Kombu & Collard Greens: An In Conversation with Susan Uehara Rakstang & Lisa Pegram
Lisa: Susan, your debut memoir Cooking For Her Eyes is a feast for the senses that is graceful and intricate as origami. The way you use different art forms to summon decades of memory is compelling. In this regard, what is the most surprising thing about writing a memoir?
Susan: I was astounded to discover the mind’s vast storage of memories and images. In the past, my brain was useful in presenting short and long term memories for my general information. But while writing my memoir, I required a deep dig of events with detail and color that occurred not just long ago, but in some cases, practically a lifetime ago. I had never worked with my brain with such intensity over a sustained period, and I found that, like many things, such as making art or making music, the more I practiced, the better my brain responded–it was a wondrous discovery.
Lisa: I’ve experienced the same! It has been fascinating to discover how much the mind can hold from such a vast stretch of time. When I started out I worried that I wouldn’t remember enough details to bring the stories to life, but leaning into the senses through art to evoke memory was like tapping into “the cloud.” I found that my most vivid memories include food and/or music, which spark a greater overall recollection. I’ve also kept lots of photos over the years, so images helped deepen the flavor. Now there’s so much on the table that there are leftovers!
This calling upon the senses also extended to interviews with my family members. My grandmother just turned 100 and her short term memory is limited, but her long term memory is impeccable. Through this memoir process, I’ve used the senses to create a space where we focus on her strength — what she remembers of the past. We talk for hours on end! Her mellowed demeanor becomes vibrant and animated again as the thought of a certain dish or song transports her to another time. She takes me along for the ride and it’s no small effort to keep up! Suddenly I’m four years old again scheming with my grandfather to cheat on his diet with takeout barbecue and peach cobbler.
Speaking of the senses as a catalyst, you explore food and several other artforms throughout your book. Among them, you make 100 ceramic teacups for your daughter’s wedding and 100 pureed meals for your friend Margaret. How did your relationship with the arts inform your writing process?
Susan: My creative interests are cooking, enjoying and playing classical music, pottery, and ballet. Unfortunately, once I started my architectural practice, I lacked the time and will to engage in them and was so pressed for time that I put those activities on hold. Except for cooking with my mother, I cooked at home with little joy, cooking only so my family had food in their belly–I stopped playing the piano as well.
While the puree is a visually two-dimensional form, my experience with clay influenced my concept of turning the puree into three-dimensional meals. Making the teacups and pureed meals were similar and consistent with how I approach most projects as an artist and architect. I throw my mind and body into total immersion, and while my body may take breaks to rest, live life, and accomplish other tasks, my mind stays focused until I complete the project and mission. It’s psychologically exhausting yet energizing at the same time, and the reward of creating a beautiful object, in the end, overrides the perils of single-tasking.
Ballet, on the other hand, was something different altogether and my view of it was complicated. It didn’t have a place in my story–not really, but I indulged myself by inserting references to it.
Truth is, as a child growing up in an all-white neighborhood and being the only minority among my friends, I observed the world around me with too much detail. I built protective barriers and denied opportunities for myself before someone might tell me I’m not welcome to do this or that. For instance, my friends decided to take ballet lessons and urged me to join them. My small, waif-like frame with limber muscles and flexible joints was an ideal body type for ballet. But I refused to take lessons because I’d never seen an Asian ballerina and, in my youthful little Japanese American mind, I decided that ballet was meant for only white people. I feared the optics of my small Asian body dancing among my taller, blond-haired friends might draw too much attention to me. As an adult, realizing those childish thoughts were rubbish, I took up ballet lessons and continued for many years.
It seems as a minority child in your essay Grammar Lessons, you had similar realizations of being “different.” Did you set up rules to protect yourself, as I did?
Lisa: Yes, but let me first say that I’m so glad you were finally able to break down that wall to experience ballet, and that you made a place for it in your book. It’s an inspiring testimony to see that, even as adults, we can defeat lifelong obstacles.
As a child I loved theater, but at my predominately white private school it became very clear to me that Black kids were rarely, if ever, chosen for major parts. The best I could hope for was a spot in the chorus, or a fleeting appearance of a sassy minor character. I knew I was good at acting because I spent my summers in drama camp and always got lead roles. The two monologues I performed as independent projects at school were both hits. But after a few tries with the actual Drama Department, I resigned myself to behind the scenes as a more viable option. I did make-up crew, costumes and stage-managed, all of which taught me priceless lessons about the architecture of performance, which I have used throughout my career. But I came to them because I built the same walls you speak of to protect myself, thanks to the impact a lack of representation has on the psyche. I’m a performer but, with the exception of one lead role I scored in college — which I reveled in — I never got back to auditioning for plays, something I regret to this day.
Circling back to food, I had buried those memories until, while working on my memoir, I recalled an incident that took place at a cast party. One thought of a tete a tete I had with a brownie ice cream cake and it all came flooding back.
Susan: I also tend to personify the materials with which I work, and imagine conversations with them. I so enjoyed reading your poem, “Lime Pickle” from Cracked Calabash and its abundant imagery of food, personifying them in your journey of awareness. Why do you suppose food is such a compelling metaphor in writing?
Lisa: I don’t know the science behind it, but I sense that there is a special place in the heart or the mind where the memory of flavor is stored. I often do an exercise with my students where I bring in different things for them to taste and ask them to share what it makes them think of. It could be a dish they’ve never had before, but an ingredient or the texture will almost always spark a personal memory. The exercise is less about what the food literally tastes like, and more about where it “sends” you.
In my 20s, I worked for the United Farm Workers in California and lived in a group house with Mexican organizers. One of my colleagues would make menudo, a traditional stew made of tripe, and every time I smelled it simmering on the stove it reminded me of one of my relatives who used to make chitlins on New Year’s Day. As a kid, I hated the smell because I didn’t like chitlins and the scent would fill the whole house, overpowering all of the other wonderful food I did love. But in that moment in the group house, though my first instinct was to gag like the 6 year old in me, there was also something comforting about the familiarity of the smell in this place where I was so far away from home. I think this is part of why food works so well as a metaphor in writing. Flavors and scents have a unique power to spark connections in a way that transcends what’s on the plate. Food is visceral and universal. Everybody eats. Even just reading about food prompts the reader to “ingest” the information, which makes it almost physical as well as intellectual. Whether as a literal reference or as fuel for metaphor, food is a powerful tool in allowing the writer to create a recipe for the journey a reader takes.
Susan: In cooking scenes with my mother, I observed how important it was to present her meals so exquisitely to her new Caucasian friends, whose palates were used to meat and potatoes, that they would venture into experiencing the beauty and nourishment of her Japanese cooking. These remembrances connected me to wanting to nourish my friend, Margaret, a pastry chef, who was diagnosed with stage-four tongue cancer. I hoped my whimsical meals would beckon her to eat when she experienced dysphagia, pain, and lost taste buds during her cancer treatment. Many of the scenes in my book are about my mother, Margaret, and me. I wanted to show how our lives intersected and how our love for each other grew over the decades.
Lisa: I think this visceral effect in writing is also true for music. Like food, it can transport us and imprint our bodies as well as our minds. In Cooking for Her Eyes you not only refer to music, but the book itself is actually structured around a Beethoven sonata. Can you talk about the role music played in your memoir?
Susan: I chose Beethoven’s Sonata №8, C minor (Pathetique) because the events I experienced aligned seamlessly to the mood, tempo, and tenor of the music and its chronology, and my story fell naturally into place. It was sometimes a challenge to transition from one event to another, but I imagined Beethoven telling me with a scowl, “Well, I had to figure out how to flow from one theme to another, so quit your bellyaching and just do it.” So I did.
After the C minor Grave introduction of the sonata, the score modulates to the key of E flat major, which is a gentler, less ominous sound than the C minor chords. I took the opportunity of this key change to introduce myself and other characters in my story, most of which were remembrances of happier times. I dug into my memory bank for events or scenes from my past that may have influenced me on how or why I handled situations, decades later, during the six months I spent caring for Margaret and my mother.
For instance, writing scenes in my book such as playing Beethoven’s Für Elise (albeit with great clumsiness) as a child, naming beloved composers and their work while en charrette in graduate school, and taking piano lessons as an adult, all lead up to playing the piano for my mother as I care for her later in life, despite my performance anxiety. Oddly coincidental, the piece I played for her was a movement from Pathetique years before I decided to use that very sonata as a guide for my book.
For those writing memoir, I encourage you to find your voice through your own music–whether it is literally music as in my case, or whether it’s a harmony, rhythm, sounds and silences in your life. Use remembrances and images of your past to help your reader understand why and how you came to conclusions and actions of today.
Lisa: Fantastic advice. Music played a huge role in my writing, as well. The other way I organized such broad swaths of time was by tackling our family stories in the context of place. Key locations helped me uncover links and patterns between generations. The root of our tree is in Virginia, but all of us have lived at some point in New England, we have ties to Pennsylvania and Maryland, and growing up in DC makes that home for me, though our collective experience has these other branches. Depending on the era, the role of place in a Black American family, South or North, had a significant impact on the freedoms and obstacles we faced. How has your family’s geographical history affected the arc of your memoir?
Susan: In 1906, my grandparents immigrated from Okinawa, a small island southwest of mainland Japan, to settle in Hawaii. My parents were born in Hawaii as was I; hence, I’m the third generation Okinawan/Japanese American. When I was three years old, my parents moved to Chicago, where I grew up. With little contact with my relatives in Hawaii and Okinawa and living in a nearly all-white neighborhood, I lost sight of my heritage, Japanese language, and culture.
As I began writing my memoir, I realized the gap of knowledge and appreciation of my heritage and made a pilgrimage to the world of Hawaii and Okinawa to better understand my Asian roots. Talking to my relatives and learning about my culture helped me understand how and why I took particular actions throughout my life, helping me bring detail and color to my story.
Lisa: In your book, we learn so much about the warmth and flavors of your upbringing at home. What was your childhood like in the “outside world” as a third generation Okinawan kid? How were the cultural challenges you faced similar and/or different from your parents upbringing in Hawaii?
Susan: The United Colors of Benetton advertising campaign blasted onto the fashion scene in the mid-1980s, and I’m certain it impacted the lives of people all over the world–it did mine. As I rode up the elevator in a department store with my young daughter, enormous banners hanging from the ceiling, of close-up photos of children’s faces of all colors and ethnicity, splashed before us as if saying, “We’re here!” I remember thinking how lovely it was for my daughter to see, and I lamented, “If only I had seen that display of colorful faces when I was a child, I would have thought differently of my self-image.”
I recognized, early in life, “the look.” It was palpable. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago, nearly a decade after WWII ended, I sensed some people, many of them, still harbored hatred and suspicion of people who looked like me. I was young and didn’t understand why their gaze of furrowed eyebrows and downturned mouths lasted so long, but I understood their intended message–a plethora of WWII war movies saw to that. And during the new age of television, my mother always got excited when a real “oriental,” showed up on the TV screen–not a fake oriental who was played by a Caucasian person with heavy make-up made to look like us. Even the Japanese enemies in war movies were fake. Real Japanese Americans were the invisible race.
While growing up I felt disdain from strangers yet invisible to society at the same time. As such, I began constructing walls. I built them to protect myself from rejection and fulfill what I thought was society’s wish for me to remain in the background. I tread carefully, not unlike my mother, who found cooking as a way for acceptance, and I chose my talent for making art as my way to integrate into society. Building my walls was a familiar task–I found I was pretty good at it, and as resentment from the war faded, I gained my voice and self-confidence.
Ironically, decades later, after I’d earned my graduate degree in architecture and entered the work world, I found myself again, building walls, not because I was Japanese American, but this time, because I was a female immersed in the last bastion of male dominance–architecture.
Lisa: Ah…the joy and pain of navigating intersectional identities. In the words of Frankie Beverly and Maze “If it ain’t one thing it’s another.” In the book, you come to a greater understanding of both your mother and your Okinawan heritage later in life, in some ways actually through the process of writing. The vignettes where you imagine your mother’s life in a context apart from your own are so nuanced and compassionate. Will you share a bit about researching the era she grew up in, as well as the collecting of stories, mementos and impressions from your aunties to piece together this new lens to portray your mother through?
Susan: In search of an understanding of who my mother was, not as my mother, but as an independent young woman, I visited her sisters in Hawaii to talk about her history. With open arms, my aunties expressed our rich Okinawan heritage and gave me books, newspaper articles, and photographs about our proud history. They also told me stories about growing up in Hawaii during the turbulent years of WWII and the difficult times of ubiquitous discrimination. While most racial injustices were carried out by Caucasian Americans, Japanese people from mainland Japan cast aspersions on those whose heritage was Okinawan. A story that resonated with me was from my Auntie Nobuko. She told me my mother had a boyfriend before meeting my father.
“I don’t remember his name, but he often came by the house,” Auntie said, “A nice guy and good looking, too! The two planned to marry, but his parents forbade him to marry your mother because she was Okinawan.”
On hearing this, my heart ached with empathy for her. Presumably, as a plea for forgiveness, the young man gave my mother a gift–a brooch, which my mother rejected and threw away. Her older sister, Norma, retrieved it and had it converted to a pendant. Before Norma died, she asked Auntie Nobuko to give me the pendant, which Auntie did while I visited.
The pendant, composed of translucent jadeite coveted for its spiritual energy, has a lavender 5/8” diameter, half-dome stone set with a thin gold rim, flanked vertically by 1/2” diameter, light green dome stones with a similar setting. I was intrigued by the story and the pendant that validated it. Was it the story, or was it merely the sheer beauty of the object that transfixed me?
My mother never told me about this young mystery man, and why would she? But knowing the story satisfied my search–I know now, she was a beautiful woman who had loved and was loved, had heartbreak, gained strength from her setback, and lived a fulfilled life.
Lisa: It’s amazing how, though we come from two very different cultures, our families have grappled with similar issues. One of the first aims in writing my book was to give my grandmother’s father his rightful place on the mantel of our family history. If some of our forebears had their way, he would have been erased entirely. He was deemed unacceptable by my grandmother’s maternal family because, though he was a successful doctor in a time when career opportunities for Black men were severely limited, he was not American born. He had come to the US from Barbados, and the Caribbean was considered beneath them.
To make matters worse, her family was also deeply Catholic and steeped in colorism. He was a beautiful brown-skinned man, but they found him too dark, too Protestant and too foreign to be an acceptable suitor. He and my great-grandmother did marry, but the family had a formidable hand in the sabotage of their union and they ended up divorced. The trauma that ensued has haunted their daughter, my grandmother, all her life. I found that the most profound part of writing a family memoir is this deeper look into our loved ones as whole people outside of their connection to us.
Susan: In your essay, Kintsukuroi, I sensed that as a grown woman, you had come to understand what Patti LaBelle meant in one of her recordings while listening with your mother. Did you feel a sense of satisfaction that you and your mother had come together, that moment, in mutual empathy?
Lisa: As you well know as a ceramicist of Japanese descent, the title “Kinstukuroi” (or Kintsugi) refers to the Japanese tradition of mending broken vessels with gold as an act of reverence to the process of making whole again what was broken. In many ways, I feel like writing this book has been a meditation in mending personal and generational traumas. They say writing a memoir is akin to 10 years of therapy, and now I understand why!
In regards to the essay, I didn’t know it as a young child, but listening to this Patti Labelle & Labelle song, I was watching my mother engage in Kintsukuroi. That revelation was more of a turning point than a sense of satisfaction for me, though I very much related to the wonder you displayed in your book as you excavated these hidden parts of your mother’s story. In that moment of listening to the song with my mother, I shed the blinders most children have when it comes to the reality that their parents are people first, with their own triumphs and traumas far above and beyond all that they mean to us.
The song, “Isn’t It A Shame” is about heartbreak. My mother played it so often in my early childhood that before the age of ten I knew all of the lyrics and every ad lib. I was 30 or so in the scene described in the book, so it wasn’t until I listened to the song as a grown woman who had experienced her own pitfalls in love that it dawned on me that there was a reason she played it so often. My mother, too, was a woman who had suffered her own heartbreaks, particularly in her marriage to my father. Their divorce was a defining factor in my childhood, but up until that point I was most aware of it in terms of how it affected me. Sitting that evening with my mother, listening to a song I’d known my whole life, was the first in a series of epiphanies that led to me to a deeper empathy for the highs and lows that had shaped her womanhood just as they had mine.
Susan: Thank you for sharing that powerful story, Lisa. Like you, discovering my mother as a woman, not just my mom, was an utter revelation. Always with a point of view as my mother’s daughter, then discovering her as a woman separate from me, opened the lens of our relationship to the clarity I’d never expected. Had I not spent the hours, days, years writing my memoir, I would never have made this discovery.
Lisa: So well said. Congratulations on the release of your beautiful book! I’m in the home stretch of mine but, as you know, it’s a rugged climb. It would be great to get a peek of the view from the summit. Having finished your book, what final words of wisdom would you share from one memoirist to another?
Susan: My memoir is in three Parts, like Beethoven’s sonata is in three movements. Each Part begins with a haiku that hints at what the reader will find. I want readers to focus on what the haiku expresses in Part III:
Exhausted, I sought
a country inn, but found
wisteria in bloom
I had ideas of how and what thoughts I wanted to convey. But along the way, I discovered unexpected little jewels in my life–memories untouched for decades magically spilling forth with detail and color. Facing those memories head-on, pondering them, accepting them, and finally, I wrote about them. It was like turning the pages of my life’s photo album and reliving experiences, some of which were painful, others happy.
While you have specific intentions for your memoir, my advice is to be open to and trust your memories. See the wisteria in bloom, once hidden away, but coming forth calling you.
SUSAN UEHARA RAKSTANG is the author of Cooking For Her Eyes, a debut memoir inspired by her upbringing as well as her experiences with food, art, and music throughout her life, especially when she found herself caring for both her ailing mother and for a dear friend who developed tongue cancer. Susan was born in Hawaiʻi and raised in Chicago by her Japanese-American parents. She entered the male-dominated world of architecture in the 1970s as a mother of two and eventually started her own firm. Now retired, she lives in Chicago’s West Loop with her husband, Bob, and their cockapoo, Tony.
LISA PEGRAM is a writer, educator, and author of Cracked Calabash. Her upcoming memoir is a narrative cookbook and meditation on family, healing and gastrodiplomacy. She has over 20 years of experience in program design for such organizations as the Smithsonian, Corcoran Gallery of Art and National Geographic. Passionate about the arts as a vehicle for activism, she was DC WritersCorps program director for a decade, and served as co-chair of United Nations affiliate international women’s conferences in the US, India and Bali. A Washington, DC native, she’s currently based in Curacao where, in addition to her literary pursuits, she’s a personal chef.