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El Poder de Nuestras Historias

On Topaz Stories and “Authentic Voice”: A Conversation With Writer And Editor Ruth Sasaki - Part 2

Top from the left: James and Dan Hirano, “Father and Son”; Evacuation notice in San Francisco. Dorothea Lange. NARA #536017, “Left Behind.”; Yae Yedlosky, Grace Mori Saito Tom, Setsuko Asano Ogami, and Kaz Oyamada Iwahashi, “Friends Forever”; Bottom from the left: Amy and Jeanie Takagi, “Topaz Birth”; Norm and Pat Hayashi, “Every Little Moment”; Tomiko and Shigeru Sasaki, “Life Goes On.” (Photo courtesy of Ruth Sasaki)

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Tamiko Nimura: As editor/curator, are there any particular segments in Topaz Stories that resonate for you?

Ruth Sasaki: There are stories that are a miracle for the recall of specific details by someone who was a young child in camp, like Jon Yatabe’s “Toy Story.” Another story, “Father and Son” by Dan Hirano, who was actually born in Topaz, grabbed me for its distinctive voice and the image that came to mind as I read it of someone in his 70s (decades later) poring over a cherished and worn photo—of himself sitting on his father’s lap on a chair in the middle of the Utah desert—trying to imagine, because he was too young to know at the time, what his father had been doing that day. Then there are stories with a ripping good plot, told with humor, like Ann Tamaki Dion’s story, “Min’s Decision.”

But the ones that grabbed me for some unknown reason, or for revealing a truth—I’ll mention three:

Every Little Moment,” by Norman Hayashi: Norm was a toddler in camp, and had only a few fragments of memory. But the sometimes painful reflection inspired by the process of finding the photos and recalling the fragments revealed how those early experiences could shape a life. Norm wrote briefly about his recollections, but in our correspondence, he expressed how he felt, finding the photos, and reflected on the past and its power over the present, something he admitted he seldom did, being more of a forward-looking person. I took his words, patched together from his writing and his correspondence, and created a quilt, adding only three words of my own, for clarification—to create the story.

Ken Yamashita’s “Kibei Cowboy” centers on his father’s unusual occupation while in Topaz. But the small detail that jumped out and resonated with me was the fact that his dad, as a Kibei and someone who had worked as a junior executive for a Japanese trading company before the war, was denied leave in Topaz because of this background. I had known about the leave program; my mom and aunt talked about getting day passes to go to Delta or Salt Lake City—and my aunt eventually received indefinite leave clearance to resettle in Chicago. I knew, theoretically, that there were those who were denied leave. And I knew, from Emiko Omori’s documentary, Rabbit in the Moon, about the government’s criteria (beyond the loyalty questionnaire) for determining “loyalty.” But hearing that Ken’s dad—a highly educated and responsible family man—was considered suspect, managed to humanize the facts and highlight the absurdity of the government’s actions in a very personal way.

Kerrily Kitano wrote about her mom in “Adopted by Quakers.” Again, it was a detail that Kerrily added at the last minute that resonated with me. She wrote that she had always thought her mom “lived in huge denial,” but realized she was “just living life the way a survivor does.” That sentence encapsulated for me the feelings I had always had (before studying Japanese American history in the 1970s) about some Nisei behaviors—something was off; it was the desire to show that they were “super-Americans” in the two decades immediately after the war, living under the “white gaze” that had incarcerated them for three and a half years. Judgment turned to empathy as I learned about the history, and also as I matured.

Tamiko: How has it been returning to writing/editing?

Ruth: I never stopped writing; after the publication of The Loom and a couple of pieces in literary journals, I just gradually gave up on trying to publish fiction. The “gatekeepers” deciding what’s “good” and what gets published were almost always white, and they had their own idea of what “Asian American experience” should look like (immigrant mother-daughter stories primarily). In a way, I felt that I was still in some respects ahead of my time.

For example, somewhere around 1986 I workshopped a story about a Caucasian brother and sister with a fraught relationship who take a rare car trip to a family cabin that held many childhood memories for them. The brother’s Japanese American wife, about halfway through the story, becomes the main character, and the siblings, whose bonding trip to reclaim their past is interrupted, are not pleased. Neither were the workshop attendees, all of whom were white. They identified strongly with the character of the brother. The story was essentially about whose story is important, and how we can find a larger story by being inclusive; but the term “white privilege” had not yet registered on the national consciousness.

I wrote another story set in a neighborhood where I had lived in Japan, and the instructor, a white woman, dismissed the description of the neighborhood as “idyllic”—not that she had ever been to Japan. I was also told by a white literary agent from the East Coast that she didn’t feel my stories captured “the Asian American experience” — i.e., no immigrant mother and daughter stories.

Meanwhile, in my forties and fifties, I had a job with long hours, a long commute, a mortgage, and two elders who needed increasing levels of assistance to continue to live independently. I still wrote—but usually nonfiction. In 2015, contemplating retirement in the near-ish future, I created my website rasasaki.com so that I could do something with all the stuff I’d written over the past couple of decades.

The project with my mother’s wartime letters from friends, as well as the Topaz Stories project, allowed me to write about the WWII incarceration—something I had sworn never to do, feeling that it wasn’t my experience and that that particular story needed to be told by those who were there. Its relevance to current events motivated me to do whatever I could to bring it back into the national consciousness, and the Topaz Stories Project allowed me to facilitate the telling of the stories by survivors—a process that has been incredibly rewarding.

At the same time, I have always resisted the reduction of Japanese American experience to the WWII experience. It was always the stories of the Japanese community before the war, told by my aunt Kiyo, that fascinated me—because, by the time I came to awareness in the Richmond District of San Francisco, that community had been decimated by the impact of the meteor of WWII incarceration, and made only brief appearances at funerals and extended-family gatherings. I was also fascinated by stories of subsequent generations, and the impact that camp still exerts on their lives.

Tamiko: That gives us some great directions for future historians, writers, and projects. Do you have any future writing projects planned?

Ruth: I’ll have to give that one some thought! I still have not written much based on my dad’s experiences. I sometimes joke that I am the product of a bicultural marriage: a Nisei and a Kibei. Since my mom’s family was the one that settled in the US, they spoke English and I knew more about them.

But my dad’s story is equally fascinating; most of his family ended up in Japan, or dead; and I feel that post-war branding on top of my dad’s experiences in the U.S. Army resulted in his story being suppressed. It only started to emerge near the end of his life, after I’d lived in Japan for several years and loved it. My love of Japan seemed to give him permission to talk about his years there and all the Japanese aspects of his life.

I have two long-abandoned collections of short stories in progress, working titles: “Before the War” and “After the War.” Will I pick them up again? Who knows?

 

© 2021 Tamiko Nimura

camps Ruth Sasaki Topaz Stories world war II

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