Karen Maeda Allman, event coordinator and bookseller at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, was interviewed by Elaine Ikoma Ko and featured on The North American Post and Discover Nikkei. Below is an excerpt.
Let’s talk about your literary life. Did you always have a keen appreciation for books growing up?
I actually started out as a psychiatric nurse and nurse educator for 20 years. Psychiatric nursing was something that interested me but I learned that nursing is quite conservative as a profession and if you are trying to study something that is unconventional, you will face challenges.
Both my parents were avid readers. My mom read books and magazines in Japanese and bought me copies of English translations of Japanese classics like The River Ki and The Makioka Sisters. My dad was always reading something and took me to the library every Saturday.
After moving to Seattle to attend graduate school, I joined the Red and Black Bookstore Collective as a volunteer. I was really trying hard to find a community where I fit in. It was a great place to learn more about political action and all these great books being published by women, gay and lesbian people, Black, Asian, Latina and Native American writers. There were only a few by multiracial writers and transgender writers (the latter are those whose identity and gender don’t correspond with their birth sex). We also specialized in what were then called “multicultural” children’s books; but after a while, fewer of these books were published.
Fast forward to today, we’re now enjoying another big wave of great books of all types by people from an even greater diversity of backgrounds. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), Asian and Pacific American, Arab American, immigrant writers, and writers of books translated from many different languages are all being published and read these days. And these days, people expect to see these books on bookstore shelves!
One event was the Seattle Public Library’s 2005 “Seattle Reads” author-event program which featured Julie Otsuka (When the Emperor Was Divine). The very full room at the Beacon Hill Branch in south Seattle included many who had been in the camps. Fumiko Hayashida, who is the mother carrying her infant in the iconic “poster photo” in 1942, sat in the front row that night. Some older non-Nikkei attendees who were children at the time, shared the shock and fear they felt as their Nikkei classmates disappeared. And they remembered their parents’ silence.
So often, people who don’t speak up at the microphone during an event will talk to us later and the stories come pouring out.
I’ve also sold books at the Day of Remembrance held each year in February commemorating the day that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 sending Japanese Americans to the camps.
One such memorable event was at the Seattle Center in 2018 with Gold Star Father Khizr Khan (An American Family) and Tom Ikeda, Executive Director of Densho, with the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Seattle Public Library, and Densho.
I looked around at the 1,500 people of all backgrounds and some were teachers, some came that day to protest the Muslim immigration ban and wanted to better understand what had happened during WWII. Others asked if I had books about specific incarceration camps, saying that their parents or grandparents had been incarcerated but would never talk to them about their experiences.
We’ve worked with many famous authors over the years, including Kazuo Ishiguro, who read from his novel, [The]Buried Giant, shortly before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 2018, I was asked to serve on the Judging Panel for the National Book Award for Translated Literature. This was the first year for the Translated Literature prize and what a thrill it was to be part of that process. The finalists included Olga Tokarczuk, now a Nobel Prize Laureate. The winner, Yoko Tawada, who writes in both German and Japanese, had read at our bookstore years earlier as part of a program sponsored by the Japan Foundation.
Most recently, we’ve had some great Zoom events, including one produced this year with Daniel James Brown, author of Facing the Mountain, and moderated by Tom Ikeda. Daniel signed 300 books before the event. . .
You can also enjoy a video from Art Zone with Karen!