Q&A with Elena Tajima Creef, Author of Shadow Traces

Elena Tajima Creef, author of Shadow Traces: Seeing Japanese/American and Ainu Women in Photographic Archives, answers questions on her influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways from her book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write this book because I could not find anything satisfying or in-depth about the rich photographic legacy of the Japanese/American women who left behind  their deep visual imprint across history.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

Roland Barthes has dramatically changed the way I look at photographs as unique forms of cultural texts–or sign systems begging for our interpretation and analysis.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

The Immigration records for all Japanese nationals who arrived in San Francisco that are housed in the Pacific Region Collection of the  National Archives are a treasure trove of information. They contain literal narratives recording  the personal drama of Japanese women who made the East to America passage. They contain fascinating transcripts of interrogation interviews complete with their own photo archive glued in their file folders.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

I hope that readers will come to appreciate the ways that I have tried to highlight the agency and humanity of all the women who have been “caught by the historical camera” that my book explores. There is nothing “invisible” about these groups of Japanese, Japanese American, or indigenous Ainu women.  I move them, as a group, from the margins of historical inquiry into the center of my scholarly spotlight to illuminate their presence as worthy subjects of our attention and respect.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

That these groups of Japanese/American and Ainu women are not merely subjects of the historical camera, but their visual legacy actually shapes their place in history.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I like to read Marjorie Liu’s brilliant comic book series “Monstress” for its fantastical depiction of a wartime world ruled by women of color in an imagined alternative Asia.

I love to watch all the Star Wars-inspired series like “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett.”

I listen (repeatedly) to Mark Schrader’s award winning  Podcast series “Blockbuster” that tells the story of 1970s cinema and the rise of young directors George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron.

Elena Tajima Creef is a professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body.

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