on gnarly branches.” Finally, I see the “mind” of these essays making the kinds of implicit leaps between lines or paragraphs that we often associate with poetry, as when you align these paragraphs in the essay ‘Mochi:’
I believe in tamashii, that there might be a rebirth, a life force sprung forth once again after death. That spirit is me; that spirit is us.
Rice. I love rice. I like it steamed and sticky, I like it salted and boiled. I like it pounded and shaped into balls. Without rice, I would not be here, that is certain. Rice grains, we tamashii, are bound together.
BN: I don’t think about meter or rhyme or rhythm, and I don’t go searching for metaphor… however, some things move me more deeply than others… it may be those types of subjects cause me to look more intimately… trying to solve the unsolvable. Perhaps I use [poetic actions]… to try to see the world as it is and how it might align with how I’d really like to see it. If I’ve made implicit [leaps] between some sections, it may be because I’ve opened the door for myself to consider otherwise, that my train of thought is not linear… some readers will not follow me when I make implicit jumps, and that’s a risk I take.
RG: Your dad’s story is central to the book, and toward the end, his aging comes to the foreground. I know he passed away after you finished Peach Farmer’s Daughter. Has your understanding of what it means to tell a story changed since his death?
BN: For the most part my writing is simply an exercise of getting into print what is most on my mind that day and recording it. In the beginning, it was therapy.
Stories came alive for me through my dad. Just being around him. White walls, twin-sized beds, and white sheets can’t compete with the scent of peach blossoms or the cries of hundreds of crows perched in the almond orchard or the feel of the nippy north wind brushing your shirt. I simply try to accept and keep sitting down and recording.
My writing never has had a beginning, a middle or end… rather, with my immersion in and out of images and scene, I’ve created movement in time… it turned into a story.
How many nisei Japanese American storytellers are there out there? I count few… I’ve used story in another way: by telling readers what’s been told to me by my father, my mother, what I imagined about my grandfathers and grandmothers… stories I thought important to record. The personal essay is my version and perspective. I wove in parts of others’ stories to make my story… my voice is nothing without theirs. It is stronger with theirs.
RG: The message that rings clearest for me in these essays is about blurring. Beginnings blur into endings, present and past selves meet, memory blurs with present experience and time comes apart in our hands–you explore all of this. One of my favorite lines in the book– “At times like this a sudden blurring makes me unable to discern any difference–” points to this larger phenomenon that’s observed throughout these essays. Does that relate to the idea of what a story is, in your mind?
BN: I find seasons fascinating, the blur in time between, when the period is not distinctly one season or the next. It has qualities of both or perhaps none at all. Where one begins and another ends cannot be told… [In Peach Farmer’s Daughter] I was addressing my life superimposed on the seasons… I went back and forth from my current life to my childhood and my dad’s current life to my dad’s former farmer life… this natural rhythm. I have been criticized for walking through life always looking behind me… writing about connections between perfectly distinct circumstances comes too easily! If anything, much of my interest in storytelling is based on the fact that I wish certain things could still be as they were, and I write in an effort to heal.
RG: Brenda, it’s breathtaking to step back and see what’s come of all those drafts. I hope this conversation inspires lots of local writers to take their impulses to write their stories more seriously.