With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
Brynn Saito with photographs by Dave Lehl
Places are alive like ghosts are alive: subtle, unpredictable shape-shifters, infused with memory and emotion. The spirit of a place—the genius loci, as the ancients called it—rises from the land’s stories, its unique matrix of weather, struggle, celebration, and blood. There are places we return to again and again to find our stories. We change; they change. The stories we tell take on lives of their own.
The story of my Korean American and Japanese American families begins in Dinuba and Reedley—two rural towns in the heart of California’s agricultural basin, each about 13 miles east of Highway 99, which runs midway between the Pacific and the Sierras. Sometimes, the tale begins in the aftermath of war and incarceration: my father’s parents, Alma Teranishi and Mitsuo Saito, returned to California to resettle in Reedley after their release in 1945 from the Gila River concentration camp in southern Arizona—the place where they met, married, and gave birth to their first child. My mother’s father, Samuel Oh, returned from the European frontlines to his hometown of Dinuba where a divorce awaited him—a separation that, ultimately, set the stage for his meeting and marrying my grandmother, Marilyn. Sometimes, the story begins earlier than that: the first generation arriving on Angel Island then laboring their way to the southern San Joaquin Valley—a place that would, over the course of the 20th century, become the source of 25% of the nation’s harvested food. Almonds, olives, stone fruit, citrus, vegetables, berries alfalfa, winter wheat: crops planted and picked by migrant and immigrant workers, generations of laborers making their lives in the shadow of the distant Sierras.
On a gray, post-rain November morning, I travel with my folks from our home in Fresno back to Reedley and Dinuba. Rows of vine fruit wind along a diverted Kings River and mountain slopes sport majestic, white-painted letters signifying small farming towns: the “R”, the “S”, the “D.” We visit the church where my mother grew her faith; the stadium where my father captained his high school football team; the side lot location of the tree my father and his older brother set fire to—with a boy still in the branches (who, luckily, survived the prank); the old home, where Dad’s dad carved, in their front yard, a stone pond for koi.
What follows is a reflection in prose and photographs tracing the morning’s journey.
“In the summers, your dad used to run barefoot through the streets to get to the town pool,” says my mother as we drive the streets of Reedley, my father’s hometown. I imagine Dad young and running, his little-brother spirit, his charming, mischievous smile—all of the energy of someone totally beloved by his mother, occasionally scolded by his volatile father, teased by his older brother. High school football captain, eventual P.E. teacher, basketball ref, football, basketball, track, and golf coach—and trainer of two, lazy teenaged daughters: I remember my dad up at dawn, cheering us into shape. At 72 years old, my father still runs—many miles each week in the morning’s winter cold. My father has been running his entire life.
There are close to 20 churches in less than two square miles in Dinuba. My mother came of age in the Dinuba Presbyterian Church, now the Iglesia Nueva Esperanza. Graced by palms and pistache trees, the formidable building towers above us, as we wander along K and Merced Streets. My mother’s grandfather, Tai Eun, fled Korea for America at the height of the brutal Japanese occupation, eventually establishing himself as a lay leader in Dinuba’s tight-knit Korean Christian community. After it disbanded, my mom and her two brothers started their Sundays at Dinuba Presbyterian, a mostly white congregation. In her day, the Korean American population in Dinuba was larger than in nearby towns, though much smaller than in urban centers like LA or San Francisco. As the decades passed, my mother’s faith continued to anchor her—eventually, she became a lay leader in the Japanese American Christian church (a story for another essay). “Mother, I watch,” begins a poem I wrote for her. “Strong, you walk tall reflecting mountains. / Water grows more sure of its strength as rain rushes beneath / cool elm winds. / You are not / anymore a shard; history’s strong song makes us whole.”
Dad, storytalking in front of the Reedley Buddhist Church on 15th Street, the church where he was raised. The story of Buddhism in North America reaches further back than the zen and meditation movements of the 1970s. First-wave Asian immigrants in early 20th century brought with them Buddhist belief systems rooted in the Jōdo Shinshū, or “Shin” (True Pure Land) tradition—the tradition of my father’s family. The Reedley Buddhist Church was built in 1936, then rebuilt, in 1952, after the wartime incarceration of the west coast Japanese American community. Neither my father nor I remember what exactly he was pointing to beyond the church gates—most likely, a story of some prank or mischievous behavior—though I do learn that, as a young person, my father was the president of the Young Buddhist’s Association (YBA), the youth group of the Buddhist Churches of America. Both of my parents were shaped early on by spiritual traditions anchoring the lives of the first, second, and third generations; both continue to live lives grounded in service to community.
“That’s where I had to sit when I got in trouble for talking too much!” says my mother, pointing at the ledge where her and her girlfriend sat giggling, punished by their teacher for their classroom disturbances. Eventually, both of my parents earned their teaching credentials at Fresno State—education, another inherited legacy.
Sometimes, my mother walked alone from the family farm to Grandview Elementary—days when her mother, a professional social worker, was working in the nearby town of Visalia and her father was deep in the fields. She’d dive into the side ditch to avoid being sighted by oncoming cars, ashamed to be seen walking alone like that. Her father grew grapes; my mom and her two brothers were often left to their own devices, making their way through the ups and downs of ranch life. As we drive down Avenue 400, my mother points out the location of the surrounding family farms, many once owned by Japanese Americans: the Kawanos, the Nagatas, the Yamamotos, and so on—families who, I imagine, labored hard in the post-war years to rebuild their economies. Always, my mother’s two wishes were: (1), to never marry a farmer, and (2), to move to the city suburbs, both of which she accomplished.
We slowly approach the home on Jefferson street where my father was raised, where his parents—Alma and Mitsuo—settled and lived following their release from the Gila River concentration camp. Grandpa worked for Otani’s market, a farming supply store; Grandma managed the home and children, worked in the local department store; everyone worked in the packing sheds in the summer. Neither of my Japanese American grandparents spoke much about their time in the camps or their reentry into civilian life; it’s taken me decades to understand the shape and nature of this silence. Many families lost everything—farms, homes, land, assets—and returned to communities that were, at best, indifferent to their reappearance. While driving by the Jefferson street house, we glimpse the outline of the koi pond dug out in the front yard—commissioned by my grandfather. It looks just like the pond remnants my father and I witnessed at the Gila River camp this past summer: dusty, stone-specked ghosts from another era, signifying beauty, tradition, struggle—life.
Under a bright gray sky, we wander the Reedley Cemetery grounds on Reed Avenue, paying tribute to the dead, lingering at each marker for more storytalk. Three times more Korean immigrants and Korean Americans are buried in the Reedley Cemetery than in Dinuba’s Smith Mountain Cemetery, despite the fact that Dinuba had a much larger Korean community. This was, in part, due to Smith Mountain’s policy of segregating minorities into designated blocks, which discouraged burials there. My mother’s parents, Marilyn and Samuel, are buried beside their son, Timothy—my mother’s oldest brother, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 25. “He died on Raisin Day,” she says, Dinuba’s annual harvest festival, September of 1976. “Raisin Day didn’t have the same meaning after my brother died.” Nine months after that, my parents were married. “Life is short, we realized,” says my mother. “Why don’t we just get engaged now, and get married? My Auntie Marie would always say: it’s so good that you’re getting married, your mom and dad are so happy, and it gives your mom something to focus on,” those months following Tim’s passing. “42 years later,” says my mother, through tears. “Didn’t work out so bad…”
Grandmother Alma Teranishi Saito (my father’s mother) is also buried in the Reedley Cemetery, along with her parents and siblings. Her husband’s—Mitsuo’s—ashes were scattered by my father in the Sierras. Both of my parents have already secured their lots there, “overlooking the Kings River,” says my mother. Three generations, one resting place.
Driving the South Valley streets, much has changed and much hasn’t. Don’s Shoe Store is still Don’s Shoe Store; the site of the old library is now Rose Ann Vuich Park; Otani’s market is now Valley Foods Supermarket, a carniceria and taqueria. I’m curious about life in Dinuba and Reedley in the present, so I ask a couple of friends and former students to share memories with me. “I loved to stop at Table supply in downtown [Dinuba] and grab my monster energy drinks, and then go to Mega Video for a frito boat and a Diablito, which is shaved ice with chili, lime, and chamoy,” says Aidan Castro. “It’s really good. A lot of my memories are in the back yards of my friends’ homes, but I would have to say Rose Ann Vuich park was the place we went to the most. We would go there so often that whenever the cholos would show up to have a smoke session, they would just come up to us and greet us before they went their own way.” If you were to describe Reedley to someone not from California, how would you describe it? “If I had to tell them what Reedley is over all, I would say tradition,” says Edgar Medina. “Reedley values tradition among many things as well as spirit. The people in Reedley work hard to make our name be known around the US, not just from school sports but also for the work we put in growing fruit for the world.” “It’s a beautiful place,” says Alex Flores, of Dinuba. “The view of the Sierra Nevada mountains on a clear day is astounding. It used to be more common; every time the view is clear people talk about how you used to be able to see it all the time.”
On July 23, 1977, my parents were married at the Dinuba Presbyterian Church, with over 300 people in attendance. A reception at the Dinuba Memorial Building on Alta Avenue followed. People—those who know the history of Japan’s occupation of Korea—often ask me how my grandparents felt about my parents’ relationship. No animosity reported, according to my folks—perhaps a testament to generational change, or a swiftly growing Asian America, or the card games hosted by each set of grandparents, where smoking and laughing and storytalking diffused any possibility of cultural tension.
Fresno was the big city my parents escaped to; the place where they met, in college, and made a home; the place from which my sister and I fled for even bigger cities; the place I’ve returned to, decades later, to make life. “Dinuba feels so far away,” my mother said once, despite the relatively short, straight-shot drive down the 99. But I think I’m beginning to understand what she meant. We grow far from the lands of our childhoods, expanding our inner and outer geographies with each day, place, and decade. We become doorways to memory; though so much lies dormant in us—each former self, sparked to life by a place’s spirit, animated again by the scent of a riverbed, the sight of a winter orchard.
I love how my father eventually proposed to my mother—so much so, that his proposal made its way into a poem.
Acts of Grace
Young in the Central Valley
recovering from football season
and summer fires, your mother
and father linger in the lot
outside his apartment.
“Maybe we should go
look at rings,” says your father
and the river is set
the road unwinding.
In a small valley town
twenty miles east of here
your mother as a girl
cut grapes, braved spider fields
in the harvest heat.
Your father in the meantime
rumbled through boyhood
on the heels of war and his mother
and father’s swift incarceration.
How is it they made their way
into each other’s futures—
two tough, bright souls
enduring the crush of July
each in their own child ways?
They found each other.
They decided on each other
and a life with a garden
and two little girls practicing freedom
there in the walled space
with the jasmine and sparrows.
The phrase “ignite the silence” is from “Flint and Tinder – Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics’,” by Sandra Beasley
Thanks to writers and Fresno State students, Aidan Castro, Alex Flores, and Edgar Medina for sharing their south valley memories with me.
Brynn Saito MA, MFA, is the author of two books of poetry, Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She’s the curator of an online project and chapbook entitled, “Dear—” and she co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, the poetry chapbook, Bright Power, Dark Peace (Diode Editions, 2016). Brynn teaches in the Creative Writing program at California State University, Fresno and co-directs the Yonsei Memory Project (YMP) with Nikiko Masumoto. Brynn was recently featured in Vogue.com in “The Memory Keepers.”
Copyright: © 2020 Brynn Saito. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
- Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
- Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
- Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
- Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
- Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots”