History Finds a Voice in Jeanne Wakatsuke Houston
Japanese-American author “Celebrates Reading”
By Jennifer Smith
Jeanne Wakatsuke Houston’s powerful novel, Farewell Manzanar, tells the story of a young girl and her family being relocated to an internment camp during World War II. Treated as criminals, separated from loved ones, and having almost all of their worldly possessions confiscated by the government, the story of what happened to Japanese-Americans during WWII is an important one that younger generations can learn from.
The first author, in a series of authors that will visit Molokai for the “Celebrate Reading” program this school year, Houston, gave two readings, as well as took part in a lively discussion last Friday at the Middle School and High School.
Houston first came to Molokai 50 years ago, on her honeymoon with husband and fellow author, James D. Houston. Returning this time to speak to the community, she carried with her a message of tolerance, education, and a history rich with important lessons learned.
Houston’s family was sent to a Japanese internment camp in 1942. At the young and impressionable age of seven, she would spend the next four years of her life living within the gates her own country had placed around her.
At the time Japanese-American’s were considered by the government as “potential enemies to the United States,” and consequently, felt the need to sacrifice much of their cultural identity. Life in Manzanar, one of the first camps created as a result of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, was an often unsavory version of what it was thought to “be an American”.
Houston’s readings discussed everyday life in the camp, as well as hitting home with the aftermath of life when Japanese-Americans returned back into society. After beginning a new school and realizing that the prejudice that she anticipated and feared would be more subtle and long lasting than initially anticipated, Houston explains her, “desperate desire to disappear.”
When asked by a student what inspired her to write the book, Houston explained an initial desire to create a memoir, and a personal journey that brought her to writing a novel. When her nephew, who was born in Manzanar, yet knew nothing about the camp, asked her to tell him about her experiences, she realized that there was more to the story than what she could easily verbalize.
The novel took nearly a year, and hundreds of hours of conversations with her collaborative partner and husband to write. Houston realized that this process was the first time she had, “allowed herself to feel.” Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, like many other former internees, it took her a long time to fully explain the long lasting effects of her experiences in the camp and after.
When asked what the hardest part of being in Manzanar was, Houston abruptly answered, “the break up of the family.” Having her father sent to a separate camp and the consequent structure and identity of her family broken, she described it as a, “divorce and death in the family all at once.”
Houston further explained that the novel is about her father, and how it helped her to understand what he had gone through. Coming to this understanding, bringing to life a not so pleasant, but nonetheless real part of history, and consequently educating people about the importance of learning from the past, Houston was able to say, “Farewell to Manzanar.”
The United States government, headed by President George H.W. Bush, attempted to say farewell to this not so pleasant detail in history, by signing into law a formal Amendment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided $20,000 in redress payments to remaining internees, as well as issuing a formal apology.
After her reading, several seasoned community members, as well as a handful of high school students that had read her book, joined together in an emotional discussion with Houston. Molokai resident, Bruce Yoshimura and his family were placed in an internment camp when he was just one-year-old. While, not remembering the event himself, Yoshimura witnessed the long term effects of the internment on several members of his family.
Yoshimura did receive a redress payment and formal letter of apology; however, he felt dismayed by the fact that many older Japanese-Americans, who truly suffered in the camps and have since passed on, were unable to see the Amendment to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 enacted.
Bringing together younger and older generations, to share in a love of literature, is the noble mission of “Celebrate Reading”. The program provides an incentive for students to read by allowing those who have read the visiting author’s book an opportunity to take part in a breakout session.
Director of the “Celebrate Reading” program for the state of Hawaii, Lorna Hershinow has put together an impressive line up of authors for this year’s festival. Patricia Wood, Cynthia Kadohata, Kealoha, and Ilima Loomis will all visit Molokai in the spring to help support and encourage the students reading. Before the annual festival in April, Hawaiian author Matthew Kaopio will give a teleconference for students from UHM.
Community members are encouraged to attend the “Celebrate Reading” events, in order to both enjoy the visiting authors speak, as well as hopefully impart some stories of their own with the students attending.