Poet and memoirist David Mura creates his work from the perspective of a Sansei—a third-generation Japanese-American. In both his poetry and his nonfiction, Mura deals with themes such as racism, sexuality, and what it means to be Japanese American.

Mura's first memoir, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, Mura writes of the year he spent in Japan on a writing fellowship. His account of the year abroad, which brought him to a greater understanding of his own identity as a Japanese American, was warmly received by critics. In an article for Canadian Literature, Guy Beauregard wrote, "Make no mistake about it: Mura's narrative is not a naive search for lost 'roots' or an essential 'Japanese-ness.' Instead, Mura works through the more difficult task of rethinking what precisely 'home,' 'nation,' and 'culture' can mean to a Japanese American who would rather have gone to Paris than Tokyo to spend a year writing." A reviewer for Washington Post Book World praised, "Mura's nonfiction is a potent antidote to one-dimensional portrayals of the Japanese." In the New Yorker, a contributor commended, "There is brilliant writing in this book, observations of Japanese humanity and culture that are subtly different from and more penetrating than what we usually get from Westerners." R. Bruce Schauble of Kirkus Reviews called Turning Japanese "noteworthy for its seriousness of purpose and for its unusual intelligence, sophistication, and honesty," and Donna Seaman of Booklist described the book as "an eloquent account of a catharsis that illuminates both personal and societal aspects."

Mura continues to discuss the themes of racial and sexual identity in Where the Body Meets Memory. The book delves into not only how his racial identity was shaped by the fact that his parents were both sent to internment camps during World War II, but how his racial identity impacted his sexuality. Jonathan Rauch of Washington Post Book World wrote that in Where the Body Meets Memory, Mura writes "with a novelist's humane eye and a poet's taut economy. His prose is diamond-pure, and he uses it to tell two stories in counterpoint, one of his parents' flight from their ethnicity and their past, the other of his own recovery of both." A writer for Transpacific lauded Mura's use of humor in the text, calling the book "seriously hilarious," and Donna Seaman of Booklist praised the writing as "unique, invaluable, and skillfully conveyed." Though the book hinges on Mura's sense of what it means to be Asian American, Rauch was struck "not by the ethnic uniqueness of Mura's experience, but by its universality. . .[T]he story has rarely been so movingly told."

In Mura's poetry, many of the same themes appear. Zhou Xiaojing, in an essay on Mura's poetry for MELUS, cited an interview with the author in 1989, in which he stated that "everything I write, except for certain pieces of criticism, reflects an outlook which is conditioned by my being Japanese American." Xiaojing goes on to write, "In confronting his ethnic identity and the Japanese-American experience, Mura opens up new areas of inquiry and new artistic challenges and possibilities for his poetry." Tim Brady, writing in MPLS-St. Paul noted that Mura's heritage as a Sansei is "a fact that informs a good chunk of his writing." Brady continued, saying that because Mura's poetry tells history from the side not of the victors, but of the colonized, "A lot of readers are cupping their ears to hear more."

After We Lost Our Way, Mura's first book of poetry and the winner of the 1989 National Poetry Series contest, uses the technique of the monologue to explore several points of view, allowing Mura to critique racial discrimination from several angles. Though the content explores Asian-American identity, critics have noted that his poetry in this collection has a more European than American feel to it. Edward Butscher of American Book Review wrote that After We Lost Our Way "flares up in passion and ambition against traditional walls, blazes a lushness of metaphor that is constantly seeking political and social associations."

In The Colors of Desire Mura focuses on the interplay between race and eroticism. Though continuing to explore the Japanese-American identity, Mura also discusses sexual desire and addiction, infidelity, and the difference between memory and truth. In Booklist, Elizabeth Gunderson praises his "powerful" poems for their combination of brutality and sweetness, writing, "Mura bares his soul and amazes his readers with the beauty and darkness in his work."

Though best known for his award-winning nonfiction, Mura has also been active in creating performance and theater pieces, and he has made himself a presence in the Minneapolis arts community through his work in founding the Asian-American Renaissance, an Asian-American arts organization, where he served as artistic director. As a contributor to newspapers and magazines, Mura has spoken out against the inherent racism and orientalism present in such lauded works as Miss Saigon.
Poems by David Mura


  • A Male Grief: Notes on Pornography and Addiction, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1987.
  • After We Lost Our Way (poetry), Dutton (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Relocations: Images from a Japanese American (multimedia performance piece), first performed at Intermedia Arts Gallery, 1990.
  • Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1991.
  • (With Tom Rose, Kim Hines, and Maria Cheng; also performer) Silence and Desire (play), first performed at Red Eye Theater, 1994.
  • (With Alexs Pate; also performer) The Colors of Desire (performance piece; also known as Secret Colors), first produced at Southern Theater, Walker Art Center, 1994.
  • (With Alexs Pate; also performer) Slowly This (documentary film), Alive TV, 1995.
  • The Colors of Desire (poetry), Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity (memoir), Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
  • After Hours (theater piece), first performed at Intermedia Arts, 1996.
  • (With Esther Suzuki) Internment Voices (theater piece), first performed at Theater Mu at Intermedia Arts, 1997.
  • (Adaptor) The Winged Seed (theater piece; adaptation of memoir by Li-Young Lee), first performed by Pangea World Theater, at Guthrie Laboratory Theater, 1997.
  • (With Meena Natarajan) Silent Children (theater piece), 1997.
  • Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto, and Mr. Moto: Poetry and Identity, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2002.
Author of Listening (poetry chapbook), Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Work represented in anthologies, including The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by Bill Moyers and James Haba, Doubleday (New York, NY); Poets of the New Century, David R. Godine; Men and Intimacy: Personal Accounts Exploring the Dilemmas of Modern Male Sexuality, Crossing Press; Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Poets, Greenfield Review Press; and The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY). Contributor of poems and articles to periodicals, including Nation,New Republic, River Styx, New England Review, Quarry, and American Poetry Review. Some of Mura's works have been published in Japan and the Netherlands.

Further Readings

  • American Book Review, June, 1991, Edward Butscher, "Angst, American and Otherwise," p. 28; February, 1996, Frank Steward, "The Color of Shame," p. 22.
  • Booklist, February 1, 1991, Donna Seaman, review of Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, p. 1110; December 15, 1994, Elizabeth Gunderson, review of The Colors of Desire, p. 732; May 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity, p. 1476.
  • Canadian Literature, August, 1997, review of Turning Japanese, p. 162.
  • Condé Nast Traveller, April, 1991, p. 80.
  • KLIATT, November, 1992, R. Bruce Schauble, review of Turning Japanese, pp. 41-42.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 1991, Karl Taro Greenfeld, review of Turning Japanese, p. 10.
  • MELUS, fall, 1998, Zhou Xiaojing, "David Mura's Poetics of Identity," p. 145; fall-winter, 2000, Mary Slowik, "Beyond Lot's Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura," p. 221.
  • MPLS-St. Paul, January 1990, Tim Brady, "Poet of the Not-so-Pretty," p. 17.
  • New Yorker, April 15, 1991, review ofTurning Japanese, p. 104.
  • New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1991, p. 10.
  • Onthebus, summer-fall, 1990.
  • Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1991, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Turning Japanese, p. 51; March 11, 1996, review of Where the Body Meets Memory, p. 49.
  • Transpacific, May, 1997, review of Where the Body Meets Memory, p. 20.
  • Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1991, Kunio Francis Tanabe, review of Turning Japanese, p. 6; May 31, 1992, review ofTurning Japanese, p. 12; July 28, 1996, Jonathan Rauch, "Discovering His True Colors," p. 11.