Naoko Fujimoto was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. She is the author of Where I Was Born (Willow Publishing, 2019) and three chapbooks: Mother Said, I Want Your Pain (Backbone Press, 2018), Silver Seasons of Heartache (Glass Lyre Press 2017) and Home, No Home (Educe Press 2016). She is an associate and outreach translation editor at RHINO Poetry.
Fujimoto’s latest collection, Glyph (Tupelo Press 2021) opens the doors to the wonderful world of graphic poetry. She follows the tradition of emakis, which transliterates to “picture scroll” from Japanese, and pieces together trans-sensory collage poems and illustrations to tell the story of her personal, familial and Japan’s national history through the traumas of war and natural disasters as she herself views both American and Japanese culture anew from without Japan. Fujimoto’s sense of humor, which imbues hope and resilience, is the golden lining that coheres the collection.
Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself to your readers of the world?
Naoko Fujimoto: I am originally from Nagoya, Japan, but I currently live in Chicago. When I studied at Nanzan Junior College, one of my professors became the director of the ESL Program at Indiana University South Bend. Therefore, I got the opportunity to become an exchange student studying English literature and Creative Writing. I came to the U.S. when I was around 20 years old. I did not speak English much at all, so I went to an English language school first.
After I graduated from Indiana University, I moved to Chicago, where there are many art and entertainment organizations like the Poetry Foundation, independent theaters, and writing events. Eventually, I became a member of the RHINO Poetry in Evanston.
I used to work at a machine tool company, and when I left that job, Jeffrey Levine, then the editor-in-chief of Tupelo Press, invited me to their hub in North Adams. Their office is a part of the Massachusetts Contemporary Art Museum buildings (Mass MoCA). During the summer, I spent a lot of time with artists and writers. I also mediated, thinking “what is poetry?” and “why do I write poetry?” I decided to combine my Japanese heritage and English writing to create graphic poems in response.
TT: My next question is related to how you created your first piece at MoCA. How were you able to piece together the different emakis together? How does the being in the presence of art influence how you create your work?
NF: Mass MoCA had an exhibition on Anselm Keifer, a German sculptor who uses concrete with metals to create large installations. When I saw his art, I immediately started thinking about my own concrete of creativity.
For Keifer, his artistic outlet was concrete and mixing rubbish sort of metals but the final product is gorgeous and poetic. I wanted that energy in my poems, but I cannot use actual concrete. I had paper & pen at Mass MoCA and started sketching my narrative poems associating words & images.
I wondered about adapting emaki elements into my works. In my hometown, there is the famous Tokugawa Art Museum, which owns one of historical emaki of the Tale of Genji. The art style was familiar with me, and I wanted to combine and infuse it into my poetry.
TT: How do you choose what types of materials and what types of narratives you bring into Glyph? Glyph has a main narrative and then side stories. Is there a narrative arc you’d like your readers to follow, or is that something for the readers to find out for themselves?
NF: That’s a good question and observation. The Tale of Genji has a main narrative arc as well as also side stories shown in paintings; for example, what kinds of kimonos the main characters are wearing, or what kinds of flowers they are holding. Those narrative details are always my favorite things to look for in emaki.
To take my poem “On a Black Hill” as an example, you can see many materials. A significant material is this towel, this upside-down American incomplete flag. This poem is about the World War II and the atomic bomb. In one word, it’s sad.
Where does this towel come from? My grandfather didn’t talk much about the war. Neither did my grandmother. It was taboo for my family to talk about their war memories. That’s why sometimes funny things happen. My mother, for instance, had never seen pumpkins until she was 20 years old! To me, pumpkin is delicious with bacon and cream cheese, but my grandmother starved all the time during the war, and all that was available was a bit of pumpkin, with no salt, and definitely no bacon. So, my grandmother hates all the summer vegetables: potatoes, eggplants, and pumpkin.
One day, while we were eating dinner together, my grandfather suddenly said, “You know, I worked at a navy station during World War II, close to Hiroshima.” My grandmother and I were surprised, but my grandfather kept talking. He heard that something bad may happen in Hiroshima, so he decided to move away into the countryside. He helped pregnant women and many people there. Later, he heard a really horrible thing happened in Hiroshima. He actually wanted to see for himself how bad it was. He went back for a little bit and realized it was something he could never imagine.
Everything from head to toe was covered in black, and he could not see whether what was covered was human, or alive. A lot of people walked towards him and he decided to help, so he ended up being covered in soot from head to toe as well. He decided to go back home, where he needed a cloth to wipe the soot off his face. But there was no towel. A kind passerby at the river gave my grandfather a towel. He said it was the whitest towel he had ever seen. He was very thankful and left Hiroshima.
He told my grandmother and me that story one day. My grandmother had never heard this story before. I, for one, I couldn’t eat any more. This was too much. It’s a very heavy topic, but I’m aware of its importance to my family and Japanese history.
After the war, both my grandparents owned companies. Both my grandparents have a philosophy of welcoming people with good dinner and wine. So, growing up, many guests from all over the world visited our dining room. Per Japanese custom, the first thing people do when visiting (after removing their shoes) is wash their hands and then have tea before dinner is served. After washing their hands, they use the towel hanging at my grandmother’s house.
That happiness, despite its horrible history, led to me asking my grandmother for the towel. Grandma asked me to take a new towel rather than the old towel, not knowing of my reasons. I explained that the towel is very meaningful to me. There was this back and forth and I ended up getting both towels.
In “On a Black Hill,” I use the towel to balance happiness and sadness in graphic form. I think that while I do not want to read some of my poems because of the topic, it is important for our decedents to not forget how horrible the war was.
Though we cannot change history, and I own it as a Japanese person, we need to see past the particular moment to grow and educate. While I do not have my own kids, I am an educator, and I embrace that moment, and that has become a strong theme in my graphic and written poems.
TT: I love how the experience that the old towel has is then incorporated into “On a Black Hill.” I loved the discussion too about your grandpa being covered from head to toe with soot, and how he described the towel as the whitest he’s ever seen. How do you choose what color schemes to use in your poem and what kinds of emotions do you want to evoke in your reader as an artist and poet?
NF: Is it easy to identify colors for human emotion? Is red happy? Or is blue sad? Using “On a Black Hill” as an example again, there is a lot of pink paper creating the mountain. The pink papers actually come from my sister’s origami collection since she was young. Now that we were in our thirties, she gave her origami paper to me when she learned about my graphic poem project. I thought that’s also another layer. It’s difficult to talk about because the war has unconsciously affected two younger generations—my father’s generation and my own—and we saw remnants of the war, but we have a happy life. That is the reason I thought pink is a happy color, it looks sad, but also happy. It creates a multidimensional layer in the context of the poem.
TT: I’m so glad that you decided to go forward and know it must have taken a lot of courage to be one of the bearers of the stories in a way that doesn’t feel too heavy. There are moments in emaki as well as your work where the humor really shines through. How did you intend for humor to allow for beauty to seep through in spite of it all?
NF: I think I am serious the majority of the time, but I see things that probably shouldn’t be pointed out in a serious matter. I feel the urge to mention it. Now that I’m in America, I have started to see histories told from completely different points of view.
In the same way, I thought it was interesting to see the many aspects of a particular object, then poke holes into each country’s history, including Japan’s.
TT: Your poems are whimsical. I love how you talk about different ways of looking at the same thing which in turn reveals the unexpected.
Something else I love is how you critique feelings that one group may have against another group in “Impossibly Long” in a nuanced way. So you have a speech bubble coming out from an Asian man, saying “This restaurant only accepts ten Chinese people a day…” Another bubble saying “It doesn’t matter,” and a last speech bubble coming out of the girls, stating “But we are Japanese.”
How do you challenge different perspectives you don’t agree with in a way that challenges the viewer’s own perceptions and preconceptions as well?
NF: In “Impossibly Long,” there is the text. Then there are the graphic parts, the man and the two girls separated by a long asparagus. The two girls, well-dressed, eating cotton candy and looking spoiled. Then there are many cacti-like spikes on the inner letters and blue triangles that immediately suggest to the viewer that something is awkward and irritating.
This was based on my personal experience traveling with my grandparents abroad together. We always travelled together in groups of ten, with my cousin, my cousin’s family, and my grandparents. We went to a European country and the tour guide was excited to go to the restaurant. Then, my grandpa said they only accept ten Chinese people. I remember immediately telling my grandfather we were Japanese. My grandpa said people from outside Asia don’t differentiate each group, some just call everyone Chinese. It’s easier to go with it than correct them.
Two things ricocheted in my head at that moment. First, we are a group of 10, so we can go together in the restaurant. But what if another Asian family wants to dine. Will they kick them out? Asians were not very popular back then and discrimination was very visible when I was nine or ten years old. The incident really bothered me a lot, and I needed to let the story out. So I expressed this in graphic form. I also think that it’s important to talk about racism, even within Asian culture because it’s an important part of Asian history, and my family history as well.
TT: In closing, what are you working on today, and are there any closing thoughts you have for your readers or viewers of the world?
NF: I started working on translating 19th through 20th century waka poems into graphic poems that feature both English and Japanese. It’s a bit non-traditional, but I have a lot of fun learning about the human drama and history in the waka poems.
Tiffany Troy is a poet, translator, and critic based in New York.