The ripe stuff
Brenda Nakamoto’s new book brings a life to fruition
We tend to have a mental, stereotypical image of farmers: men and women—gruff and stalwart—their skin tanned dark from laboring under the harsh summer sun and creviced with deep lines like a weathered cartography map. Muscles involuntarily flex with every slight movement, toned from years of hauling produce bins to be checked and tallied.
Brenda Nakamoto doesn’t fit that image.
Rather, she seems more like a soccer mom: petite with a smart wide-bob cut that features the well-rounded curves of her face with a wide smile and a demure “hee hee hee!” laugh that makes her immediately endearing.
Likewise, her biggest concern isn’t what the late unseasonable rain will do to her crops, but rather the impending departure of her son leaving for UC Irvine in the fall.
Nakamoto grew up on a peach and prune farm in Gridley, a small farming community north of Yuba City. There, she spent her formative years, helping her father work the soil, water the trees and sort peaches into bins before they were weighed and sold.
Nakamoto, who now lives in Davis with her husband and their teenage children, chronicles her experiences on the farm in a new series of essays, Peach Farmer’s Daughter.
Nakamoto’s childhood embodied the typical farmer’s life—with the added twist of being one of the only Asian-American families in the entire county. She left the farm when she went to college. Shortly after, her parents sold most of the land surrounding the farm and retired. Eventually she went on to have a family and settle down in Davis, where she now works at UC Davis in the school’s agricultural and environmental sciences office.
The book, published by the Sacramento-based Roan Press, reflects on Nakamoto’s family life, culture and observations growing up on the farm; its essays are eloquent and poetic with prose that seems to sway like the boughs of the neatly planted peach trees.
It also illustrates that although Nakamoto no longer lives life as dictated by the demanding stone fruit, she’s still a farmer at heart who knows the sound of unpicked peaches dropping to the ground as money lost, recognizes the “daisy-shaped” prints of coyotes that wander the grounds of Northern California farmlands, and recalls all too well the grit and trial that makes up a farmer and his family.
A third generation Japanese-American, or sansei, Nakamoto spent 15 years writing the history of her life among the peaches.
“I feel traumatized now,” says Nakamoto, laughing about her memoir. “It’s sort of like when you’re young and you’re chasing a boy you like, and then, suddenly, you get him. Now that the book is out, it feels odd.”
Although it recounts Nakamoto’s life, it’s not quite accurate to describe the book as a memoir—at least, in the classic sense.
“I’m not very linear. As a writer and as a person, I can’t hang on to one thing for too long. The essay format worked for me,” she says.
The book is split into four sections named after the seasons, and the essays pertain to particular seasonal themes (summer: fruition; fall: decline; winter: death; spring: growth).
The stories jump around the life of this farmer’s daughter. Sometimes it’s a recollection about Nakamoto and her husband encountering racism when someone in a passing car yelled, “Ching-chong, Chinaman!” (Nakamoto seems more miffed about the fact that he can’t tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese than the event itself.)
Sometimes, essays consist of just a poem or recipe.
Yet although it is Nakamoto’s story, she seems to be less of the focus and more of a lens for viewing her father, Harold Nakamoto, a World War II veteran who was serving in the Army even as members of his family and other Japanese-Americans were placed into internment camps.
After the war, he labored in Northern California-area farms before starting a peach and prune farm of his own to provide for his wife and children.
Nakamoto calls her father, who died in August, a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who greatly influenced her. As the reader watches him decline in health, from workhorse in young fatherhood to swing-dancing retiree to aging widower, he emerges as the flawed and statuesque pillar of Nakamoto’s book.
“He always said, ‘I’m just a poor, dumb farmer,’” Nakamoto says, reciting her father’s words in an imitative voice.
“He may have always not felt good enough. He was a driven, crusty old man. I think this book shows otherwise,” she adds. “He didn’t need a college education. This shows that he was somebody.”
Written with her father as his health declined, Nakamoto says she made it her mission to share their history.
Still, the book engenders so much more that the life of a sansei and her nisei (second generation) father and a theme of culture and belonging pervades the book throughout.
As the only Asian student in school, Nakamoto describes a desire to have blue eyes and blond hair as classmates teased her, but her Japanese pride also shines through as she playfully details days spent recooking and eating dried-out, old mochi offerings left in front of family altars from New Year’s festivities, and later in life, her growing desire to learn her mother’s traditional recipes.
“I find [culture] fascinating. In regard to my Japanese culture, it’s something I connected to,” Nakamoto says. “Being Japanese was something I was resentful of as a child. This book helped me find out who I am as I studied Asian culture.”
These days, Nakamoto says she feels more connected to her culture than ever. She enrolled her children into a taiko drumming program and encouraged them to attend local Obon Odori festivals. (In Japan, these are traditional Buddhist festivals in which family members reunite and honor their ancestors.)
“I hope that this serves as a record of my culture,” adds Nakamoto, who is now working on a new project focusing on the lives of the Japanese in America during World War II.
In essence, Peach Farmer’s Daughter is about one author’s desire to uncover herself.
“I’ve always questioned who I am and what I am. Maybe under the surface, I’m just insecure.”
Sometimes, Nakamoto adds, she questions if she was brave or stupid in digging around her past and showing it to the world.
She need not question: The work is thrilling.
The stories here can be chilling in their brutally honest reflections, at times almost instilling a fretful concern for the people and places no longer a part of Nakamoto’s life.
Yet this intimacy is what also gives it its strength, humor and humility. Through the eyes of an impressionable sansei from a lone peach farm in Gridley, Peach Farmer’s Daughter is both endearing and eye-opening as it presents a sliver of Northern California’s culture and history that’s far too often overlooked.