To mark today – which is the Day of Remembrance for the Japanese-Americans, the 68th anniversary of the Executive Order that would put 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into American internment camps – a small excerpt from the manuscript of my new memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning:
“There’s a little girl in my head with Shirley Temple curls and freckles playing in a dustswept road. She is the enemy. She looks about six, even though she shouldn’t be: my mother was not five when she was released from the internment camp, but no pictures survive from that time so age six is the youngest image I have of my mother, the only image I have from ‘war time’ was taken after the end of the war. Of course, this little girl – skirt flying, dancing with tumble weeds – is not my mother, not exactly. She is my first character from my first book.
My mother could not remember the camps, so I invented them for her. That’s how my first novel began. I made them up, pulling from a mixed bag of the photographs that could be taken, from the questions that the man with the year book at the internment camp “reunion” had asked, the man who wandered through the community center full of former internees eating home lunches of sushi rice and teriyaki, searching for anyone in the room who was three when he was three in camp, who might have been in a nearby block, who might have been his friend.
I pulled from dreams.
I created the children first – this little boy, the little girl who was his friend – and even while I was doing interviews, gathering the details of how the brick floors in the barracks had to be shellacked to keep the dirt from rising, I must have known I wasn’t dreaming up a “book about the internment.” Write a potboiler, a kindly, grandfatherly man had told me in passing, in the halls of one of the elder homes I visited to do my interviews. That’s what people want to read. The facts are boring. His advice stuck, though I was never aware of following it. I began to fictionalize, to trace family ties that could never have existed but could still be realized and, more than that, could be made so persuasive that my mother could fill in her past with them, tucking her adopted life into bed each night without acknowledging its true parentage until it was hers by nurture. I recreated my mother’s memories before she began to lose her own, and now she too cannot remember what is real. I have been left with fragments of my own creation, with fictions, and now that I am in Japan, I’m discovering new creations and new memories of my mother – older, different – of times with her that I never experienced.”