Christine Kitano on "Gaman"
It was night when the buses stopped.
It was too dark to see the road,
or if there was a road. So we waited.
We watched. We thought of back home,
how the orchards would swell with fruit,
how the trees would strain, then give way
under their ripe weight. The pockmarked
moon the face of an apple, pitted
with rot. But of course not. Someone
would intervene, would make of our absence
a profit. When we came, the boat, anchored
at San Francisco Bay, swayed for hours . . .
the gauntlet of uniformed men so intent
on finding cause to turn us away. And now
again, we wait. We watch. Our American children
press against us with their small backs.
Which gives us pause. For the sake of the children,
we'll teach them to forgive the fears of others,
the offenses. But what we don't anticipate
is how the dust of the desert will clot our throats,
how much fear will conspire to keep us silent.
And how our children will read this silence
as shame. However much we tried, we thought,
to demonstrate grace. When the buses stopped,
it was too dark to see the road. Or if there was a road.
It was night. And instead of speaking, we waited.
Instead of speaking, we watched.
Gaman is a Japanese word that can be translated as "endure," "persist," or "persevere," and is often used to describe how Japanese Americans reacted to the WWII incarceration. I don't speak Japanese, so I came to this word as many others do, through a history book. And yet, I understand enough about Japanese American culture to sense there is a lack in the terms "endure" or "persist." In this poem, I wanted to try to capture the word's essence through the experience of the poem.
This is a persona poem, one of a series of persona poems in Sky Country. Though it was my father who, at sixteen, was incarcerated in Topaz Concentration Camp, I wanted to step out of the immediately autobiographical. Of course, a poem is always somehow autobiographical, but it was working through persona that allowed me to access a wider range of references. Instead of speaking to my father's experiences, I focused instead on his mother, and from there worked to imagine the figure of a young issei mother. This figure is representative of many of her generation, one who left her homeland for the United States, then built a new life as an immigrant only to have that life taken away. How would one explain this experience to their children? It was through this lens that I found my way to the word "grace" as a translation for gaman. It's imperfect, as all translations are, but I hope it adds to the sense of what the word gestures toward.
"Gaman" was first published in The Asian American Literary Review.