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According to a Los Angeles Times reporter, the publication of the memoir Earewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese-American Experience during and after the World War II Internment (1973) made Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston ”quite unintentionally, a voice for a heretofore silent segment of society.” The book, which Houston wrote with her husband, James D. Houston, describes her family’s experience as residents of an internment camp in Nevada where Japanese Americans were forced to live during World War II. The book, which has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 1973, was also made into a film for television. Copies of the film were distributed to every public school and library in California in 2001 as part of a curriculum focusing on history and civil rights. Houston has been honored with many awards and prizes, including the 1979 Woman of Achievement Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus and a 1976 Humanitas Prize for her television adaptation of Farewell to Manzanar.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Executive Order 9066
After declaring war on Japan, in an atmosphere of World War II hysteria, President Roosevelt authorized the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, dated February 19, 1942, authorized the evacuation of these citizens to hastily organized assembly centers governed by the military in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington state. The rationale behind the order was that Japanese immigrants—most of whom were not United States citizens, simply because the government at the time refused to allow Asian immigrants to obtain citizenship—would be likely to spy on American military activities and report back to their native country. In addition to Japanese immigrants, however, the government also forcibly detained many children of immigrants who, because they were born on United States soil, were fully American citizens in the eyes of the law. The same executive order, as well as other wartime orders and restrictions, was also applied to smaller numbers of residents of the United States who were of Italian or German descent. While these individuals suffered grievous civil liberties violations, the wartime actions applied to Japanese Americans were worse and more sweeping, uprooting entire communities and targeting citizens as well as resident aliens.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was born on September 26, 1934, in Inglewood, California, to George Ko Wakatsuki, a fisher and farmer, and Riku Sugai Wakatsuki, a homemaker. She was seven years old when she and her family of first- and second-generation Japanese Americans were forcibly removed to an internment camp near the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Manzanar Relocation Center, located in the desert of southeastern California, was home to the Wakatsuki family for the next three years.
After the war, the Wakatsukis settled in San Jose, California, where Mr. Wakatsuki took up berry farming and Jeanne attended San Jose State University. She received a degree in journalism from the university in 1956 and married her classmate and fellow writer John D.
Houston a year later. His tour in the United States Air Force took them to England, and eventually to France, where Houston studied French civilization at the prestigious Paris University, the Sorbonne.
Writing Her Life
Silenced by guilt, Houston was thirty-seven years old before she felt comfortable expressing her feelings about the internment. As she later explained to the Los Angeles Times, her experiences made her feel ”sullied, like when you are a rape victim. …You feel you must have done something. You feel you are part of the act.” Farewell to Manzanar was among the first works of literature to publicize the story of Japanese American internment. According to Los Angeles Times contributor Ajay Singh, almost twenty-five years after its original publication, the book remains an ”accessible and unsentimental work” that ”sheds light on a subject that had been largely ignored in popular histories.” The U.S. government formally apologized for interning 120,000 Japanese Americans during wartime in 1998.
Houston further explored the difficulties of post-World War II Asian Americans in Beyond Manzanar: Views of Asian-American Womanhood (1985). Using a combination of short fiction and essays, she describes the problems she and other women have found in trying to assimilate with American culture while maintaining the traditions of their Japanese upbringing. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Jonathan Kirsch described the book as a worthwhile endeavor. Kirsch wrote, ”Houston writes poignantly of the chasms of myth and expectation that must be spanned when a Japanese-American woman marries ‘a blond Samurai.”’
Fictionalizing the Past
Houston has published other books, including The Legend of Fire Horse Woman (2003). Although a novel, the book covers the same ground as Farewell to Manzanar. Its focus is three generations of women living in a United States detention camp during World War II. In her interview with Notable Asian-American Authors, Houston discussed how hard it was to fictionalize the experience. The first draft ended the book ”just before World War II. I couldn’t write any fictionalized accounts of the war, specifically about the camps. In the past, I could only write from my own memories, from the family’s history.”
Despite Houston’s initial difficulties, much of the novel centers around Manzanar. Sayo, Hana, and Terri represent three generations of Japanese-American women imprisoned at the internment camp. Even though the camp strips power from all those interned within it, each woman finds something of herself during the experience. In an interview with Publishers Weekly contributor Suzanne Mantell, Houston said: ”I wanted to write a book women would read and enjoy and identify but by the end would have learned something. I still believe in stories.”
According to Los Angeles Times contributor Ajay Sing, Houston considers Farewell to Manzanar ”not a sermon on political injustice nor an essay on the Constitution. It allows readers to enter the experience on the level of empathy.” Yet Houston’s message is nevertheless clear. According to Sara Toth of the St. Louis Dispatch, Houston explained to a group of students, ”For me to stand up here today and talk about injustice is freedom. We as Americans cannot forget the injustices of history.”
Works in Literary Context
Houston is widely recognized as the first writer to expose what life was like for Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II. She deals with this theme in all three of her major works, covering it in both fictional and nonfictional forms.
A memoir is a book of autobiographical writing, usually shorter than a comprehensive autobiography. The memoir often tries to capture certain highlights or meaningful moments in one’s past, including a contemplation of the meaning of that event at the time of the writing of the memoir. The memoir is usually more emotional and concerned with capturing particular scenes, or a series of events, as opposed to documenting every fact of a person’s life. Farewell to Manzanar meets all of the above criteria. Houston chooses to focus primarily on her and her family’s experience as prisoners in Manzanar; she elicits an emotional response with her story; and she contemplates the meaning of that experience and how it shaped her as a person, a woman, and a writer.
Japanese American Experience
Japanese citizens who began migrating to the United States in the late 1800s were typically met with hostility. Anti-Asian hostility led to segregation, brutality, and unjust treatment that eventually led to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which halted Japanese immigration completely. Yet it is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II that has become the defining element of the Japanese American experience. In a San Francisco Chronicle interview with Annie Nakao, Houston admitted that fictionalizing the internment experience was very difficult. She said, It’s like a sacred cow, the landmark communal experience of Japanese Americans.” This communal experience so traumatized the majority of Japanese Americans aged forty-five and over, it serves as something ofa starting point in discussions about the Japanese American experience.
Works in Critical Context
Houston’s writing is marked by honesty, which lends her autobiographical works, which could tend to be angry or depressing, emotional authenticity. Her books about the World War II Japanese-American internment camps, and her experience as a prisoner in one, continue to inform, educate, and inspire generations interested in American history.
Farewell to Manzanar
Farewell to Manzanar describes the indignities of the camp experience and the harmful effects it had on Houston’s family, particularly her father. As a New Yorker critic observed, Ko Wakatsuki ”was too old to bend with the humiliations of the camp. …His story is at the heart of this book, and his daughter tells it with great dignity.” As Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in the Saturday Review: ”Houston and her husband have recorded a tale of many complexities in a straightforward manner, a tale remarkably lacking in either self-pity or solemnity.” A New York Times Book Review critic concluded that Farewell to Manzanar is ”a dramatic, telling account of one of the most reprehensible events in the history of America’s treatment of its minorities.”
- Review of Farewell of Manzanar. Book Report (January 1994): 25.
- Review of Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder. Library Journal (March 1, 1984): 484.
- Kirsch, Jonathan. Review of Beyond Manzanar: Views of Asian-American Womanhood. Los Angeles Times (November l5, 1984).
- Singh, Ajay. ”The Lessons of History.” Los Angeles Times (November 6, 2001): E1.
- Review of Farewell to Manzanar. New Yorker (November 5, 1973).
- Review of Farewell to Manzanar. New York Times Book Review (January 13, 1974).
- Mantell, Suzanne. Review of The Legend of Fire Horse Woman. Publishers Weekly (August 11, 2003): 138.
- Toth, Sara. ”Students Revel in Visit with Author of Readmore Novel, Farewell to Manzanar.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 15, 2002): 3.
- Shuman, Barbara Langsam. ”The Truths of ‘Manzanar’ Turn into Lyrical Fiction.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (November 16, 2003): C12.
- Nakao, Annie. ”’Farewell to Manzanar’ Author Returns to Internment Days in First Novel.” San Francisco Chronicle (December 14, 2003): E1.
- History Matters Web site. Executive Order 9066: The President Authorizes Japanese Relocation. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://historymatters.gmu. edu/d/5154.
- Japanese-American Internment Camps. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://www.umass.edu/ history/institute_dir/internment.html.
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