[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I’ll be examining five such dark histories, and highlighting a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. As always, both your responses to these examples and your suggestions for others will be very welcome!]
How works from three different genres can help us remember a shameful period in our history.
Compared to the other bad memories I’ve highlighted in this space, it might seem like we’ve done all right as a nation by the World War II history of anti-Japanese discrimination and internment. After all, at the urging of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), the federal government agreed in the late 1980s to pay out $20,000 in reparations to each survivor of the internment, an explicit and striking attempt to right an acknowledged wrong. Yet reparations don’t necessarily equate with remembrance, and I believe we still have a long way to go in remembering, engaging with, and including in our national narratives the experiences of those interned Japanese Americans. The most direct way to do so, of course, is to hear their voices and perspectives, such as by reading Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir (co-authored with her husband James D. Houston) Farewell to Manzanar (1973). In direct and unsparing prose, Houston documents just what the internment experience meant for a nine year old girl and her family; such personal perspectives are vital if we’re to get inside the internment experience, I would argue.
Houston published her memoir thirty years after the internment, however, and so the text, important and compelling as it is, can’t be accurately described as immediate; as with any autobiographical work, it’s a constructed reflection on the experiences it portrays. Fortunately, it can be complemented very directly by another set of works connected to Manzanar—pioneering photographer Ansel Adams’s more than 200 photographs taken at the camp in 1943. As that Library of Congress exhibition powerfully illustrates, Adams’s photographs covered a huge range of internment details: from the identities of individuals and families to work, leisure, and other activities, and with (unsurprisingly for Adams, best known for his nature photographs) plenty of representations of the place, setting, and community itself in the mix as well. Photographs, especially ones taken by a talented artist like Adams, are not direct reflections of reality either, of course—but these 1943 shots certainly provide a window into that moment and place, the setting for Houston’s memories and a representative internment space to be sure.
If the photographs are in at least some key ways pretty close to the internment moment, at the other end of the spectrum we’d find David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. Written by a European American born more than a decade after the end of World War II, narrated by another (fictional) European American man (and a veteran of the war’s Pacific battles at that), and focusing at least as much on a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a love triangle as on flashbacks to two pivotal characters’ internment experiences, Snow can certainly not be placed on the short list of vital internment documents. Yet I would argue (somewhat vaguely, so as not to spoil the novel’s resolutions) that Guterson locates those internment experiences, and their immediate and lingering, individual and communal effects and meanings, at the heart of each of his novel’s plotlines, making his book a historical novel in the truest sense of the phrase: a fiction about history’s power and presence, about the worst of what it can include and (again, trying not to spoil!) some of the best ways we can remember and respond to those memories.
All texts that can help us better remember the internment! Final post of mine in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Suggestions for other bad American memories?
8/23 Memory Day nominee: Clifford Geertz, the pioneering cultural anthropologist who brought literary, psychological, and sociological insights to the field, and profoundly influenced our understandings of society, religion, community, and ourselves.