This Day, in Infamy and History

Today is a day that was supposed to live in infamy.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. response, kicked off a chain of events – including the internment and the atomic bombings – that still reverberate today.

What do we know? President Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor an “unprovoked and dastardly attack” by a nation we were at peace with. Months after declaring war, Roosevelt deemed it “militarily necessary” to give the Secretary of War the power to control large segments of the country, and strip people of their citizenship, liberty and property (via Executive Order 9066), which resulted in the imprisonment of 120,000 American citizens and their Japanese immigrant parents. Three and a half years later, President Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, calling the bomb “marvelous,” and “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” He threatened the complete and rapid obliteration of Japan and promised “a new era” of atomic energy.

What if it was also common knowledge that before Pearl Harbor the US had imposed economic sanctions on Japan, frozen Japanese assets, and broken the Japanese diplomatic code? That two weeks before the attack, the Secretary of War (him again) wrote in his diary of efforts “to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”?  Would we still believe that acts of war have no provocation?

What if schools taught these truths about the internment: that there was no evidence of spying, that it was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” for which the US government apologized, and that the Japanese Americans who volunteered to serve the US army out of the internment camps were some of the most decorated US soldiers in military history? Would we still have politicians today pointing to it as an example to emulate today?

What if the public knew that Japan had been trying to surrender for months before we bombed them to “save lives”? What if our government have not squelched the images of the devastation, or the very unmarvelous truth about radiation sickness – would we have detonated more than 2000 nuclear bombs since then? Would we be more aware of the fact that 75% of our nuclear power plants in the United States are leaking? That, four years after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan is still dumping tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, and it is now detectable in the water of the US coast?

History, as we have famously been reminded, is written by the victors, and alternate narratives are too often dismissed as conspiracy theories or beside-the-facts. My point in this history lesson is that we do know much more than the safe, comfortable sound bites that we choose to hang onto. We have actual images, diaries, records, declassified documents that prove that reality is more complicated that we allow it to be.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel reminds us of this truth: ”the world did know and remained silent.”

How does a writer “break the silence” when the facts are readily available, just ignored?

For me, this infamous anniversary is a reminder of how we choose not to hear, not to see, not to know, and most of all, not to learn from our mistakes. It is not a lack of information that hampers us, but a plethora that paralyzes us. As a result, we tend to come up with simplistic responses, and, at the same time, throw up our hands in despair at the complexity of the situation. We block each other out, refuse to listen; we let ourselves be led away from common ground. Silence, rhetoric, despair – all different ways to come up with the same response: nothing.

To police brutality. Gun violence. Racism. Environmental degradation and climate change. Redlining, redistricting, resegregating, restricting the vote. Limiting access to women’s reproductive healthcare. Closing our borders to refugees. The list goes on and on.

What do we do, as writers?

I don’t know. Do you?

At the Goddard MFAW residency in January, Douglas A. Martin and I are going to be initiating a discussion on resistance. We’ll see where it goes: What do we resist? How can we resist? How do we as writers take the information we have and shape an understanding? How do we change the narrative once and for all?

In the comments below, I invite you to share a “silence” that we know. Maybe if we each focus on just one, we can begin to understand the narratives that are spun to confuse and obfuscate; the falsehoods and tangents that encourage complacence. We can find ways to “interfere” rather than become “accomplices”:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” (Elie Wiesel)

*reposted from the Goddard MFAW blog:

No More Hibakusha

From an editorial that went out through the Progressive Media Project:

“In August 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 170,000 people were killed immediately, but the total number of “bomb-affected people” peaked around 380,000. These are people who may not even have appeared sick immediately, but have suffered high rates of cancer, blood disorders, fatigue and other ailments over a period of years. They were not all in the city centers when the bomb was dropped; some came in later to search for family members and help with rescue and cleanup.

“What we know about radiation exposure and its effects on living creatures comes from Japan. The fact that there is so much that is not common knowledge is also Japan’s legacy. After the bombs were dropped, pictures and video were censored, confiscated and classified, and news reports limited.”

Read the whole article here.

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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.”