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Shoson Nagahara's 'Lament in the Night': Rediscovering a lost L.A.

February 22, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • The corner of 1st and San Pedro streets in Little Tokyo in 1933.
The corner of 1st and San Pedro streets in Little Tokyo in 1933. (Los Angeles Times )

Editor's note: The following is Times book critic David L. Ulin's introduction to "Lament in the Night" by Shoson Nagahara (Kaya Press: 452 pp., $19.95 paper), which collects two lost pieces of Los Angeles literature, "Lament in the Night" and "The Tale of Osato." Together, these works reintroduce the writing of Nagahara, a Japanese immigrant to 1920s L.A. who wrote in Japanese for Japanese readers, uncovering the life of Little Tokyo from the inside.

On Saturday, Ulin and Andrew Leong, the book's translator, are to be at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo to discuss Nagahara, his writing and its place in the culture of Los Angeles. There are also to be readings by Tamlyn Tomita and Gedde Watanabe, and a reception. The event is scheduled for 2 p.m.

In 2001, as I was gathering material for “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology,” I began to realize that in a landscape such as Southern California, with all its overlapping cultures and communities, there was no way to get a comprehensive sense of local literature. How was I, a single reader, bound by the limitations of history and language, ever to understand, or even know about, the depth, the range, the eddies and the offshoots of the region’s written heritage?

At the time, I was thinking mostly of the contemporary: Korean authors in Koreatown, Vietnamese in Orange County, all working in their own tongues, for their own audiences, utterly inaccessible to me. But the same was true, I came to realize, of older material, that which had existed beyond the mainstream in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, homogenized out of memory by the relentless Anglo boosterism of old L.A.

The more I tried to find it -- African American accounts of early Watts, Mexican Americans or Native Americans on the ranchos, the flip side of the myths perpetuated by Helen Hunt Jackson in "Ramona" -- the more I was forced to recognize that whatever might have existed was now largely irretrievable, hidden by inaccessibility and time. Because it had never been distributed to a broad-based audience, it may as well have never been distributed at all.

I was reminded of this experience while reading Shoson Nagahara’s "Lament in the Night," a book that brings together two works of fiction by an author so lost (or overlooked, or neglected) that to call it a reclamation project would understate the point.

Rather, this is an excavation, a reinvention, a backward-looking telescope, a lens on a world that has long since disappeared.

Published in Japanese for Japanese immigrant readers, and set, for the most part, in the narrow streets and alleys of Little Tokyo, the narratives here speak to us from behind the curtain, offering a glimpse of the city’s hidden literature, exactly the sort of revelation that so eluded me a decade ago.

The provenance is fascinating. The title effort, a novella, came out in 1925 from Sodosha, a press connected to the Bunkado bookstore at 1st and San Pedro; it is accompanied by a full-length novel called "The Tale of Osato," which was serialized daily in the Japanese newspaper Rafu Shimpo between November 1925 and May 1926.

What we get, in other words, are not only two long-forgotten pieces of L.A. writing, but also a window into a community, with its own cultural infrastructure and outlets: "Lament in the Night" was reviewed on the front page of Rafu Shimpo, and the individual installments of "The Tale of Osato" appeared on the paper’s front page, as well.

And yet, equally compelling is how closely, in certain ways, this community reflects that of the larger city of Los Angeles, at least through Nagahara’s eyes. The characters here are hardly isolated; they interact with other Angelenos, from Anglos to African Americans to Chinese, and are influenced by Western culture, including “painters like Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin.”

The same might be said of Nagahara’s writing, which, although it predates noir by a few years, nevertheless possesses something of the genre’s rough edges, its lack of illusion, while drawing on the conventions of Japanese narrative -- "The Tale of Osato" is written in what Nagahara calls “the style of a monogatari,” recalling traditional sagas such as "The Tale of Genji" or "The Tale of Heike."

Both works are gritty, urban, highlighting the difficulties faced by their protagonists as they struggle for a sense of place, of belonging, in Los Angeles.

In "Lament in the Night," a malcontent named Ishikawa Sakuzo drifts through the streets of the city, bumming change, cadging meals where he can find them, scouring the gutters for cigarette butts. He has a friend, a painter, whose success fills him with envy; he visits a woman, Otatsu, the hostess of a restaurant, whom he uses (or, perhaps, they use each other?) for companionship. She is married to a man 23 years her senior, “a notorious gambler and worse, a complete drunk.”

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