What is "Authentic"?
The Yasusada saga raises so many questions, it's difficult to know where
to start. How could the editors who published Yasusada not see the "clues,"
as Marjorie Perloff puts it, like the use of "scubadivers" in haiku allegedly
written in 1925? They thought it a "creative" translation? Chose to overlook
it--witnesses say the damnedest things? How could so many editors never ask
for the original Japanese and a statement granting permission to the translators
by Yasusada's heirs? Isn't this supposed to be standard literary practice?
But most disturbing is this question--how could readers who celebrated Yasusada
now wash their hands of the work?
I once knew a woman who claimed she was fighting cancer. Friends rallied
and offered compassion and care: they helped teach her courses, clean her
house, buy her groceries. Years later, it was discovered that the bouts of
illness, visits to a clinic, loss of hair were all a hoax. Our emotions had
been tricked from us. We felt cheated and angry. Is this what irate editors
feel? That the creator(s) of Yasusada tricked them and secretly laugh at them?
That they were sold a bill of goods?
Yet if the Yasusada work took our breath away, as Ron Silliman put it, and
captured for us the Hiroshima holocaust better than the "real" witnesses seem
to do, how is it possible it still doesn't? Perhaps we need to change our
approach to witnessing, to authenticity, and, most of all, to reading. The
most fascinating and embarrassing truth the Yasusada "hoax" reveals is that
we seem to be reading differently for writers we consider "victims" than for
writers we consider "non-victims." How can this not lead to hoax? I personally
know some poets now submitting their work under "false" authorship, crossing
gender and ethnic lines. They feel the hypocrisy of "authenticity" requires
them to do so. We will see many more of these "hoaxes": this double standard
of reading, this obsession with authorship and authenticity, this calibrating
of "real" witness/victim/ethnic member vs. fraud, is leading us down the path
of ever diminishing returns.
Suppose though that Araki Yasusada was not simply a cover used to obtain
publication, but essential to the very creation of the work itself. In "The
Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien writes about having to "make stuff up" in
order to tell the truth about his experience in Vietnam. The reaction of many
of my students when they come across this line is--Aha! Gotcha! They feel
they can then dismiss everything O'Brien writes as (yes, some have used the
word) a "hoax." In rejecting the Yasusada writings, aren't we doing the same
thing? Aren't we denying the power of the imagination and language and its
ability to get at larger emotional truths? Isn't this one of the reasons we
supposedly write and read and value writing?
We can now chase our tails over the true identity of one Tosa Motokiyu in
hopes this will wrestle some "authenticity" back to the Yasusada writings.
But in doing so we will lose sight of the work itself, which would be the
biggest blunder yet. Having edited the volume Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond
to the Nuclear Age and read a great deal of poetry on Hiroshima, both
by hibakusha and non-hibakusha, I find Yasusada's "Mad Daughter
and Big-Bang" simply one of the most moving and revealing poems ever written
on the effects of the Bomb. If we ignore such writing, future readers may
judge the real fraud not Yasusada, but us.