Christopher Berardino Talks: "Another," not an "Other"
Christopher Berardino Talks: "Another," not an "other"
Christopher Berardino spoke with Breakwater via email about his story "Dog Bait," winner of the 2021 Breakwater Fiction Contest. Some questions were suggested by guest judge Porochista Khakpour, and others by the Breakwater fiction editors.
Breakwater Review: To what extent is “Dog Bait” based on historical events? And how did you come to be working with this material, which is so specific and evocative of a particular experience?
Christopher Berardino: The internment camps’ racist legacy, or as my surviving family obliquely refers to it, “camp,” was never discussed. The recollections that escaped my grandparents’ lips were spoken in hushed tones and quickly smothered as if the very telling of their experiences somehow breathed new life into that shameful affair. For the remainder of my surviving family’s lives after internment, money was kept under beds, pictures were hidden, Japanese names were dropped to better assimilate future generations.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to know more about Japanese American Evacuation and Internment. It existed as a kind of fiction in my head, a ghost story and family myth rolled into one. I wrote my first story about the incarceration in an undergrad creative writing workshop I took with Joyce Carol Oates at UC Berkeley. It was about a boy who sneaks through the fence line to catch fish to sell to the guards. I remember feeling, for the first time, I was writing with stakes. That this material was important. That all of these stories had to be told.
As I began to work on the novel, I came across a short video produced by PBS about the U.S. Army’s experiments on Japanese American soldiers. Beneath the tacky “history detective” plot was something unspeakably shocking. Gruesome even. The U.S. government sanctioned a top-secret experiment testing whether attack dogs could differentiate between Japanese and white soldiers through smell. I remember the words “How could this happen in America?” scrolling across my brain like a chyron. As the absurdity of the findings materialized, a deeper, more horrifying realization settled in: How could I not have heard about this? Although I knew it would make me sick (I am a dog lover!), I also knew I had to write the story.
It was important to me I keep the story situated in truth. “Dog Bait” is, in large part, drawn from archival material found in the University of Hawaii Nisei Project. In the collection, now digitized, there is a lengthy transcript by one Ray Nosaka, a member of the predominantly Japanese American 100th Battalion out of Hawaii. This, in combination with various newspaper articles, government documents related to dog training, Mississippi flora and fauna guides, and a Gulf Coast fishing tour brochure, helped round out the details. Never have I tried so hard to write lockstep with the facts, only to find my story sodden with the frightfully bizarre.
BW: What does it mean for you to be writing about this subject matter as a writer of Japanese-American descent?
CB: While I was researching and writing the story, I had the eerie feeling I was looking in a place I was not meant to look. That there was, perhaps, a tacit agreement both by the American government and by the survivors to forget. To keep it buried. To erase the whole thing. What’s more, I knew that whatever I found would only reveal to me, in no uncertain terms, that Japanese Americans were seen by their own country as less than human. That they were expendable. A mere variable in a cruel experiment. And yet, it is precisely this that makes the story, not only as an Asian American but as a person of color, all the more meaningful.
It is my hope that this experiment, and its legacy of racial injustice, will never be expunged. The racist ideologies that allowed this experiment to be executed followed my mother and follows me still, though, in my case, it has additionally absorbed the contours of post 9-11 hysteria hostile to those with brown skin and black hair. I am an Asian American who has been called “Jap” and “Chink” by angry strangers on the street. I am an Asian American who has had a note reading “leave our country” pinned to their car during the COVID pandemic. I am an Asian American who has been detained by Ithaca police along a muddy country road for fitting the appearance of a reportedly “shady character.” I hope this story, in some small way, not only illuminates the long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States but helps blunt the aggressions against people of color that will no doubt happen in the future.
BW: Are there any writers or pieces in particular that served as touchstones or influences for you while working on “Dog Bait”?
CB: During my senior year at Cal, I dimly recall Professor Oates telling us she was working on a story about an encounter between a large mastiff and a jogger in the Berkeley hills. Sometime later, it ended up in the New Yorker. I remember purchasing a glossy copy at a BART station and staring at the illustration of the dog’s massive, drooping face. It was frightening (of course, that was the intent). Years later, when I knew I wanted to tackle “Dog Bait,” I would return to the story to learn another lesson from Professor Oates. Something like, “don’t skip over describing the parts that make your toes curl.”
A few other writers would be Norman Mailer and Cormac McCarthy. Nobody writes about World War II like Mailer. The Naked and the Dead is a masterpiece on so many levels. McCarthy has the unique talent of making the land, the distinctive aspects of a particular terrain, a riveting character unto itself. Given the Japanese American GI’s were on an island out in the Gulf, I felt like the setting had to be one of the story’s focal points.
BW: What do you like about the short story as an artistic medium?
CB: Sometimes, stories have to be short. If one’s intent is to distill a narrative down to the intensity of a moment, or the sublimity of an image (who can forget the boy in right field smacking his baseball glove in Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”?), the short story generally lends itself as an effective medium. I’ve been given lots of advice in countless workshops about what a short story should be—a sharpened diamond, as single mood, a tale about the most important day in someone’s life— and I think they are both invariably correct and absolutely wrong. I could give you an example of a fantastic short story that would counter whatever somebody says a short story is. The reason I like the short story as a medium is the same reason why I so enjoy writing them. You’re obligated to end the damn thing before it gets too boring.
BW: What's your take on the relationship between fiction and politics? Should fiction be political?
CB: The million-dollar question. One I am spending an entire dissertation trying (emphasis on trying) to answer. I’ll start by answering the second question first. Should fiction be political? No. I don’t think it should be. I am skeptical of any prescriptions about what literature should be. Can it be? I sound my barbaric yawp with a “hell yes!” And for my money, most of the best stuff is anyway whether you want it to be or not.
American literature has always been resistant to fully embracing so-called political literature. The literary tastemakers and academics have often seen the “cultural front” of the 1930s and 40s as a regrettable detour between the heady modernism of the 1920s and the deliciously irreverent post-modernism of the 50s and 60s. There seems to be an odd fetishization with the a-political, as if literature, or art for that matter, is invariably spoiled by a single, oily drop of politics. But the whole dilemma strikes me as mistaken. Rather, it seems to me it’s never been about “a-political” versus political, but what is considered “acceptable politics” versus what “isn’t.”
Perhaps this is the academic side of me speaking, which is to say, if you want, you can always find political commentary in literature. All good writing has something to say, and if you have something to say, it probably has political implications. Can’t Prufrock, written by the a-political all-star T.S. Eliot, be read as a meditation on dreading increased immigration in Western metropolises? I would say yes. Is this any less political than Richard Wright making a case for social collectivism? I would say no. To be sure, this technique may not make you the most exciting to hang around at dinner parties (try arguing that Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for the dangers of despotism, or better yet, that The Avengers films are subtle critiques of the military-industrial complex). Still, you might be able to squeeze a peer-reviewed article out of it.
As for the first part of the question, I think for communities of color, fiction and politics are necessarily intertwined. The late great scholar Richard Iton argued the best cultural productions (art, music, literature) are produced through legacies of oppression. The ability to express sorrow and joy on the page comes from a familiarity with the extremes of human experience. But more than this, fiction and politics are often enmeshed because writers of color are forced to make a case for their humanity. To be recognized as “another” instead of “an other.”
Fiction and politics make for a potent cocktail. To throw off the balance with either will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Should fiction be political? I don’t want to be that person, so no (though it probably is anyway). Can it be? I say again, from the roofs of the world, hell yes!
You can read Christopher's contest-winning story, "Dog Bait," in Issue 29 of Breakwater Review.
LOGAN BUCKLEY is a first-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is the fiction co-editor for Breakwater Review.