Poetry News

Mia Ayumi Malhotra's Preternatural Isako Isako

By Harriet Staff
Mia Ayumi Malhotra, Isako Isako, cover

Ingrid Rojas Contreras reviews Bay Area writer Mia Ayumi Malhotra's debut collection, Isako Isako (Alice James, 2018), which "follows four generations of Japanese and Japanese-American women through polyphonic perspectives that explore home, identity and history and its racial and political overtones." More, from KQED:

...Malhotra boldly begins with a reproduction of the Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, which ordered that all people of Japanese ancestry (both citizens and immigrants) be taken to internment camps. I can't say that I had ever sat down to read this order from beginning to end, but this time I did. "Evacuees must carry with them on departure for the Assembly Center... (a) Bedding and linens (no mattress) for each member of the family; (b) Toilet articles... (c) Extra clothing...; (d) Sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups." The nightmarishly trivial use of "evacuees" in this order has its own chilling effect—a reminder of how a government's language can so easily be deployed against its own people.

Isako Isako was born from stories Malhotra heard from her maternal grandmother, who lived in Japan during World War II and the ensuing American occupation, later immigrating to the U.S. Malhotra's grandmother also told stories about her own mother (Malhotra’s great-grandmother). In "History of Isako,one of the most stunning poems in the collection, the speaker of the poem begins by telling her own story:

During war Isako is lady watch city fade to rubble. Is lady hide in Kobe church as air raid siren shrill overhead. Is lady strain for voice of emperor on radio then sell kimono and shred potato to rice.

The preternatural present tense in this poem and the broken English creates a delicate and strained aura, all the more so, as we follow Isako's journey into the U.S...

Read the full review at KQED.

Originally Published: September 14th, 2018