Two contemporary Japanese American authors whose elder kin were incarcerated in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during World War II address the issue in ambitious new books, offering glimpses into the traumatic episode as well as family life in its wake.
Christine Kitano in her second book of poetry, “Sky Country,” and novelist Karen Tei Yamashita in her memoir project, “Letters to Memory,” draw upon a broad range of archival and autobiographical material in approaching the matter as younger relatives of those unjustly detained.
“It was a topic that I knew I wanted to write about, but I didn’t want to attack it from a directly autobiographical point,” Kitano said at a recent event in New York that also featured Yamashita and Japanese Canadian novelist Terry Watada.
Kitano’s book portrays both her mother’s side of the family from Korea and her father’s side from Japan. In a sequence of persona poems, she takes the perspective of a character loosely based on her paternal grandmother, a first-generation immigrant from Japan who was imprisoned at Topaz with her family.
“A lot of the literature out there is about nisei second-generation Japanese Americans for whom the injustice of the camps I think was a more straightforward experience,” she said.
“I feel like we don’t talk a lot about the issei, who are the first generation, and what that (was) to establish a life in Japan, choose to leave that life, come to America and then be put in a camp.”
Despite a noted reticence on the subject among many formerly interned Japanese Americans, Kitano’s work is informed by having known about it from a young age. Her father, the late sociologist Harry Kitano, was “very much invested in telling the stories of the incarceration,” she explained.
“That being said, he was still of his generation and it was not something I heard about at home around the kitchen table or anything like that,” said Kitano, 32, who started learning about the issue when brought to her father’s public lectures as a child.
At the time of Executive Order 9066 that launched the forcible detention of some 120,000 civilians of Japanese descent in 10 camps across seven inland U.S. states, the San Francisco-born Harry Kitano was 16 years old.
The poet depicts him in a short poem set during the evacuation with his family after the Feb. 19, 1942 order, when the young jazz enthusiast chose to carry his records and trombone instead of more practical necessities.
Linking this moment to present-day struggles against prejudice and social upheaval, the poem concludes: “It is a story without an ending. / And when I open my mouth / to speak, it continues.”
Yamashita in the prose memoir “Letters to Memory” also connects the World War II-era experiences of her relatives to the present, taking up multiple lines of inquiry in relation to the incarceration.
The book uses a unique epistolary format with Yamashita exploring her memories and family’s stories by writing letters to ancient storytellers such as the Greek epic poet Homer and the legendary Hindu sage Vyasa. The various figures are merged with unnamed present-day scholars, each of whom Yamashita has met in her career as a professor.