Why they never told us

First novelist Rahna Reiko Rizzuto talks about the silence surrounding the Japanese internment camps, being "stealth Japanese" and writing herself into two children.

Published September 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In 1992, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto took a trip with a busload of Japanese internment camp survivors -- including her mother -- to the brown, blowing Colorado prairie and the site of what had been Amachi, one of 10 "relocation centers" where tens of thousands of innocent Japanese-American citizens and their families were imprisoned during World War II after being stripped of their homes, their businesses, their property and their civil rights. Seven years later, Rizzuto has published the debut novel that took seed on that trip despite the barren landscape: "Why She Left Us" is a haunting collage of conflicting accounts and fragmented memories, the story of three generations of a Japanese-American family indelibly marked by the war, the camps and their own heedless mistakes.

Standing at the center of "Why She Left Us" is Emiko Okada, the only daughter of an immigrant Japanese sharecropper and his picture-bride wife who are eking out a meager living in Southern California. From the time she is sent away at 12 to work as a maid, Emi becomes an enigma to her family, most pointedly when she returns home just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor -- unmarried, pregnant and having already given up an earlier child, a baby boy named Eric, for a adoption. Though family pride compels Emi's mother to retrieve her grandson from his adoptive family, she cannot force Emi to become Eric's mother any more than she can control the historic events unfolding beyond their house.

Four members of the Okada family -- Emi's mother Kaori, son Eric, daughter Mariko and brother Jack -- alternately narrate Rizzuto's novel, moving back and forth in time and space, from the converted horse stalls at the Santa Anita racetrack where the Okadas and many others were assembled before being bussed to the hastily constructed camps, to a two-room sharecroppers' shack in 1925, where Kaori gives birth on the floor, unassisted but for a frightened 4-year-old girl; from the muddy mountains of Italy in 1944, where Jack is fighting with the 442nd Battalion, the all-Japanese-American unit assembled from young men willing to fight for their country while their families remained behind barbed wire at the camps, to contemporary Hawaii, where the now-grown Mariko is struggling to piece together her shreds of memory into a family story she's not sure she wants to hear. Through it all, Rizzuto's spare, precise language acts in concert with the patchwork of fateful decisions, misremembered details, family apocrypha and painful truths, creating a poignant portrait of a family caught in a parallel universe of shame, pride and the longing to belong.

Why did Emi Okada choose between her children, leaving behind a little boy who would spend his childhood waiting for her return and taking with her a little girl whose only protection against the guilt of being chosen was to forget her past? Rahna Reiko Rizzuto doesn't answer that question in her interview by phone with Salon Mothers Who Think, but she does talk about the internment's legacy of forgetfulness, how delving into the intricate power structures of family has affected her choices as a parent of young children and the responsibilities, desired or not, that come with writing about race.

Tell us about your mother's story.

My mother's story is a big blank. She was born just before the evacuation in 1942, and with her entire family was sent first to the Santa Anita racetrack and then interned at the Amachi camp. But she doesn't remember -- she left the internment camps when she was about 5 and she spoke only Japanese until she was about 6 and then her family moved to Hawaii and that was the end of it for her. It was locked out of her mind so effectively that one day when she was in high school they were talking about the Japanese internment and she came running home to her mother and said, "Hey Mom, did you know that people were interned during the war?"

So that's where it started for me, both the internment and the silence around the internment, because I too didn't know growing up. The first time that I heard of it was also in high school, but it was actually through my grandmother. A teacher of U.S. history found out that my grandmother had come for a visit and invited her to the class. My grandmother came and told the story of the evacuation. She said the family had a piano -- I think it was a player piano -- and they were given a week to sell everything they couldn't carry. A guy offered them the full amount they were asking for the piano, but when he came to pick it up the day they were to leave, he only gave them $5 for it, which they took, because what else could they do? I played with that story a little bit and gave it to the family in the book.

Looking back on it now, the odd thing is that when I learned about the internment as a teenager, I didn't grab it even then. I was quite a minor celebrity in school shortly after my grandmother's appearance but somehow there was something in my mind that said, "Yes, but it didn't happen to me and I'm not Japanese." It wasn't really until my mother applied for the redress in the 1980s, 10 years later, that it came up in our family again. My mother called one day and said, "We're going to Amachi. Do you want to come?" And I said, "Yes."

You're playing with that idea of revisionist memory and selective memory in the novel, too. Have you ever talked to your mother about why she didn't tell you earlier in your childhood about the camps?

No, but in her case, I think, it's because she still doesn't know very much about it. For years, most camp internees didn't talk about it, maybe because it's too painful, maybe because they feel, "Well, it's in the past. We did our best and now we have moved on." One of the things that was so interesting for me when I went to the camp was that this silence was also physical. Everything is gone. There's a graveyard. There are a couple of concrete foundations. There's a monument that's been defaced. The place itself is a big silence as far as what you can see but it was the first time that I heard people talk about their experience, and the way that they talked about it was so strange. There was a table of older ladies sitting and talking about an old Issei, or immigrant, woman who would put a bag over her head when she went to the bathroom in the public latrine, which I used in the book. I think the reason that it finally hit home to me was that I was so outraged by the idea that this poor woman had to put a bag over her head to get some privacy and these women were laughing. You know, it was just another thing: "Oh gee, I hadn't remembered that until now, but oh yeah ..." However they have processed it, for a lot of these people, it's simply gone.

I talked to several sets of sisters. In one particular set, the first sister I spoke with told me about terrible things that happened to their family that she had never spoken about before and had never told even her children about. Her father almost died and her sister had been separated from the family; her sister's husband was taken away in the sweep. Right after Pearl Harbor there were these "sweeps" where the FBI took the leaders of the community, the Buddhist ministers, the Japanese language teachers. They were jailed for longer than everyone was interned, in much worse conditions for no supportable reason. It was a heartbreaking, heartbreaking story. And then I spoke to her sister and her sister told me about the church groups and teaching bonsai and making macrami and it was -- you know, as if they were not even related. It was fascinating and definitely this is where the book came from, but it does make you think, "Well, is it healthy to remember so selectively?" And maybe it is. I mean, maybe picking up and moving on is sometimes all you can do.

In "Rabbit in the Moon," Emiko Omori's recent documentary on the experience of remembering the camps, the filmmaker made the observation that part of the "silencing" of the camp internees may come from their hesitation at comparing themselves and their experience to that of the Nazi concentration camp victims. In fact, she mentions that the term "concentration camp" was replaced by "internment camp" once the Holocaust became common knowledge. I think what she said was, "What happened to us was bad but in comparison maybe it wasn't bad enough." Did you ever come up against that idea either while interviewing people or in the writing of the book itself?

One of my sources was my great-uncle. At one point in my transcripts I came across this quote from him: "The war was the best thing that happened to the Japanese-Americans." For a long time that was my working title for the book because, again, it's one of those things that's impossible to wrap your head around. But his point was that before the war the Japanese were completely ghettoized. They were discriminated against to the point that they couldn't marry a white person, become citizens, even use the same swimming pools as Caucasians. And bad as the internment was, after it, the Japanese were spread all over the country, they had proven themselves in a very difficult way, and suddenly, they had a chance. So I didn't come across "it wasn't bad enough," but I did come across this weird "it was good."

The novel unfolds in fragments, stories told by four different narrators, all members of the same family but different generations. Their stories intersect at points but you're playing with four different sets of reality. You chose not to use Emi, the one daughter in the Okada family, as a narrator -- yet it is her two mysterious pregnancies that really set this novel's story in full motion. Did you want to give her a voice, to tell her side of the story?

I very much did not want to give her a voice, partly because I don't believe there is a single answer. Does the story begin in the first chapter when Emi leaves her little boy behind and goes to Hawaii, or does it begin when she leaves her family in the first place to clean houses as a 12-year-old, or do you begin with the actions that sent her away from the family and gave her no support system? Where is the single decision? And I don't think there is one.

Another one of the themes that plays itself out fatefully in the book is the impact of a parent's actions on how children's lives are shaped. Because as readers we get to follow the reverberation of those acts across several generations, we get a more clarified view than normal of how Kaori and Matsuo Okada's choices affected, first, their own three children, and then their grandchildren. As a mother, do you think about how the decisions you are making today are shaping your children in such indelible ways?

When I started this book I was not a mother and I was a woman who didn't want to be a mother. I was afraid of children, because I thought of them as so terribly needy. I had this recurring nightmare that I had a child who was screaming for peanut butter, and it was a Sunday night at the end of a long week. I'd have this child who's screaming for peanut butter and it would be too late to get peanut butter and I just wanted to throw myself out a window or maybe throw the child out the window! And I think, without intending to and without ever doing it in a conscious way, this book was a way for me to exorcise my demons and to explore what women have to give up for their children -- and what they shouldn't necessarily have to give up for their children and how their actions can influence their children. And in a way, I wrote myself into two children.

Did you write the two -- very graphic -- birth scenes in the book before or after you'd had your kids?


Before? Really? Did you go back and revise or did you feel that the scenes still felt true after you'd had the babies?

I didn't revise them. I had a friend who'd had a child and who had read the birth scenes before I was even pregnant. She said, "Oh my God, I can't believe that you got it so perfectly." So I believed her and went with that.

The book was finished before my first child was born; I did actually do a little bit of revision between the two children but not with the idea of incorporating all these new things that I had learned. Those will go into other books. I would imagine that you could spend your life, if you were a writer, revising your first work to reflect where you are at that moment.

And is "Why She Left Us" the story you originally set out to write?

When I started to listen to the stories of the camps, I was planning to write about the internment and to find out what I didn't know. But what I found was that the internment was, at the same time, too much and not enough and I couldn't do it in a way that would be representative. The way that I hit on the Okada family, though, was that I wanted to create a personal situation that paralleled the internment in a way: You have this moment of upheaval and shame on a national level -- what if you create a different event, a moment of upheaval and shame in a family, and let them react to that?

There's a moment in the book when Mariko is thinking about confiding in her grown daughter all that she knows and doesn't know about her family history. What do you think about the limitations about what you can or should share with your children? Especially in terms of a situation like the one in "Why She Left Us," which brings into play not just individual family members and their culpability but the culpability of the whole culture that your children are being raised in.

I don't know -- I think whatever my answer is will change as my kids grow. I feel it's important to be as honest with your kids as you can and to share as much as you can and maybe that's partly from coming out of a family where people didn't share very much.

Do you worry about your kids experiencing racial prejudice?

Not for being Asian. They're both blond at the moment.

I know what you mean. This summer I took my children to the Smithsonian, which has an exhibit called "Japanese-Americans and the Constitution." It documents in graphic detail the genesis of Executive Order 9066, which set the internment in motion, and everything that happened after -- complete with racist quotes from senators and a re-created boarded-up storefront with the order tacked up.

My son was only 5 when we went to his grandfather's camp reunion, so the whole story had washed right by him then. But this summer, a 10-year-old in the Smithsonian, he read a sign that said anyone who had even 1/16 Japanese ancestry was going to an internment camp. He was horrified. "I would go. I would have had to go." My blond, blue-eyed son. That brought home the whole story of it and who he is in such a vivid way, in a way that it's never been brought up before. And I, too -- I think if someone asked me, I would say no, I don't worry about my kids experiencing racism or being the subjects of it.

You definitely and particularly, when you're blond and blue-eyed, become kind of a "stealth" Japanese. You hear what people say. I've been on the subway and heard people say really nasty, racist things. So we're bringing up our sons to know that they are Japanese and Chinese and they will hear those kinds of things. But I'm actually more concerned about making sure that they are not racist themselves, that they are very well aware of their heritage and that they make sure to treat people with equal respect.

Are you expecting to be called upon as the newest voice of the Japanese-American experience?

Well, I'm dreading it actually, and I'm not quite sure what I'm going to say about that.

One of the things that I keep expecting to be asked is, "Who are you to write about these people?" or "Do you think that white people can write about Japanese-American people?" People tend to be a little confrontational; there has been a school of thought that writers should be writing within their own experiences. And one of the things that I think when I pose those questions to myself is, "Well, then, if I need to represent, who am I going to represent? I'm only half-Japanese. And if I can't write about Japanese people do I get to write about white people? Can I only write about hapa Haole girls growing up in Hawaii?

On the other hand, I could get the opposite. I could get people who hit me for not making my Japanese-American characters model minorities, or for not giving a very standard scenario -- where the government did a terrible thing to these helpless, innocent victims, but they struggled and overcame adversity. In fact, my characters are not models. They are very human, and some of their actions are unforgivable.

Certainly there's cause for controversy in the way the Okadas reacted to Emi when she returned to the family unmarried and pregnant. I'm thinking of the dinner scene when the older brother, Will, beats a hugely pregnant Emi almost to death in the kitchen. I wonder what reaction you're going to get for portraying family violence --

And there will be people who say, "How could you do this when the greater evil was outside of the family?" But it was important to me to create characters who were people before the internment, and after it, and not simply frozen in time as "internees."

Were you playing with the idea of "the wisdom of the elders" by making Kaori one of the narrators? It's clear to readers that she narrates her side of the story from a space between life and death. The usual idea is that the elders are wise and all-knowing, and you look to them for guidance; clearly this is a woman who has made huge mistakes and carries enormous loads of guilt. So what were you doing with her in making her speak from beyond the grave?

I was giving her a chance to see what her life was really like. I was playing with the notion that the characters who are alive are still blind. By making Kaori dead, it allows her to see but it puts her in a position where she can't make amends.

Which is perhaps a lot more like real life.

Yes. I think the reason a lot of us want the neat, tidy stories is that there isn't a catharsis for us in real life. We don't sit with our mothers and say, "Oh my God. You mean you loved me all along?" It just doesn't happen.

By Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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