Text by Diane Slocum | Photo by Schoenwald Photography
Brynn Saito is an accomplished poet, with three books to her credit and numerous other published poems, but she isn’t interested only in telling her own stories of family, farm towns and Japanese internment.
She is instrumental in drawing out others’ experiences whether by voicing the narrative of a PBS documentary or by starting projects to open opportunities for expression.
One of these is the Yonsei Memory Project, which she and Nikiko Masumoto began in 2017. Masumoto is a Del Rey farmer, artist, writer and performer, and daughter of David Mas Masumoto, also a farmer and writer. Nikiko and Brynn were childhood friends who reunited around 2017.
“At the time, there was a Muslim travel ban happening and some different political things going on that spurred us to get together and do some memory work around our community’s history,” Saito said. “There were real connections we were seeing between what had happened to them during World War II and what was going on now.”
With grants from the California State Library, they were able to create ways for Japanese Americans to share their experiences and talk about the internment camps. Going beyond just talk, they use art and creativity to tap into those stories. The project is described on the website as “awakening the archives of Japanese American history through arts and storytelling, memory-mapping and intergenerational dialogue.”
“We thought we could bring these skills we have as facilitators, as writers and performers, to our community and give them the tools to tell these stories and remember these histories,” she said.
For storytelling fellowships, they recruited not only Japanese Americans, but also others with stories to share. During workshops, they helped the fellows write their stories, which culminated in “Storytelling for Change,” where each performer courageously read his or her story, however intimate or painful, to a gathered audience.
Saito and Masumoto both have personal interest in bringing out and preserving these stories. Their Japanese American grandparents were among those who were uprooted from their homes by Executive Order 9066 and sent to the Gila River internment facility in Arizona.
“My dad’s parents were about 21 and 26 years old when they were incarcerated,” Saito said, “and they actually met in the camp. They got married and had a child. Nikiko’s grandparents, as well, were in the camp.”
Saito’s grandparents passed away long before the Yonsei project started, but Masumoto’s grandmother has been able to attend some of the functions, although not as an active participant.
In March, the two friends and their project were featured in an article in Vogue magazine. This came about through contact with Densho, an organization dedicated to preserving the incarceration story in order to deepen under-standing of American history and inspire action for equity. When Vogue came to Densho looking for West Coast Japanese American activist women, Densho’s executive director recommended Saito and Masumoto as two who were outside the big cities, in the Central Valley.
Saito sent the production manager several ideas of places where they could shoot her photos.
“They sent out a Japanese photographer, Katsu Naito,” Saito said. “They ended up loving the idea of my dad’s garden. It was a quick, lovely morning.”
Masumoto’s photos were taken on her family farm, one with her grandmother.
Appearing in Vogue was particularly special for Saito because her Korean maternal grandmother loved that magazine.
“She always gave us a subscription when we were growing up,” Saito said. “It’s pretty surreal to be in the magazine.
I never thought I would ever be in Vogue. It was an honor, and prestigious, and also it opened doors for our Yonsei Project. It’s such a high-profile publication. It opened up opportunities for folks to learn about the work, which is great.”
Saito was born and raised in Fresno in the home where her parents still live. She remembers enjoying writing short story assignments and keeping handwritten journals.
“In high school, I had these sort of wild dreams of leaving the Valley and moving to the city and being a writer,” she said.
As it turned out, she went to Berkeley, where she aimed toward pre-med studies and philosophy, getting her degree in the latter. She did follow her high school dream to New York City, as a six-month intern fact-checker at The Nation magazine.
While there. she studied religion, receiving a master’s degree from New York University and thinking of continuing on for a Ph.D. in philosophy and religion. Instead, her next degree was a master of fine arts in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y.
“I think moving to New York got me back in touch with a love for writing and art and poetry,” she said. “It was a winding path back to that original dream of wanting to be a writer.”
When Saito’s partner secured a job in Ventura, they returned to California and Saito worked in publishing for about a year before she decided that she didn’t want to be in Southern California or with that partner anymore. She returned to the Bay Area, where she wrote and taught for nine years.
While there, she activated her interest in religion through founding the Center for Spiritual Life, which reaches out to people who are spiritual but may not consider themselves religious.
“I grew up in this very open-minded, ecumenical Buddhist and Christian household,” she said. “I was always fascinated by religious cultures and communities. And the intersection of racial communities and religion.”
Saito had not planned on moving back to the Central Valley, but when she learned that Fresno State was looking for more poets and writers to fill positions, she was drawn back by family and friends. The cost of living was also a draw.
“Being a poet and educator in the Bay Area is becoming less and less possible,” she said.
Last fall, she began serving as an assistant professor in the English Department.
Saito’s first book is “The Palace of Contemplating Departure,” published in 2013. Most of the poems in this book were written while she was studying for her MFA in New York. Many of the poems concern leaving, moving and traveling, with internal departures as well as external.
The second book, “Power Made Us Swoon,” published in 2016, focuses more on family, the valley and the Japanese American incarceration.
“There is a whole section of poems related to stories of the elders and my family,” she said.
For her chapbook, “Bright Power, Dark Peace,” also published in 2016, she joined forces with Traci Brimhall. She calls it a “fun, imaginative project about a girl wandering through ruins.”
She is currently working on a chapbook, funded by Densho, related to her time going through the internment facilities with her father.
“It’s a chapbook that has also turned into the online archive of letters,” she said. “I started writing these letters to my father and other members of my community as a way to process that experience of being at Gila River. And people have written me back. And so there is an online archive of letters that goes along with this chapbook.”
She expects the project to launch in February.