Mapping the Unfamliar: A Review of Navigating with(out) Instruments by traci kato-kiriyama
By Christian Hanz Lozada. Posted on Jan. 11, 2022.
Late in 2021, after reading just a handful of pieces in Navigating With(out) Instruments while bedside as my brother recovered from surgery (surgeons removed a tumor and he’s recovering nicely), I messaged traci kato-kiriyama about feeling seen on so many levels so quickly into their book. In two of twelve sections, they touched on not having children, cancer, and the loss of a grandparent who was a familial pillar from an Asian American lens. In reading just a fraction of their work, I felt like I was being shown pieces of me.
In response to my message, traci invited connection as deftly as their pieces I had just read. They shared excitement about Naomi Hirahara, Edgar Award-winning author, writing blurbs for both of our books and said, “we’ll have to read together at some point down the line!” That simple and earnest invitation is repeated regularly on each page of Navigating With(out) Instruments: poetry—micro-essays—notes to self.
The brilliance of kato-kiriyama’s book is it takes all the facets of being human, with its individual influences, histories, pains, and collects them with a challenge: try not to relate to some part of me. In it, you will read about the layered loss of the Japanese internment camps, but you will also learn about making art and art communities, punctuated by what kato-kiriyama calls “Death Moments” where the speaker finds rejuvenation near death. In other words, this book is about living and getting through. The scope of such an endeavor is so vast, but kato-kiriyama deftly creates a map to help the reader navigate through from one identity to another.
In poems like “remember, all the children whom were never born to me” kato-kiriyama touches on a life of not having children and navigating with/against a partner. This poem specifically heightens the descriptions of never-children with words on the page pulling apart from each other and at times coalescing into lines that ground the reader in the present. The author, throughout this ICON, does a skillful job describing the presence, attempts at, and grief for never-children along a backdrop of societal norms and pressures. These pressures at times do come back later in the book, too, as much as they still come up in life (I would know as a childless man in my 40s), but kato-kiriyama knows this, and like a proper guide even in tenuous conditions, offers that beautiful invitation:
“Please do not assume so much of the person walking
this earth at this time without child . . .
Instead, invite us in. We can be Revolutionary Aunties &
And you could probably use the support” (31).
Rather than playing with how the words sit on the page, in poems like “Week of Diagnosis – day 1- The Things A Doctor Should Never Say” kato-kiriyama lets the weight of the moment drive the reader’s eye into the familiar where a doctor should take a lesson from the writer and recognize their audience and change the medium into something the audience can handle rather than put the weight of sympathy on the patient, who has to put the doctor, their loved ones, and themselves at ease. I read the passage:
“A doctor should begin with:
I don’t want you to worry. You will be fine. There is amazing
Technology now and we will fight this so hard, it never comes back.
I take joycey’s hand and tell her not to worry.
I look my doctor in the eye and say, It’s okay . . . just say it.
If anything, a doctor should say it.
Because I can’t.
The doctor must go first.” (40-41).
while listening to my drug-addled brother whisper “I’m not much company” between the ebbs and flows of painkillers and breakthrough pain. Even in this small passage, there is commentary in the individual moment about how people treat the vulnerable and how poorly we treat ourselves. The speaker in the poem has to console their loved ones as my brother tried to put me at ease because we don’t have familiar scripts on navigating hospital rooms, just the hallways to get us from one department to the next.
Taken as a whole, the sections work like they are intended: as a map you can follow along like a self-guided tour. The first two ICONS bring it emotionally hard with outlining multiple identities: granddaughter, Japanese American, Angeleno, etc., but they come in hard for a reason: kato-kiriyma knows to show the magic early, to give you the emotion that makes the reader message the author about feeling seen and heard.
If you keep following the map, you’ll find a rhythm in the middle. Ironically, the book hits this rhythm with descriptions of Los Angeles, specifically Gardena, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown. This is the information, if the book is a tour, that lets you know you were in a real place and you saw parts of authentic communities, but this rhythm is also there for a reason: the turn.
The turn is when the writer gets to speak truth. They have shown you emotion, they have shown you authenticity, now they will show you heart. Navigating with(out) Instruments ends with the parts of Asian American identity that need to be talked about more: mental health, love, racism, and, perhaps most important, that invitation to connect:
“Let us grow peace
like a weed
that crawls up the sidewalks of every street,”
Author’s Bio: Christian Hanz Lozada co-authored the poetry book Leave with More Than You Came With from Arroyo Seco Press and the history book Hawaiian in Los Angeles. His poems and stories have appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review (Pushcart Nominee), A&U Magazine, Rigorous Journal, Cultural Weekly, Dryland, among others. He lives in San Pedro, CA and uses his MFA to teach his neighbors’ kids at Los Angeles Harbor College.
Editor’s Note: If you’re in the Los Angeles area, check out traci kato-kiriyama’s reading in Little Tokyo later this month. Her book is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble.com, Amazon.com, and Bookshop.com.