Award Winning Author Karen Tei Yamashita Speaks of Joy, Generational Trauma, and Everything In Between

This past Wednesday, Karen Tei Yamashita, author, playwright, literary scholar, and the recent recipient of the National Book Award for “Distinguished Contributions to American Letters,” visited Andover to present “The Joy Talk.” Opening the presentation with an excerpt from her latest book, “Sansei and Sensibility” that speaks of a narrative between herself and her niece, Yamashita discussed the joy that arises from the unique balance of holding onto and releasing generational trauma. 

Yamashita began: “Your sister opens ‘The New York Times Magazine’ and points to a cute Japanese woman on a pink background in a pose with her finger pointed up and her foot raised behind her in a small kit. You size up the title, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.’” 

Yamashita went on to explain the mantras of Marie Kondo, a popular Japanese organizing consultant, speaking about how Kondo thought the past was meant to be left in the past and should be thrown away once it “no longer sparks joy.”

However, Yamashita challenged this view, referencing her story from “Sansei and Sensibility,” in which Yamashita and her niece go on to travel across America, visiting seven out of the ten Japanese internment camps. Explaining the history and the suffering behind these camps, Yamashita questions whether one should dispose of the past if it no longer brings joy. 

“You handle the crumbling spines of old fashioned obsolete albums and you understand the urge never to open these boxes. You collate by date the old correspondence, handwritten letters, often five pages long and read through the period when your folks were shipped off to concentration camps with only what they could carry,” said Yamashita.

Yamashita continued, “Kondo’s admonition that clutter is the failure to return things to where they belong—her insistence on simplicity and minimalism—all this only reminds you of what you assume is a Japanese American motto. Leave it cleaner than you found it. Kondo writes [that] ‘no matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.’ But you have the deeper urge to exchange the word wonderful for awful, and sit in that spot, and weep.” 

Through the use of Kondo as a comparison, students felt it easier to understand Yamashita’s presentation. Attendee Audrey Sun ’23 spoke about how Yamashita’s words resonated with her personally.

“I really liked the, not the comparisons per se, but just the use of Marie Kondo’s idea of you can only keep the [things] that sparks joy, that you feel you have to let things go and let things be in the past. I think using that idea of using that method and comparing it to the idea of preserving these memories [was interesting]. [The] idea of not letting go but also especially as people who are removed from the experiences of Japanese American in the concentration camps, it is a responsibility to not let go of those memories and to keep telling these stories. And not getting rid of all this ‘junk’ by preserving them,” said Sun. 

Darren Zhu ’24, who also attended Yamashita’s talk, noted not only his previous knowledge regarding Japanese internment camps, but also how Yamashita expanded this knowledge. Zhu appreciated how Yamashita presented “The Joy Talk” and told the stories of generations before her. 

“The way [Yamashita] talked about [the concentration camps] provided many new perspectives about the ways in which the daily lives of the camps’ prisoners were impacted and how they were forced to choose the few items they were allowed to keep among their belongings. It was more from the views of people in the camps than outsiders looking in, from during that time period or from the future,” said Zhu. 

Before proceeding to a question and answer session with the audience, Yamashita concluded her presentation with one final remark. Yamashita drew on each aspect she talked about in her talk: the past, the present, and joy.

“But in each of those remote sites of Japanese American incarceration, there are monuments, interpretive centers, museums and real people, volunteers and docents that all decry the racism, hatred, and fear of unjustly imprisoned citizens and honest, hardworking immigrant families. These sites and their caretakers stand as places of evidence, accountability, resistance, and hope. You return home to your personal Tokyo Bay, a landfill space of junk you cannot abandon. You know you cannot hold each item and feel the spark of joy. Take your foot back and point your finger up in the joy position. If there is joy, it is a painful joy,” said Yamashita.