Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lesser-Known Tragedies of Internment

With the release of GARDEN OF STONES only two weeks away, I plan to begin sharing some of the research that captivated me while I wrote the book.

Even a cursory reading of the history of Japanese-Americans in WWII will acquaint you with the basic horrors of internment: the forced dislocation, the derision and prejudice, the loss of property and liberty, the harsh conditions of the camps.

As I researched the book, I found some lesser-known images that are all the more poignant when you consider they are at risk of being lost to history.

It's widely known that many of the internees were tenant farmers (the laws forbid them from owning land outright, though some had entered into complex arrangements with neighbors and town leaders to circumvent this prohibition). SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS addresses this issue.

What's lost, I think, when you don't see the images is the sense that these were people's homes. Not just their jobs, but the acres that they worked every day, that they took immense pride in, that they had expected to work for their entire lives and possibly pass down.

Below, a farmer and his daughter say a final farewell to their strawberry farm.

It wasn't just the land, of course, but the houses people called home. I read several heartbreaking accounts of children returning to their old neighborhoods to find their homes inhabited by strangers. Look at this beautiful farm house, below; wisteria hangs above its porch. The family out front knows it will soon be leaving. 

The photographic record is only part of the evidence of the art created by internees. Below, an artist paints a mural in Manzanar. I don't know if it still exists, but I saw other paintings and drawings created by internees. But many of these people had left behind studios and careers that they would never re-establish.

School take place in the camp after the first few chaotic months. The government supplied a curriculum, and churches donated items like textbooks and supplies. The furniture, however, was made by internees from whatever lumber and scrap they could find, and projects like these were conceived and executed by volunteers within the camp. If the volunteers hadn't worked so hard on behalf of the children, their education would have been severely stunted.

What's remarkable to me about this high school dance, which took place in the Manzanar rec hall, is how fiercely the teens follow American styles. They were extraordinarily patriotic, and their taste in fashion, music, and culture was the same as teens everywhere. This is not to say that they were ashamed of their heritage, they just identified with the country of their citizenship.

When the internees were eventually released, it did not mean an end to prejudice and injustice. Many returned home to scenes like this - even those who had served in the 442nd regiment. They were denied housing and jobs, and the government - which considered its job done - did little to help.

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