World War II Internment Still Resonates

World War II internment camp near Hunt, Idaho

This year we are asking all our entering freshmen to read a powerful novel about Japanese Americans who were interned by the government during World War II. I can already report that Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine is having an impact.

That’s because last week I coached four “students at risk” on essays that they had written about the book. Each summer our college has a “Summer Bridge Program” for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—many from inner city Baltimore and Washington—and St. Mary’s has a good record with them. In fact, our “public honors college” is proudest of the fact that our students of color and our “first generation college students” graduate at roughly the same rate as our more privileged students (80/85 percent). To pull this off, we must monitor the students closely throughout their four years.

I was moved by the essays I read. In spare, unsentimental prose, When the Emperor Was Divine looks at the internment tragedy through the eyes of the members of a Japanese American family, a mother and two children. (The father has been arrested by the FBI and imprisoned.) The Summer Bridge students were supposed to find an important theme in the book and research and write about it.

Julie (I’ve changed all the names) was struck by the theme of racial profiling. Picking up on the line, ““I am the slant eyed sniper in the trees,” she talked about the assumptions we make about people based on their appearances. In her essay she drew parallels with the Trayvon Martin killing, the Nazi concentration camps, and a case where she herself was once racially profiled (by another African American).

Michael was struck by the urge of some persecuted minorities to shed their racial identities. He focused on the little boy in the book who wants to become culturally assimilated so that “[w]e would never be mistaken for the enemy again!” The essay was in a rough stage but, as we talked, he could see how fruitful it would be to push this idea further.

Ben picked up on the same theme. He was struck by the little girl’s puzzled question to her mother, ““Is there anything wrong with my face? . . . People were staring,” and by her brother when he pretends to be Chinese rather than Japanese. The essay led him to discuss a friendship he had had in middle school with a homosexual classmate who, to hide his identity, acted tough. Ben talked about how their friendship eroded as a consequence and declared that one needs to stand strong in a sense of self, regardless of the consequences.

Behane submitted the most unusual essay given that he was a refugee who had spent years in a neighboring country’s camp (I can’t reveal the country) before making it to the United States. He was struck by the phrase, “Be patient. And remember, it’s better to bend than to break,” which the imprisoned father writes in a postcard to his interned son. He wondered whether this philosophy helped the Japanese be resilient in the face of last year’s tsunami.

Behane also wrote about the mother’s statement, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” and I couldn’t help but wonder what he had seen in his camp that led to him quoting these passages. In fact, I suggested that, were he to revise the essay, he should describe his camp experience. Doing so would lead to more insight into the book as well as into what he went through.

Knowing that students can process only so many suggestions from a single writing conference, I limited myself to two: move the essay topic onto your own turf and be as specific as possible. I was able to commend all four students for how they had found a way to talk about Otsuka’s book in ways that were meaningful.  I told them that, whenever one of their college teacher tells them to write about an unfamiliar topic—say, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II—they must figure out how to approach the topic from a position of strength. They will find that writing becomes much easier when they do so.

The author is coming to St. Mary’s to meet with the entering class, and I’m hoping that my students will take advantage of the interest they have generated to ask her good questions.

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  • farida

    A few months back I read Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story collection Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. One of the stories, The Legend of Miss Sasagawara takes place at an internment camp. It was an eye opener for me because this was a part of American history I knew about, but I hadn’t read anything about it before and especially not in fiction writing.

    It’s amazing what she can reveal in very short stories. I think what I really enjoyed was reading about the Japanese immigrant experience (exploring a world I just would otherwise have so little insight into) and especially the experiences of women. The title story Seventeen Syllables is wonderful and heartbreaking. Reading these kinds of works usually brings to mind something I heard Maya Angelou say on the radio: “We are more alike than we are unalike”.

    James Baldwin: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

  • http://investmeinmymotley.worppress.com Ellen Collington

    This is such an important and interesting topic!

    The best novel I have read about this topic is Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. It is the story of a murder trial that exposes racist bigotry against the Japanese. It is also a poignant love story about two young people of different races at a time when this was absolutely taboo.

    The novel was written to consciously reflect the plot and theme of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    From Wikipedia: A Canadian Catholic school temporarily removed the book from their shelves due to the book’s sexual content. The book has been challenged, banned, or restricted in several school systems in the United States… The novel was published on September 12, 1994, becoming an immediate bestseller and winning 1995’s PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Snow Falling on Cedars also deals with racism. Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted in 1999 into a film that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

  • Robin Bates

    I remember reading that book years ago, Ellen, but had forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Robin Bates

    I will track down this collection, Farida. And thank you for the Baldwin quotation, which I will use in my newsletter this week.


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