Photography by Michelle Kilfeather
This podcast is almost totally about Shizue Seigel's ancestors.
In Part 1, the poet and author digs deep into her family's history, which goes back to Japan just two generations ago. Sakuichi Tsutsumi and Umematsu Yokote Tsutsumi were from Kyushu, a large island in the south of Japan. Irene Yoshiko Tsutsumi Saiki, Shizue's mom, was born in Hawaii. Her family moved there to work on sugar plantations, but the conditions were brutal and they weren't able to save money thanks to the sugar companies' "company store" operations. Also, conditions in the cane fields were dangerous. The family went back to Japan.
Sakuichi moved to San Luis Obispo on the central coast of California. He and his cousins bought some land and used their knowledge of irrigation to help them grow produce. Thanks to an oil boom in the area, the town of San Luis was growing and its population needed vegetables. Now successful, it was time to send for his wife back in Japan.
Shizue shares the incredible story of finding the tiny mountain village and home where Sakuichi's family lived. It's one of those "you have to hear to believe" tales.
Shizue's mom, Irene, was born in 1920. Shizue shares many stories of her mother's family and the Japanese community in and around San Luis Obispo where she mostly grew up, notably before World War II.
Her dad's family moved from Hiroshima to Hawaii with his two older brothers. Life was tough there for them as well, and so it was decided that her grandfather, Yasaburo, would go ahead to California while her grandmother, Shige Matsuoka, took their children back to Japan. Shige waited for two years with no word back from the US. She left her two kids with in-laws and decided to come over to track her husband down. Her journey east is another amazing tale you just have to hear.
In Part 2, Shizue talks about how her paternal grandmother, Shige, had just located her husband in Stockton. Shizue goes into more depth about her grandmother's life.
Her dad, Barry, grew up in Stockton and went to UC Berkeley. He was set to graduate in June 1942. But then Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941. The order to "relocate" Japanese-Americans to internment camps was issued in February 1942. Her mom's family had been in camp in Arizona.
At this point in the conversation, we springboard to a larger, broader talk about the dominant, northern European culture in this country and what it's like not to be part of it.
Shizue worked for many years at the J. Walter Thompson office in San Francisco. At first a fine arts student, she switched to commercial art at the Academy of Art here in The City and got the job in advertising. She describes a white, male-dominated work culture and how she navigated that.
We rewind to talk about Shizue's early life. Her parents met shortly after WWII, when Japanese-Americans who had been forced into internment camps were now free. Her dad joined the Army and so the family moved around. Shizue was born in Baltimore. Around the time she was 12, they moved back to California and eventually up from the Santa Clara Valley to San Francisco, where Shizue went to high school.
She describes being a shy, bookworm-ish kid who strove to fit into the "model minority" demographic. That ended when she was a teenager and had an existential crisis.
After her work in advertising, she ended up doing HIV prevention outreach to folks living in subsidized public housing. It was through this work that Shizue started to turn her attention toward people of color. She also started writing poetry.
We end the episode with Shizue's thoughts on our theme this this season: "We're still here."
Shizue's personal site is https://www.shizueseigel.com/.
Her creative writing for people of color website is https://www.writenowsf.com/.
We recorded this podcast at Shizue's apartment in the Outer Richmond in November 2021.