I remember the moment when I first learned about the Holocaust. I was nine years old and in the 4th grade when I picked up The Diary of Anne Frank to read. At the end of the story, my copy of the book had an explanation of the Holocaust and what had happened to Anne. Until then, I had not known about the Holocaust. I finished that book sitting on the front steps of our house and I can still recall the wave of nausea that overwhelmed me when I learned about the Holocaust that first time.
In the 5th grade, at the age of ten, I learned about slavery. Again, it was reading that informed me. I was reading through the biography section at Weldon Elementary School when I came upon the autobiography of George Washington Carver. That story explained that Carver had been born into slavery. I knew what the word meant but it was with the help of the school librarian, Mrs. Maldonado, that I came to actually understand slavery in the United States. I was profoundly disappointed in my country.
When I was fifteen I was in a debate contest in the 10th grade when I first learned about South Africa and its apartheid policies. I can still see that room and remember my horror that it was 1983, that such policies were still accepted in the world, and that I had not known of this.
These memories came to mind as I read Julie Otsuka’s story of Japanese-American internment in the United States during World War II. I don’t remember when I first learned what happened to the Japanese during the war. That lack of a moment of recognition seems embarrassing now, but as Otsuka’s novel makes clear, the story of Japanese internment during World War II has long been a tale of shamed silence.
Otsuka’s novel is a narrative story of a Japanese family from Berkeley, California, rounded up at the outset of the war. The family members go un-named throughout the novel and we know them just as the mother, the daughter, the son, and the father. They live in different camps during the period of internment, the father arrested first and then detained in a series of camps along the border with Mexico. The mother and her children are rounded up in 1942 and are eventually sent to the Utah dessert for just over three years. The family remains separated for the duration of the war.
The story is told from various points of view: the mother, the tween daughter, the young son. Each reflects on the fear and confusion of the time period. The mother has a simmering anger that never really emerges. The daughter’s defiance is internalized; the son’s reflections are painful and sad. Each is silent in their own way, dissenting inside and perhaps seemingly never with one another, aware at all times that their loyalty as “Americans” is suspect. They are together but profoundly lonely in their fear and confusion. Aware at every juncture of how much they have already lost, they are always aware of how much more they stand to lose.
The story of this family is lonely and isolated. Over 110,000 Japanese-Americas were interned during the war and that’s a lot of lonely people together., bound by their identity and their fear but alone nonetheless. For most of the novel, the characters show an angry passivity, fear restricting their response to the circumstances in which they have been placed. Only in the final chapter does the reader experience the anger that interned Japanese must have felt. But here as well the anger is alone, with no place to go.
The novel is a powerful read, one that will linger long after I turned the last page. In a year when so much of my nation disappointed me, this story was a timely reminder that we’ve never been perfect or, perhaps, even great.