Oral histories are intimate conversations between and among people who have generously agreed to share these recordings with BHS’s archives and researchers. Please listen in the spirit with which these were shared. BHS abides by the General Principles & Best Practices for Oral History as agreed upon by the Oral History Association and expects that use of this material will be done with respect for these professional ethics.
Every oral history relies on the memories, views, and opinions of the narrator. Because of the personal nature of oral history, listeners may find some viewpoints or language of the recorded participants to be objectionable. In keeping with its mission of preservation and unfettered access whenever possible, BHS presents these views as recorded.
The audio recording should be considered the primary source for each interview. Where provided, transcripts created prior to 2008 or commissioned by a third party other than BHS, serve as a guide to the interview and are not considered verbatim. More recent transcripts commissioned by BHS are nearly verbatim copies of the recorded interview, and as such may contain the natural false starts, verbal stumbles, misspeaks, and repetitions that are common in conversation. The decision for their inclusion was made because BHS gives primacy to the audible voice and also because some researchers do find useful information in these verbal patterns. Unless these verbal patterns are germane to your scholarly work, when quoting from this material researchers are encouraged to correct the grammar and make other modifications maintaining the flavor of the narrator’s speech while editing the material for the standards of print.
All citations must be attributed to Brooklyn Historical Society:
[Last name, First name], Oral history interview conducted by [Interviewer’s First name Last name], [Month DD, YYYY], [Title of Collection], [Call #]; Brooklyn Historical Society.
These interviews are made available for research purposes only. For more information about other kinds of usage and permissions, see BHS’s rights and reproductions policy.
Oral history interview conducted by Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner
January 31, 2012
Call number: 2011.019.015
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: This is January 31, 2012. My name is ElizabethPozzi-Thanner. I am going to speak with Sonnet Takahisa. We are in New York City, on Eldridge Street, and ready to go. Um, I love your name. (laughter)
SONNET TAKAHISA: Thank you. I can't take any credit. (laughter)
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Eh, can you tell me about your first name?
SONNET TAKAHISA: Sure. Um, my father was, um, passionate about Shakespeare andwas actually a frustrated actor, um, and, uh, so Sonnet was his choosing and his idea. Um, the truth actually is -- um, and not that many people know this -- on my birth certificate -- um, my father had wanted to name me Sonnet because of Shakespeare's sonnets; my mother -- this is the way the story is told -- thought 1:00this -- that my -- me, this baby, was going to have enough problems having a last name of Takahisa and being interracial, that she thought that it was way too much to saddle me with also a strange and unusual first name. So on my birth certificate it's actually Carol Sonnet Takahisa. And when I was in first grade, my -- there were I think four other Carols in my class, in Brooklyn, in Canarsie, and my parents just said, "Would you want to be called Sonnet?" So I said, "Sure." I mean, what did I know; what did I care? And so at that point, if anybody called me Carol, they had to pay me a penny, and my name was switched to Sonnet. So, um. And I was Sonnet ever since. Every year -- I never changed it officially in my school records -- so this is a longer story than you asked, but, um -- my father would write a very eloquent letter to my teacher for the 2:00first day of school explaining why I should be called Sonnet. And that was always fine, and every year the teacher would read it, no problem, until just as I was about to graduate from high school and the secretary of the high school called me into -- and I was in one of the large, big, big Brooklyn High Schools -- and she said, "You know, on your diploma, we have to write Carol." And by then, nobody had called me Carol in years. And I said, "That's ridiculous; everybody knows me as Sonnet." She said, "I'm sorry, the way the Board of Education -- this was the Board of Education -- is, if I say that Sonnet graduated, it will show that Carol never graduated, so we have to put on your diploma Sonnet" -- I mean, "We have to put Carol on your diploma." So I'm like, "That's ridiculous. Can't you at least do C. Sonnet?" I mean, by then all my college applications were in as Sonnet; everything said Sonnet. Everybody called me Sonnet, you know. And at that point the principal walked in and he 3:00said, "Hey, Sonnet, what's up?" He said, "What's the problem?" When I explained, he said, "That's ridiculous. You know, this is Sonnet. We know her as Sonnet." So from then on it was never any problem. On the, you know, plaque, you know, the honorary plaque in the -- for, you know, vale-- not -- for high standards in the school, it says Sonnet; on my diploma, it says Sonnet. Everything now says Sonnet Carol. So that's my name.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: And what about, uh, nowadays, immigration and other,uh, laws, when you, when you travel? That what do your papers show?
SONNET TAKAHISA: My, my passport says Sonnet Carol.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Ah.
SONNET TAKAHISA: So it never has been a problem. I think probably when I goteven my Social Security, my mom just put it in as Sonnet Carol. So. I have more problems with people not knowing if Sonnet is a first name or a last name. Sometimes they mix it up; Takahisa is my first name. And then just unknowingly -- I mean, actually, in Japan, Takahisa is more commonly a first name and not a 4:00last name, and my father -- um, my father's father came to the States to avoid a draft, and I don't know if it was the Russo--Japanese War or the Sino--Japanese War, but that's about when he came to the States -- and Takahisa was a made-up name. So we don't actually know what his original surname was. So there's my name. (laughs)
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: So, so your, your Japanese roots are somehow -- go --end with your, with your grand-- your knowledge about your Japanese roots end with your grandfather, is that what you're saying?
SONNET TAKAHISA: Um, so I have on my father's side, his father, uh, his, youknow, his legal father, was -- I know he came to this country from Japan, and I know he was samurai. Um, his mother, um, had two sisters, um, and they -- I 5:00actually know them and I know parts of that family. I just don't -- and so I know more about that fam-- you know, my m-- my father's mother's side I do know. So.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: So now I think I'll start with doing the interview as Iusually do.
SONNET TAKAHISA: OK.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: I was just -- I had to start with asking (Takahisalaughs) your name. Um, will you -- will you tell me your life story, please?
SONNET TAKAHISA: OK. Um, so actually, I mean, starting with my name is actuallyprobably, you know, a good way to start it. Um, my parents, um, met in New York City. Um, my dad was a frustrated actor and frustrated writer, Japanese--American, and in the '40s and '50s didn't get too far, um, being Japanese--American. Um, met my mom, who was of Russian and Polish Jewish 6:00background, and I -- all I know is they met somewhere in the Village through like Socialist Workers Party kind of stuff, um, and they decided to get married. Um, my father's mother by then had -- I guess was still living in California but traveled back and forth quite a bit. I don't know very much about her. And she -- and my father had a first wife, so I think my grandmother, my father's mother, liked the first wife better. Um, and my mother's parents, um, were quite dismayed that my father wasn't Jewish. So it was not sort of happy, um, I take it, when they got married on that level of my family. Um, I think when I was born, there was more rapprochement and some reconciliation, um, and so, you 7:00know, I, I have pictures of my, both of my grandparents being together with me and with my parents.
Um, they -- my parents lived in the Village, on Horatio Street. They were sortof original bohemians, you know, lived with artists. Um, my mom was a mathematician, statistician, worked for advertising companies. Um, sort of interesting, sort of history, some of which I know about. She had a twin sister and an older sister, um, so -- who we were close with the family, their families. Um, and my father had no siblings. Um, and I do know my dad tried to write; my mom sort of was the breadwinner for some time. Um, and ultimately my parents started their own company. They -- uh, my father worked as a salesman, and they decided to go into business for themselves. So, um, I was raised, you 8:00know, to be part of the business. They were importers and wholesalers. My dad would go selling -- on selling trips, selling trips around, uh, the country, mostly to museum, um, shops, and Chinese gift shops around from the East Coast to the Midwest, and my mom ran the warehouse and did the shipping. And if there was a selling, you know, a sales show, an expo, I would go and help set up the displays, I would help take orders. I helped in the shipping business; I did a lot of the bookkeeping. So that was, um, how I was raised. And when we went on trips abroad it was always because we were going on a buying trip, and so I went to some amazing sort of backroads places, particularly in Mexico and Taiwan and other places that my parents decided they wanted to travel and buy from.
Um, we moved from the Village. Um, my father says, you know, he decided we had9:00to be legitimate, and so they moved to a place in Brooklyn, um, which ironically is exactly two blocks from where I live now. Completely random, um, but they moved in there. So in the -- in -- sometime in 1956, as best I know. I think I know what house it is. I know it's one of two houses. Um, I have very vague memories of it. I do have vague memories of my sister coming home -- my sister's about three years younger than me -- from the hospital. Um, and from -- so we lived in Prospect Lefferts Gardens on Hawthorne Street. I do know -- again, never saw anything of it -- but that there was a petition signed to keep my parents out of the neighborhood at that point because they were an interracial couple. Um, and my parents just plowed through and, you know, as they did in so many, um, instances in their life, um, just doggedly plowed 10:00through. And we stayed there -- they lived there, um -- I don't know what prompted them, but at a certain point, uh, we moved to Canarsie.
We lived in projects, the Bayview Projects, in Canarsie. And, um, you know, I,I never thought much about sort of being mixed. It was always -- you know, I could go to -- if there was a Jewish holiday, you know, if I decided I liked the teacher and I wanted to be there and hang out with the teacher and be the only one in class, I would go to school on the Jewish holidays. Otherwise I could be Jewish and not go to school on the Jewish holidays. Um. I, you know, had a bunch of different friends; we were all mixed. I remember that; I remember the projects very well. I remember my elementary school quite well; it was PS 272. Um, there's a, you know, group of people that I've reconnected with on Facebook 11:00now from that building. And we always had sort of -- you know, I guess there was always something exotic. My father could come in and teach us to sing "Frère Jacques" in Japanese in my elementary school. And on the Facebook page, a lot of the kids say, "I can still sing--" -- you know, "kids." I mean, we're all in our fifties now. "I can still sing "Frère Jacques" in Japanese!" Um, and he would travel abroad and go places and send postcards, and he would come in and sing folk songs. And, you know, so it was a -- you know, he was -- and both my parents were very involved in that way and very proud of sort of our backgrounds. And when my dad went to Japan for the first time in his life, um, I must have been about eight or nine, and he came back with kimono, and so we got to get dressed up in kimono for the Japanese festivals. And we had -- you know, we were strange in our neighborhood because we had a Christmas tree and we 12:00had a menorah. Um, so that was sort of growing up in Canarsie. All along my parents had this business; they had a warehouse there. Um, I was pretty good in school and smart in school. I mean, the kids remember me and my sister as the smart kids.
Um, we moved to Brighton Beach, um, and, uh, so I was in fourth grade when wemoved to [Waternew]. It was a cooperative, [water bass] cooperative, um, in Brighton Beach. Um, and my mom must have done -- I know my mom did some -- a lot of behind-the-scenes sort of negotiating, and so for about a month or two weeks I was in fourth grade, and then I was skipped to the fifth grade. So I was put into the fifth-grade class, uh, because the students were not as advanced as I had been. So, um, somehow I -- you know, my mom did lots of finagling. I only sort of now in hindsight realize how much she must have done. 13:00Um, and, you know, I had a -- again, you know, I was the only Asian kid. In sixth grade, uh, we did a, um, a folk -- we did -- it was the arts and cultural -- the district arts and cultural fair, and I remember we did a Japanese dance. My father must have taught us the folk dance. And every year we would go to this Japanese folk festival, so I knew all the Japanese folk dances. And we performed that, and I -- my parents must have supplied the happi coats that we all wore for the show. And I had to get up in front of, you know, this huge auditorium and greet the superintendent -- I mean, in those days, it was like, Oh, my God -- and introduce everyone. So, um, but that dance, sort of throughout my life has continued to be something that I've used or taught or, you know, used as a way to bring people together. Tanko Bushi, the Coal Miner's Dance. 14:00
Um, so that was sixth grade. Went to junior high school in, um, Coney Island.I went into the two-year [SP]. In those days it meant that you could go either two years, do seventh and eighth grade -- seventh, eighth grade, and ninth grade in two years, or have an enriched program and did it in three years. So I did it in two years. So in essence I skipped two years. So by the time I went to high school, um, I was young. I went to one -- Lincoln High School, one of the large high schools. There were I think 5,200 kids or something in this school; it was huge. Um, and I did really well. I was in the top -- you know, there were 1,200 kids in my graduating class -- I was in the top ten kids of the graduating class. I went to Harvard. I got into Harvard and went to Harvard with a scholarship. Um, I was -- and in those days -- so that was in 19-- I 15:00graduated high school in '72 -- there was I think like one other Asian kid in the high school with me. He was the son of the Chinese laundry, you know, around the corner. Um, but there were no other Asian -- there were hard-- I mean, it was, you know, sort of the wave of the -- the change in immigration hadn't happened. So there were very few Asians and no Russians at all. Um, it was fairly segregated, both in high school and the middle school, in terms of there was tracking. Um, but I think because I was mixed, because people didn't know what I was, I often had friends who were not just the white kids, or, you know, hung out with other kids.
Um, we went to Ethical Culture, ethical humanism, so, um, it was, you know, acommunity. When we first started, we were going to a, a, a Ethical Culture society in Long Island, and then when we moved to Brighton Beach from Canarsie, 16:00it was a little bit far, so we started going to the society in Brooklyn. Um, so that became sort of a network and a community that we would go to. You know, we'd go away for weekends with people from Ethical Culture. We'd -- you know, my father would still direct plays over the weekends. Um, my mom always folk danced, so we got involved in folk dancing through my mom. Um, and I ran the folk dance club in high school, and it was everything. I mean, we certainly did Tanko Bushi, but we did Israeli folk dancing and Russian folk -- all kinds of folk dancing. Um, I danced all through high school, um, [modern dance], with Marjorie Mazia, who was Woody Guthrie's wife, and studied with, um, their daughter, uh, Nora, um, and with a lot of dancers from, um, Martha Graham's 17:00troupe. But I was short and stumpy, so that's never really -- dance was never something that I really thought I would do, but I always loved dancing.
Um, so '72, I don't know, went to Harvard. Um, actually, the summer before, sothe summer I graduated from high school, I think, um, '72, we went to Japan as a family for the first time. Um, and I remember being on the plane, and there were all these white people who could speak Japanese, and I was really jealous. So I decided when I went to Harvard to major in East Asian Studies and major in Japanese Studies. Um, my mom was really, you know, adamant at a certain point that my sister do, you know, the Jewish side, give it fairness, so she was trying to get my sister to study Hebrew, which she didn't do; she ended up studying Serbo--Croatian, but-- (Pozzi-Thanner laughs) Um, so I studied East 18:00Asian Studies and Japanese Studies at Harvard. Um, I, um, went to Japan in my -- the summer between my junior and senior year to do research for a senior honors thesis. And I ended up -- I was going to interview kids who were the children of, you know, mixed marriages, but my Japanese wasn't good enough, so I ended up doing a study of women who were foreign-born women who had married Japanese men and were living in Japan. So, um, I did that, which was pretty amazing. And three or four years later I happened to be at an academic conference and there was a woman who had did her PhD on the same exact topic, and as she's talking about her subjects, I'm like, "I know who that is! I know who that is!" So that was pretty cool.
Um, I also, um, when I was at school, um, worked in the gift shop of theHarvard, um, Museum, and because, again, that was through a contact of my dad's. 19:00And somehow made the decision to decide to do an internship at the Harvard Museums. And -- this is so long and boring. I have so much -- it's like so far back! There's -- oh my God! Anyway, um --
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: It's good. (laughs)
SONNET TAKAHISA: -- I, um -- so I went to the director of the museum and said Iwanted to do an independent study, internship. I don't know where I got the chutzpah to do all this stuff, but-- So I worked at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Peabody Museum for a semester, and I worked with the registrar, I worked a bit with the educator, I worked with all the different departments. And I do remember -- this is, you know, prescient in terms of my museum career -- but, um, I remember sitting with the director one day in his office and him saying, "I have the answer. I have the answer." And he took out -- this was sort of in the very early days of sort of plastic replicas where things looked 20:00very real, and he had, you know, an Oreo or a Hydrox cookie that was made out of plastic that looked very real, and some other foods. Um, and he said, "This is the answer. All these people who want to touch objects in museum, you know, here, we'll just give them these replicas." And I said, "You know, there's something not right about that."
So, um, anyway, I had a great experience doing that, and so when I wasgraduating, um, decided I didn't -- wasn't quite ready to go to graduate school. Everybody who was in East Asian studies looked really pale, and I just didn't want to do it. So, um, I looked around for a museum opportunity. Um, the Children's Museum of Boston had a Japanese home exhibit, so I applied to be an intern, and they said, "Well, we can't guarantee -- we can't guarantee you'll get the Japanese house, um, and if you wait a little while longer, we're going to have funding for a minority internship." And in those days, it was a 21:00difference of $25 a week to $84 a week. So, um, that's how old I am. So, um, I said, OK, I'll wait for that, and I'll volunteer at the Japanese house until, um, until, you know, the internship, the minority internship comes up. And at the same time I got a teaching job at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, so went out with educators to schools and taught about animals in human culture in Africa and in Native American cultures, and we used the Peabody Museum. The teachers who were my mentors would get stoned in the car every time, and I'm like, This is how you teach? You know. So that was my training.
But I also then got to work very intimately while at the Children's Museum withthe Japanese home and the collections. And had always had an interest in objects because of my parents' business, and I always repaired things when they 22:00were broken. And, um, my birthday is March third, which is Girls' Day in Japan, so had always read books about the traditions of Girls' Day and the objects that you put on -- you have a whole set of dolls that get put on display for the event. And so all the sudden I'm in the Japanese home and I'm overseeing the collections, and there were all these Girls' Day dolls. So I proposed to the museum -- I mean, a small Japanese house -- I proposed an exhibition of these Girls' Day dolls. And it was approved, and we ended up writing and I got funding to do a whole series of Japanese festivals in the Japanese home. And in order to do it, the idea for the proposal was to work with members of the sort of expatriate Japanese community. So there were many families who were in the Boston area either for school or for business where the husbands were working 23:00and the wives and children were either in school or-- So the moms, these Japanese moms, became the training for what do you do with these objects, how do you care for them, what's the traditional way of packaging them, and we did a comparison with the Western ways of conservation. So it was an amazing, amazing opportunity. Um, and I got to meet amazing people, and we did these big events at Faneuil Hall Market, and we did a -- I recreated the Japanese festival that I had gone to every year here in New York City, I recreated in Boston at the Children's Museum. I got a drummer; I got a drum from Wesleyan; I got a jazz drummer from Berklee School of Music, a Japanese guy; I got lanterns donated; I had the teachers from the Buddhist church here in New York City teach me the dances; I taught the dances to lots of people. So it was -- it was really -- 24:00and, I mean, I was a kid. It was an amazing opportunity. Um, so that was pretty, you know, like -- that was great. It was great. And then, um, at a certain point the Jap-- the Children's Museum moved downtown, and they, uh, were bringing in a 150-year-old -- at that time -- 150-year-old house from Kyoto, and so I worked with the carpenters and I worked with the woman who was directing the project, um, and I worked with the carpenters to do the appropriate ceremonies, and-- So anyway. That -- it was amazing.
And then decided after a certain point that having been teaching so much aboutJapan that I actually wanted to do more studying and do more graduate work, um, on Japan. And I was teaching everything from little kids to graduate students from MIT and Harvard and bringing in art history students from -- it was great. But so decided to go back and do graduate work. I had been dating a man from -- 25:00since my freshman year, and his two roommates were out in Seattle, and University of Washington had a great program, so we decided to go out there together. I mean, his -- I knew his fam-- I mean, I had grown up with him and -- from age 16 when I went to college, 17. Um, so we went out to Seattle. I went to -- did graduate work at the University of Washington. Um, I got a call -- I did East Asian Studies. I got a job teaching in Asian--American studies, which again was a clash. I mean, usually people didn't talk to each other from those departments. Um, my former boss from the Children's Museum called me and said, you know, "Your old boss is leaving. We want you to come back." And I said, "That's amazing," I said, "but I feel like if I came back now you'd always think of me as the kid, and I'm just not ready to come back." She said, "I knew you'd say that. My best friend is moving to the Seattle Art Museum; she's going 26:00to be head of education. She wants to talk to you." So lots of back and forth in between -- that boyfriend and I decided to get married, you know; I got a job offer at the art museum; I had no art history. I had an amazing four years of being at the art museum, had an amazing art history training, got married. Um, so we stayed there; it was fabulous, always with one foot in New York City. My family was here. My mom had a radical mastectomy the week before my college graduation. So, um, she was in remission and went through all kinds of therapy, but she, um, you know, five years later, had different recurrences, and I was in Seattle, and it was really far to come back every time, so the idea was really to come back. And my husband at the time was an artist, and his whole connections were here in New York. So the goal was to get back to -- and his 27:00family was here too -- the goal was to get back to New York.
Um, so I ended up getting a job at the Brooklyn Museum -- another saga, but gotthe job -- and, um moved back to New York, leaving that husband in Seattle with the idea that he would come really soon. And he got more and more engaged in Seattle art politics and Seattle art. He got a Guggenheim and still didn't come. I was sort of like the family representative at every event, and he had a large Catholic family, so every event, every funeral, every wake, I was always -- I mean, his -- he had eight siblings, and I was close to all of them, and, you know, and then I had my family. So I was just sort of doing family stuff and keeping up, and he was in Seattle. And at a certain point we realized, This is it; it's over. So we, um, we decided to split up. Um, he was already -- he 28:00was planning to come back to New York, but by the time he did it was totally over.
Um, in the meantime, um, I had been very busy at the Brooklyn Museum, had lotsof great opportunities. It was a moment in time where there was lots of funding for arts education, and took full advantage of that and really got to create some just pushing out of the box types of programs at the Brooklyn Museum. There were a few other bumps. I got -- I had an EEO suit, um, a discrimination suit, um, charges against me, um, which was awful. Um, and, um, I mean, it ended up being unfounded, and it had to do with union and stuff like that that, but it was really yucky. Um, and Debbie Schwartz, who was at Brooklyn Historical, was a close friend and wh-- so I was sort of separating from my 29:00husband, dealing with, you know, people at this place, um, and -- but at the same time there was all of this opportunity to do really great and innovative programming. And I had gotten connected with the people in the arts and education world, including the director and assistant or deputy of the arts education program at the New York State Council on the Arts. And we became really friend-- good friends, and when Hollis, you know, was sort of looking for a girlfriend, knew I was married, so I was sort of safe, if he needed someone to go to an event with, so we became friends. You know, other mutual friends, it turned out. And then over time, we just ended up becoming a couple. Um, and, um, he's a drummer and he's an arts administrator and has been really incredible and sort of -- so I moved in with him really quickly after I knew things had 30:00ended with my first husband. And we -- my first husband and I got divorced. Um, my parents by then had a place in Florida, which again, coincidentally, was just really close to Hollis's parents, so we would go down and see our parents together, um, and we decided to get married pretty quickly. Um, and so we got married in 1989. Eighty-nine we got married. Um, and I was working at the Brooklyn Museum and just having an amazing time of it. He was at the New York State Council in the Arts and ultimately became director of the Arts in Ed program. Um, and, uh, we had a son. So our son was born in 1990. Um, his name is Tylor, T-Y-L-O-R, uh, which is an anagram, um, of all of his grandparents and other parents, um -- not his parents, his grandparents and great-grandparents. 31:00
Um, and the -- there was an opportunity sort of to, to create small schools, andI was real involved in education and bringing museums and schools together, so we put in two proposals from the Brooklyn Museum, and both were funded, to create small high schools. Uh, and then I sort of had to make a choice and in the end ended up for ten years being the co-director of the New York City Museum School. Uh, so sort of have gone from, you know, museum education and public programming and community-based organizing to running a school that was in museums. And, um, I had a day partner on the school for ten years who was very, very close, um, and it -- the decision to run the school was traumatic. My son was three; it was -- you know, I knew it was a lot of work. But ended up doing that, and did that for ten years. Um, had amazing adventures. Learned a lot 32:00about myself, a lot about the museums, a lot about teaching and learning. Um, and with all the changes in the system, I actually never had the paperwork, the proper paperwork. So, um, at a certain point it was like, OK, I got to get out of this.
And I went to an organization that was creating more small schools, and I didthat for a few years, and then got wooed by the 9/11 Memorial Museum to be the director of education, and I did that for three and a half years, um, with lots of my mentors saying, This is going to be tough, and emotions, it's really hard. And in the end it was less the emotions that were hard and more just the politics, and realizing that, you know, what the place will be, you know, after a decade or so, or two decades, it was not going to be that now. And I didn't feel that my educational sort of leanings were really being used well. So I 33:00quit, which was really scary, sort of leapt out into the unknown. By that point, my husband had gone from State Council in the Arts to running an arts and education-- city-wide arts and education organization, again, sort of [top at the list]. Um, and then had been wooed to Carnegie Hall. When I go the job at 9/11 Museum, he ended up quitting his job at Carnegie Hall because I had this secure job. And then was -- has been working as a consultant since 2006. And then in 2010, I quit, so we're both working as consultants at that point. Um, and, you know, have had a number of different big projects and have never really sort of looked back. I'm still a little nervous but have gotten to do some really exciting things. In the meantime, our son has gone through, um, college, 34:00and has just about finished college, and is doing really well out in California. And--I don't know. I guess -- sorry, I didn't mean to. I don't know why I got -- ew, embarrassing. This is so narcissistic. Sorry. (laughs) So that's where I am now.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: It's not narcissistic. (laughter)
SONNET TAKAHISA: So I'm working as a consultant.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Yeah.
SONNET TAKAHISA: Um, trying to figure out if I want to go back to -- and to bereinstitutionalized or to institutionalizing myself again, but wanting to make sure I'm in the right institution with the right people. Um, it's harder at this age, and it's harder to sort of find the right mix, um, in what I really want to do, and at the same time, things keep popping up and I keep having projects, and so, um, trying to dec-- I mean, I think I'm too young to retire, um, but I'm, I'm -- you know, some days I'm having a great time and some days I have major anxiety. But I have opportunities to work on different projects like this, so it's good. OK, I'm done. (laughter) 35:00
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Well it was quick. (laughs)
SONNET TAKAHISA: That wasn't quick!
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Yes.
SONNET TAKAHISA: Actually, there's (inaudible) through the last part of my life.Sorry. It suddenly got too long.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: No, it didn't get too long. Um, do you want to make abreak, or can we continue?
SONNET TAKAHISA: No, keep going.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Yeah. Um, let's maybe go back a little bit --
SONNET TAKAHISA: Mm-hmm.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: -- and can you, can you tell me a little bit more aboutboth sides of your grandparents, just to frame that --
SONNET TAKAHISA: Sure, sure.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: -- a little bit more? Who they were, what you knewabout them, how you related to them --
SONNET TAKAHISA: Sure.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: -- and how they related to each other. As you said,there was this one photograph --
SONNET TAKAHISA: Yeah.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Yeah.
SONNET TAKAHISA: Of me in the middle.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Yeah, yeah.
SONNET TAKAHISA: Um, so my -- I don't know much about my father's parents. Um,his mom died probably when I was -- I don't know, I must have been two or three. 36:00I don't know exactly how old I was. Um, and he had been estranged from her. The most I know -- I do know, as I said, that my dad -- I have a picture of my grandfather as a samurai with his brother. So my dad had a very faded photograph that, because my ex-husband and my brother-in-law are both photographers, they were able to sort of doctor the photograph, and we have something that's a decent photograph. Um, but, but, as I said, he came to -- left Japan to evade the draft. My father does remember that he first came to Vancouver and then ended up in Seattle. And I think he was kind of a gambler and sort of a rough guy. Um, and he died when my dad was about 11 or 12, so my dad was raised by his mom, predominantly. And they had a very rough relationship. She -- again, we have a picture of my dad's, I think a 37:00half-brother, who died in the swine flu epidemic, um, in 1919, and, um, so -- and my dad always felt that, you know, he -- his mother was closer to the brother. I sort of think -- and actually, I -- the brother was another man's son, so a half-brother to my dad, and that -- and my father always, you know, said that his father was this incredibly noble man for marrying his mom, you know, and-- So that's, that's about all I have of that.
My grandmother, um, worked hard, I think, was a cleaning lady. I remember onestory where she -- um, she cleaned homes like for people like Lon Chaney, Jr., so again, I have this story of my dad telling me that when he was ten, or when 38:00he was a kid, um, he got a Christmas card or some gift card where there was a cutout of an ice skate or a skate, and Lon Chaney, Jr., I think, had put a $10 bill behind it, and it was a gift for my dad. So that's, you know, as much as I really know. He worked really h-- she worked really hard. She made sure that he got into good schools. He ended up going to high school not near where he grew up, but in east LA with sort of more middle-class Jewish kids and mixed kids. So he was really friendly with -- I don't know if you ever know the name Archie Green. He was a folklorist. So Archie and my dad were actually great high school buddies.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Oh--
SONNET TAKAHISA: And there was a third one; his name was Al. So we -- so Archiewas my dad's close friend. And they had some falling-out, and I don't know what 39:00it was, when I was a young child. And when Archie passed away -- and, um, my dad was already passed away -- but I tried to reach out to Archie's son, Derek. And so we knew Derek and Louanne's names; we just didn't know them. Um, so my dad, um, was in-- got interested in the theatre and went to Pasadena Playhouse as a high school intern, and his mom, you know, really helped to support him. And, um, but she died on the West Coast, and so my dad -- there was this triumvirate, Archie, Al, and my dad -- and Al kind of took care of my grandmother, from what I understood, and made sure that she was buried in the plot next to her husband, my grandfather. Um, my dad had all the information but had never really been there or been to the funeral. And, and Al actually -- years later we went to visit him --
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: What year did she die? (inaudible) approximate?
SONNET TAKAHISA: She must have died in '57, '58, somewhere around there, '59.40:00
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: And how, how old was she, probably, when she died?
SONNET TAKAHISA: I don't know. I don't know. I have no idea. She must havebeen in her seventies or eighties. I don't know.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Was she -- was she born in the U.S., or was she --
SONNET TAKAHISA: No, she was born in Japan.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: OK.
SONNET TAKAHISA: She was born in Japan. Her -- she was the eldest, I think, ofthree sisters. Her father had brought them to this country, so it's her -- she had two younger sisters, one who was -- and they were both a lot younger -- who were very -- my dad was closer to. One went back to Japan and raised her family in Japan, but Aunt [Kimi], that -- my dad called her Aunt Kimi -- lived to a quite elderly age, and we actually got to meet her, and we still are in touch with her grandchildren and her son and his wife. Um, and [Chio], who married 41:00Frank and was in California, they -- like, my father remembers being a kid and a, um, a, you know, a teenager and sort of hanging out with them and, you know, sort of-- So -- and we have pictures of sort of them being sort of bon vivants. Um, but he was interested in theatre, he was interested in the Merchant Marines, and he joined the Merchant Marines -- my dad did --
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: When was your father born?
SONNET TAKAHISA: My dad was born in 1917.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: OK.
SONNET TAKAHISA: So.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: And --
SONNET TAKAHISA: And he was in southern California. His, um, grandparents -- sohis mother's sister and I guess father had a -- his father had a tailor shop somewhere in either Stockton or maybe also in San Francisco. Um, so there was some family there that he was connected to and that he would visit I guess summers or hang out with them. Um, so he knew them growing up. Um, his -- but 42:00his aunt, two aunts, were a lot younger than his mother had been, so his cousins were much, much younger than him. So he knew them but wasn't that close to them in terms of relationship with first cousin. Only when he got older. And he has two cousins now that are -- actually, he probably has three -- four -- he has four cousins who are still alive, two of whom, you know, we are sort of -- my sister and I are in touch with. Um, you know, one who is in her late eighties and lives in the same building that her parents bought in San Francisco, in the Panhandle. And her brother, who I haven't seen in -- I don't know that I've ever seen him. Her, her -- no, her -- [Toshi], Toshi's brother and his wife, right, and then the family -- there are two siblings in Japan. So. Anyway, um.
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Are there any stories that you know of, what happened43:00to, to your extended Japanese family during World War II?
SONNET TAKAHISA: Aunt Kimi --
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Because that was --
SONNET TAKAHISA: Aunt Kimi lived in Japan then, so she --
ELIZABETH POZZI-THANNER: Yeah.
SONNET TAKAHISA: -- because she spoke English, um, and there was -- I do knowthere was some horrible story with a husband that either died or left her and left her with two kids, um, but she ended up being able to somehow support the two kids through the war years, partly because she spoke English and could do some translating. Um, so they ended up, you know, surviving quite well and -- not well. They weren't wealthy, but did well. Um, my dad, there was one story that my dad told, which this is -- I wonder -- it's like I've never really had to verbalize it. Um, when he went to Japan in '64, that was the first time he'd ever been to Japan. He spoke Japanese. He spoke [frue bento], Old Japanese, 44:00because that was what he -- you know, so it was old-fashioned Japanese. Um, he came back and told this story about -- in Japan there are lots of restaurants on the roof, roof gardens, and on the roof gar-- on the roofs of Japanese department stores. And he came back and he told this story of this man sitting, sort of coming over and sitting next to him, and either somehow humming or playing a song. I think it was "La Poloma." And, you know, my dad realized much later t 45:00 46:00 47:00 48:00 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00 104:00 105:00 106:00 107:00 108:00 109:00 110:00 111:00 112:00 113:00 114:00 115:00
Oral History Interview with Sonnet Takahisa
Sonnet Takahisa was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was of Japanese descent and her mother was of Russian and Polish Jewish descent. She grew up in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Canarsie, Brooklyn. She attended Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts for an undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies and Japanese Studies, and the University of Washington at Seattle for a graduate degree in East Asian Studies. She worked as the director of education at the The National September 11 Memorial & Museum and also as a consultant at various art and cultural heritage institutions.
Takahisa speaks at length about religion and culture in her family. She discusses her parents' views on atheism and Zionism; honoring Japanese holidays and traditions; and her paternal grandfather's immigration to the United States.
CitationTakahisa, Sonnet, Oral history interview conducted by Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner, January 31, 2012, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.015; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Takahisa, Sonnet
- Asian American Jews
- Education, Higher
- Japanese Americans
- Jews, American -- New York (State) -- Kings County
- Racially mixed families
- Racially mixed people
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Seattle (Wa.)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection