Poet, anthologist, essayist, critic, teacher and jazz musician. Sansei Lawson Fusao Inada is known for his deceptively informal writing style, his sensitive exploration of the Japanese American World War II concentration camp experience and his love of jazz music. Imprisoned along with his family at the Fresno County Fairgrounds then in U.S. government incarceration camps in Jerome, Arkansas, and Amache, Colorado. Winner of an American Book Award in 1994, he was named Oregon State Poet of the Year in 1991, and served as the fifth poet laureate of Oregon from 2006 to 2010. He is an emeritus professor of English at Southern Oregon University.
Early Life and Wartime Incarceration
Born in Fresno, California, on May 26, 1938. Inada's mother Masako was a teacher whose parents emigrated from Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, in 1907 and in 1912 started the first fish store in the region, the landmark Fresno Fish Market on "F" Street. His paternal grandparents arrived in the U.S. from Kumamoto Prefecture in 1896 and 1901 and worked on a sugarcane plantation in Hawai'i before resettling in the San Jose area to work as sharecroppers. The poet's father, Fusaji, became a dentist.
Inada's upbringing in Fresno's Chinatown, in fact a vital multicultural business district dense with Chinese, Japanese and Mexican families, and his ardent love of jazz music, merged later to lend an effervescent, irreverent and audaciously swinging quality to both his poetry and his prose.
The family's upward mobility came to an abrupt halt following the issuing of Executive Order 9066 when Inada was four. The Inadas were rounded up in May 1942, confined first at the Fresno Assembly Center, California, then in concentration camps in Arkansas and Colorado. Unlike many other families who returned home at war's end only to find they had lost their homes and property, the Inadas had put the store in the hands of trusted friends and were able to continue running the store after the war.
Postwar Years, Beginnings as a Poet
Inada attended Lincoln then Edison High Schools in Fresno, writing of that time, "A non-Buddhist, I joined the Black and Chicano set. The main thing then was music." From popular rhythm and blues acts such as Johnny Ace and The Clovers, he went on to discover jazz greats including Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. His musical heroes, wrote Inada, "made me want to 'say' something."
Inada went on to attend Fresno State University (now California State University at Fresno) for a year, where poet Philip Levine was a mentor. Two years of graduate school at the University of Iowa followed from 1960 to 1962, funded by a scholarship. During a teaching stint at the University of New Hampshire from 1962 to 1965, Inada met and married Janet Francis. The couple moved to Oregon, where Inada earned his MFA from the University of Oregon in 1966 then began teaching at Southern Oregon State College, now Southern Oregon University.
Works and Themes
Inada's major volumes of poetry are Before the War: Poems As They Happened (1971), Legends from Camp (1992), Drawing the Line (1997), and two collections he co-authored, 3 Northwest Poets: Drake, Inada, Lawder (1970) and The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 (1978). Before the War is considered the first collection of poems by an Asian American to be released by a major New York publishing house (William Morrow), making him a pioneer and role model for Asian American poets who followed. Many of Inada's poems can only be found in the numerous journals, magazines and anthologies he contributed to, including Down at the Santa Fe Depot: Twenty Fresno Poets (1970), Yardbird Reader (1974), Settling America (1974), and Counterpoint (1976).
In 1974, Inada, along with Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan and Shawn Wong, co-edited Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Literature, which helped establish Asian American literature as a field worthy of study. Inada edited and wrote the introduction to Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience, a collection of personal documents, art, propaganda, and stories, published in 2000.
A significant portion of Inada's work explores the themes of reclaiming identities lost in "camp," the long-term effects of racism, the formative influences of growing up in Fresno, jazz and his long residence in Oregon. Those touchstones are reflected in the five sections of Legends from Camp: "Camp," "Fresno," "Jazz," "Oregon," and "Performance." Inada's camp poems have been viewed as a way of reclaiming history, expressing what happened from the point of view of the imprisoned, not those who illegally rounded them up. Within this theme, the Japanese community's outcasts, its "no-no boys," draft resisters and the vulnerable children among the prisoners are a particularly rich source of inspiration for Inada, leading to his role as narrator for two PBS documentaries. Children of the Camps (1999) tells the story of the long-suppressed trauma inflicted on child prisoners, while Conscience and the Constitution (2000) describes the 63 young male prisoners at Heart Mountain who were put on trial for resisting the draft. Inada is the subject of two other video works, Alan Kondo's I Told You So (1974), a pioneering work among Asian American-made documentary film and What it Means to Be Free: Japanese American Internment and Poetry (2001).
Inada finds common ground among Japanese Americans and the Native Americans and African Americans who preceded them in bearing the indignities of colonialism and oppression. In the poem "Kicking the Habit," Inada playfully writes of trying to "kick the habit" of speaking English, a metaphor for white cultural hegemony. In "At the Stronghold," he connects a small band of Modoc warriors, who fought off a much larger U.S. military force during the 19th-century Modoc War, to the Japanese American Tule Lake prisoners who were imprisoned at the same site 60 years later.
A poet and a musician who once wanted to become a jazz bass player, Inada has said that his favorite form of "publishing" is "live, in the bardic and jazz traditions." In Legends from Camp, he evokes himself as an 18-year-old standing outside the Blackhawk Club in San Francisco during intermission, shyly asking for the autograph of Billie Holiday. The event, in his telling, marks his conscious beginning as an artist.
Inada's playfulness with language, use of repetition, "stage directions" and knowing asides in part reflect the loose, anything-goes improvisation of his jazz idols. The poet has embraced these techniques not only through his poetry, but also in his collaborations and performances with musicians, weavers, on television, on college campuses, through documentaries and at cultural festivals. Inada has received a number of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1990 he participated in the establishment of Portland's Japanese American Historical Plaza, where his poems are engraved in stones.
Inada and his wife raised two sons, Miles and Lowell (named for Miles Davis and Robert Lowell) in Ashland, Oregon.
For More Information
Burt, Ryan. "Interning America's Colonial History: The Anthologies and Poetry of Lawson Fusao Inada." MELUS, 35:3 (fall 2010): 105-130.
Chang, Juliana. "Inada and Jazz." Modern American Poetry. Accessed: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/inada/jazz.htm.
Chang, Juliana. "Lawson Fusao Inada b. 1938." The Heath Anthology of American Literature, fourth edition, vol. 2. (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 2544-2545.
Grefalda, Reme A. "Lawson Fusao Inada (1938- )." Contemporary American Ethnic Poets: Lives, Works, Sources. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 147-50.
Holliday, Shawn. Lawson Fusao Inada, Boise State University, 2003.
Inada, Lawson Fusao. Before the War: Poems As They Happened. New York: Morrow, 1971.
--- Legends from Camp. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press 1992.
--- In This Great Land of Freedom: The Japanese Pioneers of Oregon. With Azuma, Eichiro, Kikumura-Yano, Akemi, Worthington, Mary. Los Angeles, Japanese American National Museum, 1993.
--- Drawing the Line. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.
--- Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience, ed. Berkeley, San Francisco: Heyday Books, California Historical Society, 2000.
--- "'Ghostly Camps, Alien Nation' – An Essay Review by Lawson Fusao Inada." Rev. of Democracy on trial: The Japanese-American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II, by Paige Smith. Modern American Poetry, February 2001. Accessed: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/inada/ghostly.htm.
Oregon Encyclopedia entry on Inada. Accessed: http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/inada_lawson_fusao_1938_/.
Sato, Gayle K. "Lawson Fusao Inada (1938- ). Asian American Poets. Kim, Hyung-chan. Distinguished Asian Americans: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 145-157.
- ↑ Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1992), 48.
- ↑ David Kheridian et al., Down at the Santa Fe Depot (Fresno: Giglia Press, 1970), autobiographical note.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Lawson Fusao Inada, Drawing the Line (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997) 48.
- ↑ Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press 1992), 148.
- ↑ Ibid., 58-59.