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Thursday, September 24, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fertile Soil For A Family Tale -- Writing Helps David Mas Masumoto Uncover His Roots And Get A Spiritual Connection To Land

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When David Mas Masumoto left his rural home for the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, he never intended to be a writer. Nor did he think he would ever choose to make a living as his father does, farming the land.

But for more than two decades, Masumoto has been entangled in a passionate affair with both endeavors. The two neatly converge, he says, fueled by several things: his longing for a spiritual connection to the land, the essential desire to know his origins and the preciousness of family relationships and traditions.

"The turning point for me came when I was an exchange student in Japan for two years, and I started writing a lot of journals" said Masumoto. "I look back at the writing, and it was just terrible writing. . . . But it was the act of writing that was more important than anything."

Masumoto's journal "scribblings" have provided him with fodder for several nonfiction books, most notably his highly praised 1995 memoir "Epitaph for a Peach."

In town for a tourism conference and a reading at Elliott Bay Book Co. tomorrow evening, this 42-year-old author and farmer took a brief break to discuss his latest work, "Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil," a lush and lyrical meditation on his life and the sometimes disconcerting history of his Japanese-American community in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Perhaps the most tragic and touching passages throughout the volume are Masumoto's descriptions of his family's silence about its internment during World War II - an experience he believes deeply scarred many first-generation Japanese, including his grandparents.

He finds traces of their bitterness in an old photograph that he reflects upon throughout the book. The photo shows his grandparents at a memorial service for his uncle - a U.S. soldier killed in action serving the same country that had imprisoned his family.

His grandfather "held his emotions in check, the pain, anguish and confusion manifested in a stark silence," Masumoto writes. "Jiichan (grandfather) is learning to become American."

Masumoto also describes his own pilgrimage in the late 1970s to the Gila Relocation Camp in Arizona, where his family was interned. Visiting the camp was a strange and emotional encounter, he said, that brought him to grips with history - this country's and his own.

Prior to his journey, Masumoto knew little of his parents' experience there. His mother's recollections were those of an innocent 12-year-old who didn't fully understand the situation and his father offered only a pained silence.

The visit left Masumoto with feelings of outrage over the government's cruel racism, but he no longer feels anger toward his parents for not fighting for their rights.

His mother once quietly explained internment to him with the phrase, "shikataganai," meaning - as he then interpreted it - "it can't be helped." But in later years, he came to understand the phrase as, "we had no choice."

"It acknowledges the tragedy of the situation, but it also humanizes it," he explained. "These were not fools who blindly followed. They thought things through, and realized they had no choice. So for the good of the family, they just had to accept it."

Quiet support

Many of his parents' neighbors gave tacit support to the government's crime, he said, by not speaking out. Some even prospered from the situation, taking or buying property cheap from Japanese Americans forced from their homes. Yet in his memoir it seems that he wants to heal old wounds, focusing upon the good neighbors who took care of their friends' property for the duration of the war.

But all is not despair in Masumoto's book. If anything, it celebrates the will and strength of his family to rebuild and thrive on its farm, where he, his wife and two children live and work with his parents.

And his ties extend beyond the borders of his ethnic community to include a larger family of the valley's farmers. Descendants of Armenian, Italian and Japanese immigrants are unified in the problems they all face - devastating hail storms or an early frost.

For Masumoto, organic farming has brought him closer to the land, nature and his family.

Family is important

"Conventional agriculture only worries about the economics or the bottom line," Masumoto explained. "But I always saw it as a family farm. The dynamics of family seemed to fit better with an organic farm. They're on a much smaller scale. . . . You have a more direct relationship with the consumers."

Rather than the bottom line, the return for him is somewhat more spiritual. By submitting to nature's chaotic and creative forces - not trying to control them with synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides - he has ironically found a sense of security, a closeness to this world, he explains.

In continuing his family farm, Masumoto hopes to leave a legacy for his children. And now, future generations also have an heirloom in "Harvest Son."

-------------- Author reading --------------

David Mas Masumoto reads from "Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil" at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Elliott Bay Book Co., First Avenue South and South Main Street; phone 206-624-6600.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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