Stories

David Mas Masumoto: Telling Stories Through Letters

Author David Mas Masumoto was only a child when he learned about the power of writing letters. And the person who inadvertently helped him to discover this power was his grandmother—who could neither read nor write.

Masumoto had known about the stack of letters that Baachan (Grandma) kept in a drawer, wrapped in cloth like a precious family heirloom. The letters were written in Japanese. When he had asked her show to him how to write their family name using Japanese characters, he uncovered a painful secret: like many impoverished immigrant farmworkers of her time, she was uneducated and illiterate. Yet she kept the letters because she knew the words on paper “carried meaning and memories.”

Years later, Masumoto was a respected author in discussions about writing a column for the Fresno Bee newspaper, when the editor remarked that “creating a good column is like writing a letter to a friend.” The notion touched some deeply ingrained emotions, and the result was a series of essays, written as letters to various people. Ranging from recollections of imaginary ghosts in his fields, to advice to farm children, to a thank you to a good neighbor who made heroic sacrifices, the letter-essays brought Masumoto national acclaim.

With Letters to the Valley: A Harvest of Memories, Masumoto shares a collection of these writings in book form, accompanied by full-color illustrations by artist Doug Hansen. Both a lyrical account of farmers’ lives in California’s Central Valley and a celebration of the underappreciated art of letter writing, the book features letters that have inspired many readers to write their own—and send them to Masumoto.

“Readers have told me their own stories in response to the sensory experiences I often write about, such as memories of fruits,” says Masumoto. “The flavors echo in letters I've received.”

And for Masumoto, the act of writing—especially in a letter to a friend or loved one—is itself an opportunity to savor life’s details.

“Writing forces us to slow down—we write much slower than we talk—and take ownership to words we use,” he observes. “You can go back and delete and rephrase a written word, but how many us of speak out loud as if we don&rssquo;t own those words? Even e-mail is writing, albeit sometimes fast, almost too fast. But it’s better than ‘speaking without thinking.’ And best of all, we can save and share letters. It’s hard to share a conversation second hand.”

Even though she wouldn’t have been able to read it, Masumoto thinks his late, letter-cherishing grandmother would have appreciated Letters to the Valley and known the significance of the human stories it contained.

“Baachan would have smiled, looked at the pictures and touched the surface of the pages with her old, callused hands.”




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