Interview with producers of new Densho podcast series

podcast logoIn two forthcoming books, I try to capture the epic arc of the camp experience — whether through the voices of characters in our graphic novel on camp resistance, or in the selections we choose for a new anthology of camp literature. Producers Hana and Noah Maruyama take much the same approach with their new Densho podcast series, which expertly weaves scores of sound bites into an aural tapestry to create the effect of a single voice conveying the shared experience of camp.

Campu is a remarkable feat of knowledge and editing. Listen to the first 48-minute episode, centered around “Rocks” as an object-based theme.

The six-episode series is a stunning showcase of the oral histories collected by Densho over the past quarter-century. The voices are mostly unidentified as they appear but you can download  the transcript to pick out the familiar names of so many friends: Emi Somekawa, Henry Miyatake, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, and Mits Koshiyama, Gloria Kubota, Yosh Kuromiya, Tak Hoshizaki, and Frank Emi from Conscience and the Constitution.

By turns scholarly and poetic, Hana’s NPR-quality writing and narration delve into race, capitalism, and settler colonialism to establish the history which enabled the camps and the construction of Heart Mountain in particular on the land of the Apsáalooke, or Crow tribe. Noah’s inventive soundscapes alternately build tension and melodic figures in support of the narrative without succumbing to stereotype or calling attention to itself. The brother and sister team share how the episodes came together in this edited email exchange: The Densho Digital Archive is a collection of video oral histories. Why an audio podcast?

Hana Maruyama photo
Hana Maruyama

Hana Maruyama: The short answer is that I originally thought of it as an audio project, and adding another medium seemed like more work. But the more I work with the format, the more I think we made the right call. There’s something really powerful about people’s voices — the words they chose, the way they said the words, their tone, the actual sound of their voices — and I think the audio format distills that for the listener. No distractions, just their voices, speaking to you.

It might also help to go back to the inspiration for this, which was Julie Otsuka’s narrative voice in Buddha in the Attic. I loved how she uses a multi-person narration to capture how the picture brides, who are often reduced to an archetype, were individuals with their own stories. I loved how I could hear the voices of the characters even though I didn’t know their names. And she does it in this beautiful, poetic way. A few years later, when I was working on the “Order 9066″ podcast, I started thinking: What if there was a podcast that used the incarcerees’ voices in that same way to create a narrative that feels like it’s being told by a community?

Noah Maruyama
Noah Maruyama

Noah: Part of the charm of listening to a podcast is that you don’t need to watch it. I personally never would’ve gotten into them if I hadn’t needed something to engage me while I drove or cooked. There’s this beautiful effect to the detachment of a voice from a face. There’s nothing to absorb about how they look or what they’re doing or what their cat is doing at the edge of the frame. Hana brought Buddha in the Attic into the process as a stylistic reference very early on, and to create a similar effect, we needed to distill it down to people’s stories told in their voices and nothing else. I don’t think we could’ve done that with video.

You’ve incorporated dozens of voices. How big a task was it to select and edit them all, then write the narration? How long did it take?

Hana: I’m so glad you asked this question! A big part of the reason why we were able to use that many voices (there are 60 in the first episode alone) is because I have a friend, Andrea Simenstad, who works in data science. And she helped me build a search program that can run through the Densho transcripts (thank goodness for the transcripts) and spit back to me all the instances a keyword was used. So that helped cut down on the time it took to comb through the interviews, and also made it possible for us to use the interviews in a way that I think would have been really difficult otherwise. I’d never thought of data science as being particularly useful for the humanities, but my friend’s help convinced me that it can be such a powerful tool for historical research. Even then, I can get a lot of search results depending on the term, so then it’s a matter of going through, figuring out which ones work for the topic, whether the voice and the audio quality are clear enough.

One of the search terms I ran was “fence” for the third episode, and it returned more than 100 pages of quotes. So it took me a while to sort through those. The narration comes out through the searches. When I figure out what people have said, I start to flesh out the narrative flow. It’s a lot of work. We started working on it in April, and have only finished three episodes so far. But I think (hopefully) we’re getting faster with time — a big chunk of the summer was figuring out work flow and stuff.

Noah: Having all those voices speak together is really central to the podcast. You can’t ever really be sure just from the text if one piece of audio will work with another, so it’s a question of taking the pieces you have and then finding them the best possible ways to talk to and with each other, and then fitting the narration to them. As far as editing, we have a weird two-stage process where Hana selects what she thinks we should include and I try to find the little refrains, patterns, and rhythms to the speech that we look for in trying to draw out some of the shared stories in them. In regards to narration, we’ve both worn multiple hats through this process, but Hana’s done by far the most of the writing and especially research. My big sister is a dynamo!

[In this video, Fair Play Committee leader Frank Emi describes how he and Min Tamesa tested the guards at the fence at Heart Mountain in advance of their test case against drafting men from camp. This extended interview clip from Conscience and the Constitution is heard in the “Fence” episode #3 of Campu.]

Was it your plan to present the voices along a chronological timeline or did that develop later?

Hana: I think Japanese American historians/filmmakers/writers are in a kind of tricky position because so many people know next to nothing about the incarceration, but also there are so many projects that tell that history really well. It’s a lot to ask that the audience go read up on Japanese American incarceration and then come back and listen to your project. So a lot of projects have to do some form of “recap” to make sure that the project will be useful to a wide range of people.

Noah: We felt very strongly that we needed to engage listeners who were already familiar with the history, while still covering the basics. So, for instance, the episode takes a left turn into the history of the Apsáalooke tribe upon whose lands Heart Mountain was built. So it’s still somewhat chronological, but will probably get much less so from here. Part of our desire to avoid the “JA Incarceration 101” story was tied up with avoiding a purely linear narrative, in that this is a story that can’t be neatly tied up separately from other stories. We do our best to contextualize not only the individual experiences within the shared Japanese-American one, but also that one within a larger framework of discrimination, incarceration, immigration, and American society in general.

What discoveries did you made along the way? What surprised you through this journey?

Hana: Well, it’s definitely more work creating a podcast than I had fully understood before we started. It’s been a huge learning experience for both of us. Very rewarding to see a project that I’ve been dreaming about become a reality, but definitely a learning experience. It’s been really nice to see how supportive people are about the project. From the folks at Densho to all the people I’ve emailed about interviews, people have just been so supportive of the project. It made me work even harder at it. It’s also been a fun discovery to learn that my brother and I work well together. It’s one thing to get along as siblings, but it’s amazing how we riff off each other creatively in a really fun way.

Noah: The sibling connection was a big one. We’ve always been close, but we didn’t often get a chance to work with each other. We agreed that whatever happened with the work, we would still just be sister and brother, but it was daunting to think about screwing up our relationship. Finding out how we work together and that we can be so happy with the results was amazing. And, as pretty introverted people, I think the help we got from our interviewees, from Densho, and from everyone who gave us feedback was really touching to both of us. But the big one for me — being much less familiar with the sources and narrative than Hana — was being immersed in our Japanese-American and family history. We didn’t exactly grow up in a hotspot of JA culture in Washington, DC, and at least for me, being only semi-recognizable as Asian (my mom is white) made my place in it feel occasionally fraught, growing up. It was uncanny looking through all these interviews of Issei and Nisei and seeing how they would smile and laugh instead of communicating pain as I do, the way they pronounced certain syllables like I do, and the things they found it difficult to talk about that I do too. I think it really made me feel much closer to Japanese Americans as a whole.

What discussions did the two of  you have about the kind of music and soundscape you wanted?

Noah: “No koto, no shakuhachi.” We mutually agreed on that, maybe even before the project started in earnest. I’ll try to be generous in saying there’s this immediate instinct in composers to try to draw recognizable musical language from the prompt they’re given. Japanese American incarceration? Well, obviously, you should score that Japanese-ily, as long as you ignore the other two keywords. But that’s not only intellectually lazy — it’s disrespectful, and particularly so when the composer has no real background in playing or appreciating traditional Japanese music, which I don’t. My dad is Sansei, and he listens to jazz and bluegrass and country. My grandma and my aunt play classical piano. And I grew up loving folk, indie, metal, electronic, hip-hop …. and playing a bit of all of the above! And that’s very true of many of the Nisei incarcerees too: they talk about jazz and western swing and Broadway songs they sang. When they talk about Japanese songs, often they’re talking about the music their parents loved. Hana and I are American, this story is American, the incarcerees telling it are American, and whether my heritage affects my musical inflection or doesn’t, that’s American too. We knew we wanted some jazz, with this time period being the last hurrah of the swing era. And a lot of incarcerees talked about making things out of anything they could find in the camp: shells, rocks, and tule grass. That reminded me a lot of how hip-hop and folk music started getting made, digging samples out of crates of records and making instruments out of whatever worked. So I decided to sample from the Library of Congress’ Citizen DJ project, this huge collection of really early recordings, folk music, public domain music, and more. I also love finding emotional commonalities across different genres, so some string quartet and electronica snuck in as well. It wouldn’t have fit many other projects, but it felt true to this one: Japanese Americans aren’t a monolith, and finding common threads in different sources is what this podcast is all about.

Hana: I hate the tendency in media on Japanese American incarceration (or Asian American history more generally) to rely on orientalist-style music. I think the music is often really beautiful, but it just participates in this long and infuriating tradition of exotifying this history. I’ve complained to Noah about it in the past — probably enough times that I’m not sure we even really needed to have a conversation about the music because we both knew from the get-go what direction we didn’t want to go in. And I had faith in Noah as a composer and his understanding of the vision behind the podcast to just let him take the lead on direction for the music. That’s what’s so nice about working with your brother.

What are you most pleased by in the final productions?

Noah: The final product is really my bag, so I’m at least a little proud of all of it. And while I think the real emotional and narrative core is in the incarceree interviews, what I’m most pleased with is Hana’s voiceover. Particularly in the pandemic, we’re limited in the spaces we can record in, so Hana was a really great sport and crammed herself into a hot closet to do it. Not fun. And most people don’t love hearing the recorded sound of their voice because they’re used to hearing it resonate through their heads, so we’re all a little self-conscious about it at first. We spent a lot of time making sure we got the right reads. But a lot of the feedback we’ve gotten has been about how nice her voice sounds, and while that’s largely her accomplishment, I’m so happy to help her be heard as best she can. We judge people’s voices and their ways of speaking so much, particularly women’s, but people should love their voices and how they sound. That’s part of what I love about recording and mixing.

Hana: I love how Noah can edit the voices of the incarcerees together so that you can feel the energy of the narrative growing through the combination of their voices. He’s done such a good job of translating into reality exactly what I was envisioning in terms of the incarcerees. I love the music too — it hits just the right tone, and brings an added dimension to some of the really important moments while not dominating the podcast.

How do you hope your podcast is used?

Hana: I hope they’re healing for the families of the incarcerees. One of the things my aunt was telling me was how powerful it has been for her to hear the stories of the incarcerees. In the first episode, we talk a bit about how difficult it is for some incarcerees to tell their families about the incarceration and she felt like hearing these other stories helped fill in some of the silences of her own childhood. To me, that’s the ultimate goal for this podcast. I also hope they’re useful for educators and students and the general public because education around this issue is important.

But first and foremost, I want this podcast to be for our community. And I think that’s an important lesson for everyone: that a history should be about and for and by the community that experienced it. I think we’re often used to catering to the person who knows nothing about the topic and has no connection to it. I want the podcast to be accessible to that person, but I also want them to understand that this isn’t just for them and that’s okay. Maybe that’s the way history should be told.

Noah: I do hope this can be used in education and particularly in grade schools, where history is often treated as rote memorization. But that community history and healing is really what we hope for. Dr. Donna Nagata talks with us in the first episode about the shared trauma of Japanese Americans, and I hope some Sansei can find a way to better understand that trauma. For younger Japanese Americans like us, I hope it brings us closer to our grandparents and great-grandparents. A funny thing happens in history where we blur actual people into “history people,” i.e. flat characters. But you can’t do that with oral histories. You hear them speak and move and breathe. I hope people hear the incarcerees talk and hear themselves and their loved ones in them, like I did.

Now that you’re done with production, what is your big takeaway?

Hana: We’re not done, not by a long shot. We still have three more episodes to finish! My biggest takeaway is that a podcast is a lot of work. Kidding. Kind of. My real takeaway is that if you tell good stories, people will listen. I think sometimes people get it turned around: they write stories they think will sell. But for me, this project has been all about writing the stories that I’m passionate about and trusting that if we do a good enough job at that, people will want to join us on the journey. I think that’s a good reminder for any project.

Noah:  When we started, I tried to talk us down from doing 60+ interviews an episode, thinking more along conventional radio/podcast lines. And I was wrong! And I’m really happy about that! Having that variety really turned out to be the main strength of the podcast, and I hope distinguishes us from a lot of other content.

Do you have any requests of your listeners?

Hana: Please listen? And also, get in touch if you think you have a good story for the podcast. We’ve mostly figured out storylines for season 1, but if it fits in well, who knows? And then maybe we’ll make other episodes. Plus, I just like hearing other people’s stories.

Noah: I’d like to thank everyone for the response and for listening in the first place. Feedback and advice is always welcome, if you’d like to reach out! I’d also like to thank my amazing multi-instrumentalist friend Sam Winnie and my amazing podcast guru friend Peter Leonard for their advice on both scoring and mixing this.

Campu quote

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