Book Chat: Peach Farmer’s Daughter

In May the NorCal chapter of Editorial Freelancers Association read Peach Farmer’s Daughter, by Brenda Nakamoto of Davis, CA. It was published in 2011 by Roan Press, a boutique independent press right here in Sacramento. Kate Washington, who co-founded the press, came to speak at one of our chapter meetings right after the book came out. So it was high time to incorporate this local read into our monthly shop talk.

Peach Farmers Daughter_book cover

Here are some of our thoughts on the book, and by “our thoughts” I’m referring to those of EFA NorCal members Roy Sablosky, Lynn Eder, Holly Glasen, Elise Makhoul, Laura Meehan, and me.

The Organizational Scheme. Peach Farmer’s Daughter is a book of short essays presented in four parts–Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Full-color fiber art images adorn each section break. The essays are the author’s memories from growing up on a peach farm in California’s central valley, and her gleanings from her Japanese American family history. Many of them were previously published in literary journals. The remembered stories drip with seasonal detail. We can almost hear the Mexican workers singing and the gada gada gada of the tree shaker in summertime; we can smell the sulphur when teen Brenda smokes varmints out of the ground after the harvest is done. When the author enters family history territory, however, facts are sparse and she has to rely much more on speculation: how can the same daddy who throws his ratchet with such a passion during the stressful harvest time have served without protest in the U.S. Army during World War II while his wife was in an Arkansas internment camp?

The topics, as well as their treatment–from rich and concrete to vague and grasping–range widely. We debated whether the seasonal motif worked well or whether the essays needed grouping at all. “The organization seemed random,” said Holly. “Why not just let it be little pieces?”

“It could have been a chapbook,” agreed Laura. “If there had to be sections,” reasoned Elise, “they might well have been Mother, Father, Internment Camps, The Farm,” explaining how such an arrangement could underline the theme of daughter drawing closer to father over time.

For my part, I’ll say I appreciated the imposed structure, and I think the seasonal parts worked well. As I’ll elaborate later, it’s been a long time since I picked up anything that so much as looked like a literary journal, so having a frame to organize the essays made a big difference in my deciding to read the book at all.

The Plot, Such As It Is. When introducing the book to the group I may have inadvertently raised expectations that it is a memoir. We agreed that the best memoirs focus on one incident or one period of a person’s life, and they often read like novels. Peach Farmer’s Daughter is not a memoir in this sense. It has no plot. One evening as I laid the book aside and took off my glasses my husband asked, “So, what’s happening in your book?” I thought a minute. “Some kids played in the irrigation ditch. Nobody got hurt though. Also a bunny died.”

There’s no plot but there are patterns. Somewhere in the Autumn section Brenda tries to get her grandmother to talk about the internment camps. Is she angry? What was it like? Shikata ga nai, it can’t be helped, grandmother responds. Further down the page the author remarks, “I see a gibbous moon and stars emerge behind [grandmother] in a night sky…” Then in Spring, Nakamoto writes:

My daughter and I walked outside last night shortly after sundown…Just to the north, a sliver of the waxing moon hung on the horizon, barely perceptible. Was this waxing or waning? The sliver was on the right. That meant it was starting a new phase of lunar life, according to human perspective.

So you have an interesting juxtaposition: old generation/ memories dying/ gibbous moon/ autumn. Set against new generation/ waxing moon/ spring. This is the way the book “moves.” It’s literary nonfiction, not a memoir.

Discussion participants brought up other books for comparison–collections of stories about a family, a time, a place. Trout Fishing in America, Roy noted, lacks a plot but is memorable because it’s funny. Lynn brought up The Colony, about the leper colony on Molokai. “I remember a lot from that because it was such a good story! Whereas I finished Peach Farmer’s Daughter a few weeks ago and hardly remember a thing.”

The Ending. The book ends with a short piece called Yours Always in which the author affirms her connection with her dad and with the farm. Then there’s an Epilogue. Beautiful.

And then there is more. After both parents are gone, Brenda undertakes a trip to Japan to meet her long lost cousins.

But why place that essay after the Epilogue?! That was just plain weird, the editors agreed. It violated the book’s status as a proper book, with proper book parts. In the moments preceding we’d shared our disappointment in the line editing–too much fluff, Holly said; descriptions seemed to dribble on long after the point was made, said Roy; too much telling when the showing part had done an excellent job, I concurred. Our editor-minds were in a tizzy.

Although, if I simply trick my mind to ignore the page break and title (A Dawn Breaks) and pretend the trip to Japan is a continuation of the Epilogue, the ending works for me. Brenda leaves the farm and the Davis retirement home where her father finished out his years, and finally answers many of the questions her immigrant grandparents left hanging. She touches portraits and headstones; compares her stocky frame with living exemplars of her Sakaoka family line. In Japan where she bows politely but longs to reach out with a “good ol’ American hug,” her success at finding connections seems all the more satisfying.

Recommended? No, And Yes. I wouldn’t recommend this book for just anyone. Around our table only a few names came up as people we’d gift this book to. The right reader for Peach Farmer’s Daughter has to fulfill several criteria. The right reader cares about the stories of immigrants in this country. This reader also either knows California’s central valley or is willing to venture there in imagination and wade along slowly in an irrigation ditch. The right reader loves words, yes, but not so much as to be offended if there are a few unnecessary ones in the mix. (Had Kate been heavier-handed with her editing, I wonder if this book would exist at all.)

This spring, I was the right reader–a perfect match for this book.

See, for the past several years–since I’ve had children, really–my “work” reading and “fun” reading have polarized into a pretty strict dichotomy. My work reading leans toward the utilitarian: professional, scholarly, self-help, and publishing industry news. For fun I read the daily comics in the Sacramento Bee. Then if I’ve any energy left and decide I don’t care about the rest of the world’s news, I reach for a mystery that will give me a quick entertainment fix–a Number One Ladies Detective Agency book perhaps, or a classic Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, or one of the Mrs. Pollifax spy series.

However.

From the moment I picked up Peach Farmer’s Daughter, I was transported. Not always to the peach orchard and its cannery-bound yellow clings. And not always into the Nakamoto house when they ate their holiday mochi.

No, the experience of reading Peach Farmer’s Daughter took me back to an early June morning in precisely 1995. To the fellowship hall of a gray stone Lutheran church where I sat at the head of a heavy plastic conference table taking the Advanced Placement (AP) English exam, fumbling for a tissue in my purse on the floor.

I was reading about the scratchy red sweater full of cooties in Sandra Cisneros’ short story Eleven. The AP exam prompted me to write an essay on the use of sensory words in the story, or something like that, so as I outlined my main points, I could hear the “eleven years rattling inside me like a tin Band-Aid box” and I could smell the onion “[b]ecause the way you grow old is kind of like an onion” and I was actually weeping from the beauty of those words strung together.

I knew I was good at picking up the clues that words drop around in a story like so many hankies. I knew I could ace the AP exam. But it was at that moment, tears warping my exam booklet, that I realized that I not only liked literature, I needed it.

From the moment I clock in to an editing gig, to the articles in my Twitter feed, to good-night books with my kids, I’m consuming thousands of words per day, but I’m starving for art. And that’s why I am ultimately glad that I read Peach Farmer’s Daughter. Like something healthy, it took time to slice and chew–still, it was delicious. Delicious art.