The reason I was headed west–or, if not the reason, the academic justification I offered myself–was to get to Arizona and visit their archives on Japanese American internment during World War II. I’m a PhD student based in Michigan, and by the end of the year I’m supposed to have some substantive work on my dissertation. Ergo, archive. And I couldn’t just fly into Sky Harbor like a normal person, because I had internment sites to visit, which were obscurely located by design: Poston and Gila River, in the outer orbit of Phoenix; Topaz in Utah, vaguely near Salt Lake City; and Amache in Colorado, nearer to Kansas than anything one might typically associate with the Mountain Timezone. (Amache is 100 miles south of the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, however; and if you only know one thing about Colorado, that is a decent place to start.)
Really, I wanted to roadtrip. I wanted to consummate my marriage to the car I’d bought nine months prior, and which had only left the confines of Ann Arbor to visit Novi a few times, and Toledo once. I wanted the southwest.
But it would be wrong to say that the academic side of this trip was a lie. It’s a powerful thing, to have the privilege of visiting the place of your research, and when you drive across the country, you learn a lot about where it is you live, and what your citizenship has given you. (Insert complicated history of indigenous dispossession and American xenophobia/nativism.)
When my mother and I visited Amache at the end of June 2016, I didn’t expect to learn anything I didn’t already know–not from the meager National Park Service signage, attempting to tell a ‘niche’ ethnic history most people wouldn’t know from Adam (Japanese Americans included). But I told myself that I’d try to think about it from one more remove, at the level of narrative: What is this history, to the naked eye? To the National Park Service? To the casual visitor (…the casual visitor to a far, hot southeastern corner of Colorado)? Though I should note that we weren’t alone; there were actually two other groups who crossed paths with us there, one a couple–one of whom might have had relatives who had been interned, and the other a big caravan with California plates and more than one hatchback stuffed to the gills with earthly belongings.
What I was really after was that feeling of place–the kind that kind be articulated, though academia will tell you that it can definitely be theorized. That feeling of, this heat is intense when you can’t open the car windows to let the air in because the flies are murderous and the gnats are legion; you can’t keep the AC running because you can’t keep the AC running because you’re afraid that if you let the car idle too long it will catch the tall grass beneath it on fire; that feeling of this is why you’re doing this. This is why you actually have to write this dissertation, and why this Ivory Tower nonsense is inextricable from you, on the road, leaking sweat and covered in dust. Eating from the ground, and sleeping in a tent.
I’m still not sure what I want my dissertation to look like, or what it will be about. My biggest fear is that it won’t have the strictly academic background or vocabulary to pass muster in the academy. That what I’d really like to write is the creative non fiction book with the snappy cover, or the strange internment-themed bathroom reader. Except for the part where I don’t have the creative training to really pull that off, either–because if you’ve ever seen a Michigan MFA in action, their poetry and prose can blow your mind in under twelve syllables.
I’m provincially skeptical of/annoyed with academese and the academy in general. Not in any real radical sense, because I’m definitely too apathetic/institutionally content for that (see: the number of ambivalent/two-tone slashes in this paragraph), but in the sense that my problem is double-bladed: I actively resist the formal and mental conventions of the academy, but I also probably couldn’t pull them off even if I tried. I’ve been in school since 1995 and I still don’t actually get what it is.
But I’m also skeptical of/annoyed with non-academics who don’t hesitate to pooh-pooh academia, or brashly reject any of the genuinely interesting constructions and readings the academy actually has managed to put together. Because the value is real, guys. It so is (or, it can be). Plus, I’m probably a little too versed in the fringes academic-speak to appeal to creative non-fiction audiences, anyway.
If I were to write a non-dissertation book about internment, I know I’d immediately find my love of citation, of critical race theory, of ecocriticism. And then, of course, I’d be lost in the moat between the tower and the populace.
Or the interstitial tributary.
OR THE LIMINAL SPACE.
This is all to say, we went to Amache. I ingested the usual narratives (with no shade toward the Amache Preservation Society whatsoever). I tried to think about how my own story might disrupt them.
And I jammed about 47 gigantic, vibrantly green, size-of-a-big-cockroach grasshoppers into the grill of my car.
(And yes, I riffed Thoreau. I know. I know.)