Authors: Kimi Cunningham Grant
One Family’s Story of
America’s Japanese Internment
KIMI CUNNINGHAM GRANT
for my grandmothers
OR SO MANY YEARS, SHE WAS A MYSTERY TO ME: A
shadow slipping among bodies; a set of hands; a background fixture, dim and indistinct. Sometimes, she read, seated upright on the white couch of her living room, her chin tucked, her lips faintly moving as her eyes swept across the page. But mostly she worked, leaning over steaming pots, her glasses fogged, her dark skin sticky with steam, or yanking weeds from among the hibiscus and azalea in the courtyard, or snapping peas at the kitchen table.
When my brother and I visited, she didn’t swoop us up in an embrace the minute we arrived and stepped out of the car and onto the hot Florida pavement. She didn’t gush over how much I’d grown, or hold me out at arm’s length, studying my face, searching for changes, the way my grandfather, my Ojichan, did. She didn’t play with us the way he did either. My grandfather would purchase masks for our visit, then hide and jump out to scare us. Our shrill screams would echo through the house, and we’d run away in delight. He gave us piggyback rides and romped around the living room. Obaachan, however, kept her distance, glancing up from her book as we raced by.
If she called our house in Pennsylvania, whether in October for my mother’s birthday, or on Christmas afternoons, I would know her by her request to speak to my mother, and by her accent, the intonation imposed from another language, the strange rise and fall of the syllables. But I didn’t recognize her voice.
We were at her house in Florida, standing in the hallway just inside the front door, when my mother first told me that my grandparents had spent nearly three years in a concentration camp. I was eight or nine years old. It was summertime, oppressively hot and humid, and we were there for our annual visit. In the living room, my grandfather was chasing my brother around the couch, and in the kitchen, my grandmother was washing dishes. With furtive glances toward her parents, my mother hissed this information, softly, like a confession. Or maybe it was more like an apology. I didn’t ask any questions upon hearing this news, I think because I was afraid. Afraid of the way my mother’s dark eyes looked at me solemnly, as though she were entrusting me with some grave secret. Or perhaps I was afraid of the answer, of the weight that the
behind this revelation might bring to my small shoulders. Whatever my reasons, all I knew at the time was that my Obaachan and Ojichan had been imprisoned for being Japanese, and I concluded from this conversation that there was something inherently bad about being Japanese, that there was something to be sorry about.
Had my parents chosen to raise their family in Hawaii, or California, where there are many people of Asian ancestry, or even in some urban area with general ethnic diversity, I might have been more likely to embrace my Japanese heritage as an adolescent. But they chose a small town in Pennsylvania, my white father’s home, nestled in the farmed and mined folds of the state’s midsection. My brother and I were two of a handful of minorities in our entire school district. It was not an ideal place for me to sort out issues of racial identity. I spent much of my young life trying to fit in, to be like everyone else around me—and to seem as un-Japanese as possible. I resisted my grandfather’s attempts to teach me his language, squirmed in the dining-room chair and told him I couldn’t do it, that the characters were too difficult, that I couldn’t spit out the sounds. I resented, summer after summer, the Japanese exchange students my mother invited to our home and expected me to haul along on outings with friends. I turned up my nose at her puffy white
and pretended to gag on her
. “We don’t like this stuff,” I told her, dragging my brother into the declaration. “We’re
Of course, I was oblivious to the fact that in all my efforts to be un-Japanese, I was joining that same old—and very Japanese—narrative of
, or shame, that my mother had been participating in when she’d whispered her secret about my grandparents. The same one that had kept my family silent about those years in a Wyoming prison camp.
It was not until a decade after learning that Obaachan and Ojichan had lived at Heart Mountain that I began to pursue the answers to those questions that had lain dormant since my mother’s confession. Despite my family’s reticence regarding this portion of their history, I hoped my grandmother, that mysterious woman from my childhood, might be convinced to talk about it. That we hardly knew each other seemed only a minor hindrance: I was, after all, her granddaughter, and her namesake, and it had been more than sixty years since this all happened. My grandfather had passed away when I was a teenager, so Obaachan was alone now, and perhaps interested in a visitor. I called her, asked, with just a little bit of anxiety, whether I could visit, and when she said yes, I bought a plane ticket to Florida. I planned to spend a week with her at her home in Melbourne, on the Atlantic coast.
Convincing Obaachan, however, to resurrect her memories, to sift through them, blow off the dust, give them to me, and most significant of all, to let me write them down, was not the simple process I had naïvely anticipated. While I recognized immediately on that first trip to Melbourne that Obaachan was indeed glad to see me—that she was thrilled to have a week with her granddaughter—I also discovered quickly that she would rather talk about Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre or Howard Roark than about herself. During the war, she learned to immerse herself in their stories, when reading was the only escape from that barren patch of Wyoming. Knowing there were hundreds of tales—of
—that she could flee to when the war stretched on and leaving Heart Mountain seemed itself a fiction, kept her going. Now that her children were grown and she had fewer obligations, she made weekly visits to the local library, checked book reviews, and read hundreds of pages a month.
Still, despite her affection for stories, my grandmother resisted telling her own, and she was especially hesitant to allow me to retell it. Opening up to others was not a comfortable act for her. There was the obvious issue of privacy. My grandmother, like most Japanese her age, valued her space and her right to keep to herself. There were things a person didn’t talk about, topics that were simply not meant for public eyes and ears. You turned your head when someone was changing clothes. You didn’t meddle in a neighbor’s failing marriage. You didn’t pry.
More significant than the matter of privacy, however, was the issue of
. Even six decades after World War II, my grandmother still felt shame about what had happened. She still experienced a pang of humiliation when she thought about Pearl Harbor, the thousands who were killed on that fateful Sunday morning, and when she recalled the early months of 1942, when
journalists fabricated rumors in American newspapers and called the Japanese “vipers” and other names. She still shuddered when she remembered the long walk from Heart Mountain’s changing room to the shower, naked. I quickly realized that shame, central to Japanese culture, was not a sentiment that sixty years could dissolve.
And so at first, getting my grandmother to talk was much like a negotiation, or a game. I might even compare our early conversations to the Japanese game of Go—the game that keeps old men staring for hours at a checkerboard of squares, cautiously maneuvering their smooth black and white stones. A game of psychology and power. Of conquering territory. Obaachan sat at her dining-room table in Melbourne, the Florida sun seeping in through the window and settling on her hands. She looked intently at the blue-and-white tablecloth, with its orderly shapes and lines, and began sliding her left thumb back and forth across the right one. The sun flickered from one hand to the other. Her lips twisted from side to side, and she frowned.
“Why don’t you make it fiction?” she said at last, looking up at me and offering a sanguine little smile. “I could give you some information, and you could imagine the rest of it. You know, make it up.”
Fiction would be easier. From the pieces of information I’d gathered already, I felt convinced I could weave quite a story. I knew, for instance, that my grandmother was one of 112,000 Japanese Americans who were displaced during the war. I knew that she was twenty years old when she was torn from her home in Los Angeles and shipped off to prison, and that she spent four months living in a barn at the Pomona Fairgrounds while the permanent camp in Wyoming was being finished. And I knew it was in prison that she met and married my grandfather, and gave birth to her first child, my uncle Charles. I knew, also, that after two years in that dusty Wyoming prison, she was desperate to leave, and did, when the opportunity came, but in doing so, missed the final days of her mother’s life—something she still seemed to feel guilty about. The components were there: the narrative tension, the conflict, the compelling characters. I could dream up the rest.
The problem was, I didn’t want to dream it up. I didn’t want to speculate and concoct. Instead, I wanted to hear that “true” story in my grandmother’s words, from her mouth. I wanted to see the way she told it: the way her fingers flexed or fiddled with something as she remembered an event, the way her eyes brightened or looked down. And there was more. In all of my recollections of childhood, my grandfather, Ojichan, stood in the forefront, looming, commanding, telling stories of his own. Obaachan stood behind him, in silence. I wanted to give a voice to this woman, a person forced into quiet by the noise of those around her. Writing her story seemed a way to do that.
But writing someone’s story—especially the story of a loved one—is a task fraught with complexity. For starters, I recognized that the mere elasticity of language would not allow me to tell my grandmother’s story as it truly was, or is. It would, necessarily, be a reconstruction, infused with my own literary preferences and my own writerly tics. Also, while I was committed to telling Obaachan’s story as she told it to me, I knew that what she told me was itself shaped by decades of life that not only hindered the recollection of what had happened, but likely altered it as well. The space of sixty years takes its toll on the memory; like water, it smoothes and erodes and modifies the original shapes of things. Events jumble their order and grow hazy. Another person’s memories blend with your own. Names, colors, buildings, faces, the everyday smells and tastes are elusive, if not altogether absent. In the case of my grandmother, remembering proved particularly complicated. She had devoted sixty years to trying to forget—to shuffling the painful past to a corner of her mind where she couldn’t feel it, where it didn’t haunt her.
I realized, too, that my grandmother was only giving me part of the story. Her account was of course subjective—her mother, father, and my grandfather would all have their own versions of things—but in addition to that, Obaachan would intentionally leave things out, especially details that might seem uncomplimentary to my grandfather, or her siblings. In the end, I was really only reconstructing her reconstruction: I was working only with the details she could, or would, give me. And yet a reconstruction felt more authentic than a fictionalization.
I told her I felt strongly about trying to write her life as it really was.
Obaachan shrugged her shoulders at this, and held out her hands, palms up, empty. “But my life has been very boring, you see. I’m sure nobody wants to know about it.”
I explained to her then that in high school, in my American history textbook, there was a small, half-page box on the left-hand side of the page that covered the internment camps the US government had built for the Japanese they forced out of the West Coast. In class we fluttered past that box and marched through the rest of World War II. We absolutely discussed the December 7 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and we definitely spent some time going over Roosevelt’s declaration of war, and most certainly we devoted some hours to Hitler and his camps. But we didn’t talk about