Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (1934–) Biography
Autobiography Featurejeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
Colors! Seeing the stages of my life as colors. Where did I get such an idea? I trace it back to 1956, when I was twenty-one years old working as a group counselor in a Northern California juvenile detention hall. It was my first full-time job. I was supervising teenage girls brought in for violating probation, running away from home, and sometimes more serious crimes But most often the offense was "incorrigibility.
Jessica T. (fictitious name) was a racial mix of Philippine, Samoan, and French. One of the "incorrigibles," she was brought to the hall for breaking probation or, more precisely, for getting into a fight. Jessica was well-known to the staff at Hillcrest. She was sixteen and, since the age of twelve when she was booked for running away from a foster home, had been a frequent visitor to the hall.
When I came on shift one afternoon, the other supervisors were chatting in the lounge about Jessica, lamenting her fate, which they believed would be a sentence to CYA (California Youth Authority). I had never met her, but surmised from the tone of talk she was someone special, someone I would have to contend with in a serious way.
"Now, don't let her looks scare you," said one of my colleagues. "She can grimace like a gorilla, but she's really a teddy bear."
By the time I unlocked the door to the rec. room where the girls enjoyed free time outside their otherwise locked cubicles, I was anxious about meeting Jessica. A blast of music greeted me. I looked around the lively room. She wasn't hard to miss. Big, almost six feet tall, wiry black hair frizzed out in a halo (an unusual hairstyle in those pre-sixties days), she stood away from the group, tapping her feet and snapping fingers to Elvis Presley and "Blue Suede Shoes."
I introduced myself. "I'm Miss Waka. You must be Jessica."
Jessica glared. "How come you're Miss Waka?" She emphasized "Miss." Her voice was melodic and didn't match the piercing hostile eyes.
I waited for her to grimace, trying to remain calm and in control of the situation. All the supervisors shortened their names. Mrs. Finlof was Finney; Mrs. Sulli-van was Sully; Mrs. Coulter was Coulty, etc. Since I was so young, only a few years older than some of the girls, the staff thought it would be more appropriate that I be called Miss Waka, instead of a nickname. I thought fast. "Well, can you think of a good name to call me?"
Her eyes flickered, met mine, and looked away. Then she broke into laughter, a light tinkling sound incongruous with her bulky body.
"I sure can." Her eyes now were friendly. "I know you must really be crazy to work in a place like this … really crazy. So, you should be called Wacky."
From that day on, I was known at Hillcrest as Wacky. There was some talk among staff that the nick-name could be construed as disrespectful, but since I was not offended, the question was dropped. The truth of the matter was I liked being seen as "fun" and "unserious," which the nickname implied. It was very sober business trying to maintain a "homelike" atmosphere in an institution with locked doors, high cement walls, and regimented routines. I wanted to seem frivolous, to lighten the responsibility and authority so loudly announced by the ring of keys jangling from my belt.
Jessica and I became friends. The court date when she would learn her fate was late in being set, which meant she remained at the hall for an unusually long time. I was then part-time, but worked some day shifts, allowing closer contact with the girls once they were out of school (held at the hall). I discovered Jessica had unusual artistic talent. I encouraged her to spend spare time drawing and painting, which she plunged into with great enthusiasm. Even though I knew very little about art, artistic subjects became our mode of communication.
She would say, "Wacky, today is a green day, so I'm painting landscapes … you know, like Picasso or whatever his name … even though I'm feeling blue." Then she'd laugh, her big full-lipped mouth open, exposing white gapped teeth.
I'd say, "Well, Jessica, make good use of your blue period." And I'd drop some artists' names I really knew nothing about "… like Rembrandt and Monet. They used blue."
When she was upset and angry, usually after a visit with her probation officer, she would stomp down the hall muttering, slamming a fist rhythmically into her open palm. Her face would be dark and ferocious, and she'd pass me saying, "Don't come near me, Wacky, I'm really muddy." Even though I was sure she would never turn that wrath on me, I heeded her words, warned by the tattooed letters LOVE on the fist smashing into her open palm.
I brought her paints and paper and books on art. In a way, I was educating myself as well. Soon, the rec. hall and her room's walls were covered with paintings, splashes of vivid colors—rainbows, flowers, butterflies, jungle animals. The pictures were not what one expected to see from a person who looked like Jessica. With her wild hair, powerful size, and often-tough vocabulary, she kept the other girls at a distance. But with the staff, particularly me, she was gentle and humorous.
One day I was called into the front office and mildly reprimanded by an uncomfortable administrator who said that it appeared I might be practicing favoritism. Perhaps I was identifying with Jessica. Since I was at least a foot shorter and sixty pounds lighter, I was nonplussed by the remark. "What do you mean 'identifying' with her?" I asked innocently.
He cleared his throat. "You're both Asians, you know. You don't want the other kids to think you're favoring her because of race."
I was astounded. This hadn't entered my head. Speechless, and also too unconscious then about my own identity as an Asian American to respond indignantly, I only nodded my head and left his office.
I was the only Asian group supervisor working at the hall during the day (a Japanese-American male worked the graveyard shift). Asian delinquents were rare. "Orientals," as we were called then, were the model minority, hiding in the closet of "respectability," hoping to become invisible in a society still reeling from the Second World War and Korea.
Angry at this accusation, but still too young and inexperienced to fight back, I decided to deal with the situation by withdrawing from Jessica. I tried to do it subtly by working the graveyard or mornings, or if I was on shift during the afternoon, I would become involved in other activities. This didn't affect her.
"Hey, Wacky," she'd say, friendly as ever, "when are we going to paint a mural together? Let's do Chicano … like Diego Rivera!" It was as if she knew my plight, understanding institutions and group behavior better than I.
Then the day arrived when she was sentenced to the California Youth Authority, the last stop on the road that had begun in a foster home, spiraled down to a convent, and then juvenile hall. Her probation officer came to see me. "I'd like to ask a very unorthodox favor of you," she said. "Jessica will be transported to Sacramento next week, and we're afraid she's going to bolt. We hate to handcuff her in the car … and she said she wouldn't run if you could accompany her."
Miss Brown was a tough P.O. but also had a heart. No one wanted any juvie to attempt an escape while being transported to CYA. The consequences could be formidable. I agreed to go.
We left San Mateo at midmorning, timing it so we could stop for lunch at a popular restaurant outside of Davis. Somewhat like the final supper for convicts in death row, lunch at the fine restaurant was a last meal on the "outs" before the kids were locked up by the state. They could order anything they wanted—which was usually a hamburger, fries, and coke. Jessica ordered a shrimp salad.
"I'm really scared, Wacky," she said with a trembling voice. Tears rolled down her cheeks. The driver of the car, another P.O. returning to Sacramento, dabbed her own cheeks with a handkerchief. She was crying as much as Jessica. I later learned this was not uncommon among officers having to transport delinquents to CYA. To them, as far as rehabilitation was concerned, it might as well be death row.
I didn't cry, remembering the warning not to identify. Then Jessica said, "You know, Wacky, I understand. You used to be such bright colors. You were red and orange and purple and turquoise. And now you're fading … you're like a color that's fading away."
By the time we dropped Jessica off in Sacramento, I was drained. After leaving the restaurant, she had wept the whole time, her large body shaking as if she were riding a motorcycle. My final words to her were, "Don't be afraid, Jessica, Van Gogh was crazy and Gauguin had leprosy. Look how famous they are!" The absurdity of my statement made her laugh. She relaxed and was actually smiling when she walked haughtily toward the building with the P.O. Before entering she waved and yelled, "Bye, Wacky. Stay colorful."
The color RED pervades my earliest memories of childhood. Primary and powerful, its hues are vibrant, lighting up a time that was grounded in family.
The youngest of ten children, I was born in Inglewood, California, on September 26, 1934. At the time, my father was farming what was then the outskirts of Los Angeles. Today, huge airliners streak across asphalt runways which cover the rich soil where he raised strawberries, green beans, and lettuce.
I have no concrete memories of that time, only stories told within the family of life on the farm. My older brothers and sisters talk about how I used to get lost in the bean patch, wandering for hours amidst tall poles of green beans, a barefoot waif wailing in the succulent forest while the rest of the family searched.
I don't remember this and, in a way, I am glad. My family refers to the 'thirties as the dust-bowl period of our history, dull and grey instead of the bright red I remember.
"You're so lucky, Jeannie," they say, as I cringe with guilt. "We had to eat cabbage sandwiches and line our shoes with cardboard to cover the holes in the soles."
So, I was born during the Great Depression. But when I was two my father turned to commercial fishing, and we moved to Ocean Park, a small coastal community whose main attraction was its amusement pier. Ocean Park Pier, now long gone, was our "playground." It was a magical place. With sweet vanilla perfume from cotton candy, candied apples, and salt-water taffy wafting around the noisy shooting galleries, and thrill rides, neon lights, and freak shows bombarding my senses, it is no wonder my memories remain so vivid. The pier was my nursery school, the amusement attendants my sitters. The neighborhood kids and I spent most of our days there.
The roller coaster, shoot-the-chute, and Ferris wheel were forbidden territories, which was all right with me, since I saw too many dazed revelers screaming with terror and throwing up after rides. It amazed me anyone wanted to be thrilled like that. The freak shows and tunnel of horror were more my speed. Although I wasn't supposed to go, I would sneak in, wrapping my arms around someone's legs while I stared at the bearded lady and Siamese twins. I see a sharp picture of the pinhead dressed in a Japanese kimono, nervously twisting a sequined purse with thin, blue-veined hands. He especially intrigued me because he was small, not much taller than I, and wore heavy make-up, bright lipstick and face powder which failed to cover the purple five o'clock shadow of his lower face. His hair was swept up into a small bun from which dangled Japanese ornaments.
One day, as I gazed at him—more awed than curious—he looked me straight in the eyes. I remember being shocked, feeling a pang of pity, feeling badly and not understanding why. I know now those beady black eyes had drawn from my childish heart its first feeling of compassion. I never went back even when the neighborhood kids and the rest of the family came ranting home one day, excitedly describing the "geek" who bit off chicken heads. I had no interest, and as it turned out—so the story goes—my sister Lillian got too close to the wild man and he tore out a clump of her hair.
The merry-go-round was my favorite. Giant roan stallions with flowing manes and jeweled saddles. I watched them gallop past, forelegs bent gracefully in the air, rising and falling in time with the nickelodeon music. I fell in love with the marbled stallions, never missing a chance to ride them, which was often, since the attendant let the gang ride free. I can still feel the smooth, cold porcelain of muscled flanks which I stroked and petted after a day's hard ride.
I was faithful to my inert friends for many months until a new concession opened at the end of the pier. It was a live pony. A little white horse tethered to a stake posted in the middle of a circle. After riding around the circle, children could then be photographed, posing in cowboy hats and chaps or fur hats and muffs. I was enthralled. A real live horse that could respond to my passionate devotion!
But it was expensive. I nagged and whined at Mama to let me ride the pony. Finally, she gave in, but only after deciding a picture in my new red coat she bought for my older sister's wedding would be worth it.
As "karma" would have it, my infidelity had its consequences. After riding around in circles, proudly displaying my new coat, we stopped for the photo. For some reason, the pony bucked. I flew off the saddle onto the ground. Screaming, I rolled in the manure-laden dirt, more terrified by the shouting adults and Mama's cries than by the fall. But it was traumatic. The smell of horse manure can still accelerate my heart beat. I have never ridden a horse since … except at fairs and amusement parks where those shiny porcelain horses beckon like long-lost lovers.
The Second World War is a swirl of yellow. Yellow for the hot, dusty desert where I spent three and a half years in an internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Yellow for stinging whirlwinds and fierce dust storms that pricked the skin like needles and coated everything, including our lips and eyelashes, with thick ochre powder.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I was seven years old. The FBI came to our house and arrested my father on false charges that he was supplying enemy Japanese submarines with oil from his fishing boat. He was incarcerated in a federal prison in Bismarck, North Dakota. We didn't see him again for a year.
In April 1942, my mother, nine brothers and sisters (some married), and I arrived at Manzanar, located off Highway 395 in eastern California between Death Valley and Independence. The book Farewell to Manzanar, authored by myself and husband James D. Houston, relates in detail my remembrances of camp life.
But the book was written over twenty years ago, the writing of it releasing and thus healing the deepest wounds of that experience. Since then, other memories have risen to the surface. Only after that project was completed did I recall that my first experience with books occurred in Manzanar.
Before going there, I remember having a fleeting acquaintance in kindergarten and first grade with readers and children's picture books. In our home at Ocean Park there were few books. Thus, it was with incredulous astonishment that I viewed a huge pile of hardbound books mounded in the center of a fire-break near our barracks.
In the first months at Manzanar, there were no schools or libraries. And so, it seems, some charitable organizations, apprised of this, had sent truckloads of books to stock a library. Unfortunately, there were no available buildings to shelter them, so they were dumped in the middle of the spaces between barrack blocks—bleak, sandy acres left open in case of fire.
The pile was a jagged mountain range as huge as a two-story building. I had never seen anything like it and scrambled up the peak with other kids, sliding over slick pages, jamming legs between crevices. We played mountain climbing and war, throwing books at each other and hiding in foxholes dug into the sides. It didn't occur to us to read the material which provided us with such a wondrous playground. But after a week or so of diligent mountaineering, a few thunderstorms and dust storms dampened our enthusiasm. The book heap, now worn down to a hill, was abandoned.
One sunny afternoon, as I walked across the firebreak, a glint caught my eye. The book graveyard was still except for pages fluttering in the wind like earthbound kites. I soon discovered the source of light. Framed in shiny gold gilt, a scene of Rapunzel letting down her long hair from a tower's window shone from a book of fairy tales. I was entranced. Who was this beautiful lady with long yellow hair? I leafed through the book and found I could read the print. That afternoon I sat down amidst the torn and water-stained wreckage and read every story in Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.
Until the books were removed to the empty barrack which became our library, I explored the mountain again and again, no longer adventuring, but searching and scavenging for more stories of fairies, and princes, wicked stepmothers, and gem-studded kingdoms. Like a prospector seeking a second strike, I jealously guarded my stake, rummaging and examining until I found dozens of fairy tale books and took them home to our barracks.
This was my initiation into the imaginary world of written words. From fairy tales I advanced to mysteries—Nancy Drew became my idol. I read about Katrina, the Russian ballerina who rose from a starving peasant background to the Czar's palace. I read some classics—The Scotsman, The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, and even attempted Wuthering Heights. At age nine and ten, the mind is resilient. It is open and inquisitive. It is also bent on survival. Books became my major form of recreation, my channel to worlds outside the confined and monotonous routine of camp life.
I look into the kaleidoscope and see the period after Manzanar as essentially the color orange—intense, concentrated, and rich—rich with memories of awakenings, of social interaction outside the family. Puberty and hormones. Adolescence and social initiations.
When the Second World War ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we were relocated to a defense housing project in Long Beach, California. Ironically, it was only a few miles from Terminal Island, the Japanese fishing community from where my father last fished before he was picked up by the FBI. For many years Terminal Island had been a unique ghetto populated by Japanese fishermen and their families. Today it is part of the port of Long Beach and a base for the navy.
Cabrillo Homes was a large cluster of brown square buildings, some two-storied with eight apartments and the others long, low bungalows of four. They were federally built for defense-plant workers and families who swarmed to California during the war, drawn by work in the shipyards. When the war ended, some returned to their homes in the South, Midwest, and East, but many remained, still living in the housing project.
What a different world! From a racially homogenous one-mile-square community, I entered a multiracial and cultural matrix, a ghetto where our only common denominator was poverty. It was my first experience living among African Americans and Latinos. In Ocean Park, we had lived in a Caucasian neighborhood, mostly Jewish and Italian. At Cabrillo Homes, I met, for the first time, Americans of Polish, Cuban, and Mexican descent. I heard for the first time the twangs and drawls in the language of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Georgia—even the clipped whine of Boston.
Ah! Cabrillo Homes! Crossroads for America's hopefuls—halfway house for America's economic and political refugees. We were an early experiment in cross-cultural living. At Manzanar, Glenn Miller and the rising young swooner Frank Sinatra were our musical idols. In the housing project, country-western music and Mexican rancheras blared from open windows. I became a fan of Roy Acuff, Red Foley, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I learned to sing in Spanish, delighting my Mexican friends with renditions of "Tu Solo Tu" and "Ella," popular rancheras sung by Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, At age eleven, I was thrust into this varied environment—a new stucco landscape, strange and somewhat fearsome, but alight with bright orange.
My first boyfriend lived across the street from me. Green-eyed, blond, and freckled, Billy Fortner was the archetypal "boy next door." He was an only child whose parents had come to California from North Carolina to work for the navy. When his mother called from their upstairs apartment "Billeee … Bil-leee" in her soft southern drawl, I envied him and wished my mother would call for me with such tenderness and gentility. But, my mother, of course, would never dream of calling for any of us publicly; she never even raised her voice in the home.
I learned to play post office and spin the bottle with Billy, Doris Jean, and several other adolescents in the neighborhood. I mention Doris Jean because she was the spunky ringleader of our clandestine games. She lived in the apartment underneath his, part of a large compound of buildings from which I felt excluded. Our apartment was in a long, low bungalow. Where the kids across the street played seemed out of bounds for me, a private club whose membership mandated living in that complex. The main reason, though, was that the families who lived there were all Caucasian and from the South.
But one day, Doris Jean knocked on my door and, after introducing herself, asked if I wanted to work with her and some other kids for her father. Flattered by the invitation, I enthusiastically accepted without even asking what the job would be. It turned out Doris Jean's stepfather operated cigarette vending machines which he placed in restaurants and bars around town. In those days, a pack of cigarettes cost about twenty-two cents. The machines took quarters, which meant the customer's change should be three cents. Because the machines did not make change, our job was cutting a slit in the side of the cellophane wrapping around the pack and sliding three pennies down its side. He paid us ten cents a carton.
Doris Jean's parents usually were absent on Saturdays. When they were gone we worked fast so we could play the games wily Doris Jean had learned in Texas and magnanimously taught us. Although Billy was part of the neighborhood gang, he didn't stuff pennies, since he was a few years older and had a paper route. But he joined our after-work soirees, which thrilled the girls who all had a crush on him.
I experienced my first kiss playing spin the bottle. It was Billy's spin and the bottle stopped, pointing at me! I remember apprehension, excitement, curiosity and fear churning within as we entered the bathroom and closed the door.
"I don't know how to kiss," I whispered.
"Don't be scared," he said. "Just close your eyes."
Shaking, I squinted my eyes tight and waited for what seemed like hours for the touch on my lips that was supposed to change my life forever. It was disappointing. His lips could easily have been the back of my own hand.
But I liked the game, mostly because of its secretiveness. Even though Billy's kiss never sent me into ecstasy, I loved him wholeheartedly. He was always kind, and since I didn't have a bike like most of the other kids, he would take me for rides and even offered to teach me how to maneuver one.
I was shocked a few months later when Vernon Hicks came to our apartment with a message.
"Billy's leaving this afternoon, goin' back to North Carolina," he whispered conspiratorially, "and wants to kiss you good-bye."
I ran across the street thinking there was going to be one last game of spin the bottle at Doris Jean's house. But Billy was standing by the stairs, dressed in new going-away clothes. He beckoned for me to come behind the building. It was clear there wasn't going to be any game. At first I hesitated, terrified by the thought of being kissed by choice rather than by chance. But love for cavalier Billy overcame my timidity, and I joined him. Neither of us said a word. I closed my eyes and with pursed lips waited for the usual brush, the sweet but impersonal touch. This time it was different. Gently he cupped my face with his hands and kissed my lips … not once but three times … softly and slowly. I remember thinking this was the way they kissed in movies. Then his mother's soprano voice called, "Billeee … Billeee … we're going."
"Good-bye," Billy said, squeezing my hand.
He hesitated, waiting for me to say something. But I couldn't respond. I was frozen. I finally uttered, "Good-bye, Billy." That's all I said. To this day I have regretted never saying what I wanted to like "write me" or "where are you going?" or "I love you and thanks for being such a great first-kisser."
Billy disappeared from my life in a suitcase-laden taxi—his father seated in front with the driver and he with his mother in the back seat, waving to me even as the orange-and-black cab rounded the corner a block away.
Whenever I hear a soft Southern drawl or anyone mentions North Carolina, I wonder about Billy, my blond and freckled first love. I wonder where he went, what he became—and if he ever remembered me.
I was still living in Cabrillo Homes when the idea of becoming a writer germinated. I was in the seventh grade. Our junior high was new and didn't have a journalism class from which a newspaper could be written and published. A search for writing talent began by having students write an essay about a memorable event in their lives. The winners would form the journalism class—if they wanted—and publish the school paper and annual.
I wrote about hunting grunion in Ocean Park with my family before the war. On full-moon nights when the tides were high, the grunion would "run." Small, silvery fish about the size of anchovies, they would fill the waves, fluttering and flipping, glinting in the moonlight as my family scooped them up with buckets. We cooked and ate them there on the beach, the bright moon and bonfire turning night into twilight, while a balmy Southern California breeze cooled the summer air.
On the strength of that essay I was asked to join the journalism project. Until that moment I had no idea what the word "journalism" meant. But I was intrigued and enthusiastically plunged into the new class. I soon became editor-in-chief of the school paper, which we called the Chatterbox.
The step from reading fairy tales to editing a newspaper was a big one, and, I see now, this experience in junior high school was one of the crucial events in my life. That I could write was clearly programmed in my mind by a wise teacher who knew about validating youngsters, about directing them to higher goals—even when circumstances did not seem to support it. In the late forties, with the Second World War barely over, who would encourage a young Japanese-American girl living in a ghetto to work toward becoming a writer? Only an idealistic, fair-minded person. I was lucky to have met such a person in junior high school, my English teacher.
She planted the seed, but it didn't really sprout for many years. Although I continued to write for my high school newspaper in Long Beach and majored in journalism for the first two years at San Jose State University, I had no tangible goal. In those days, Brenda Starr was a comic-book character who was a glamorous newspaper reporter. In a childish way, she was my idol. Somehow I was going to be a newspaper journalist like her! This was fantasy, of course. In my second year of college, reality set in.
One day I went to see the journalism department head for advice about my major. I didn't know him very well, having taken only one class from him, "Press and the Public." I used to see him rushing around campus, in his navy blue suit and tie, looking like he had just scooped the story of the year. I heard he had been a rather famous newspaper correspondent before he came to San Jose State.
I sat down in his office, a messy room with yellowed newspaper clippings on the wall and scattered over his desk. A small Persian rug, grey with lint, covered part of the floor.
"Now, Jeanne, just what do you intend to do with a journalism degree?" he asked.
"I really don't know," I answered. "That's why I've come to see you. I guess I would like to be a reporter."
He peered at me with steady blue eyes. "I'm going to be honest with you, my dear. Newspaper-writing jobs are hard to come by for men. For women, it's almost impossible."
I was crushed. I had known it was a tough field for females since only a few of us were majors, but I wanted to believe becoming an Asian Brenda Starr was possible.
"You might think of switching over to advertising." He continued when I didn't respond, "It's still in the journalism department."
My heart sinking, I said, "Oh, I don't think I'd like advertising."
He scratched his curly brown hair, grey at the temples. Without looking at me, he said, "I can only tell you that you would have a very hard row to hoe trying to land a job with a newspaper. Believe me." He hesitated. "You're a woman … and you're oriental. That's double tough."
At first I didn't know how to take his words. Was he racially prejudiced himself? Or was he being kind, trying to help prevent a more disastrous disappointment later on?
Gently, he said, "Maybe you should think about changing your major. You're only a junior now, so it won't be a problem."
Fighting back tears, I thanked him and left the office. After a few days, I realized he spoke the truth. All the Asians on campus were majoring in "invisible" fields—lab techs, engineering, nursing, occupational therapy, secretarial—fields open to Asians for jobs. I decided to change my major to sociology and social welfare.
Three years before I had that conversation, my family had moved from Cabrillo Homes up north to San Jose where my father tried for the last time to find a future in farming. San Jose in 1952 was the center of a lush agricultural region. Prune, apricot, and cherry orchards crisscrossed the Santa Clara Valley, carpeting it with fragrant blossoms in the spring. Compared to the tough streets and bare landscape of Cabrillo Homes, San Jose was gentle and quiet, a midsize farming community enjoying its organic wealth.
My father raised strawberries—in the beginning as a sharecropper with Driscoll Inc., and later on his own. At the housing project, my friendship with two Mexican sisters and with members of a car "gang" called the King's Men had given me some training to communicate with my father's farm workers. They were braceros from Mexico and spoke no English. I could speak some Spanish, mostly street "argot."
When we first moved up north, I was devastated. I liked the fast street life and found farming dull and "unsophisticated." I missed my friends. When the Mexican braceros arrived to pick berries, I found comfort in speaking with them and singing the Mexican songs I had learned at Cabrillo Homes.
Looking at the green memory fragment, I think of Calistro. Jovial, good-humored Calistro! Middle-aged and married, he had left his family in Chihuahua to earn money in El Norte. He had four children whose picture he proudly showed to everyone he met, and he was a good musician, strumming an old cracked guitar during lunch hour to entertain the other workers.
One day I noticed him sitting barefoot by the irrigating flume. I thought he was cooling his feet in the water flowing through the open wooden trough. As I approached him, I saw he was lining his shoes with cardboard to cover large holes in the soles. I remembered my older sisters' and brothers' stories of the Depression, how they too had re-soled their worn shoes with cardboard. I had always felt guilty for not suffering the deprivations they had to endure. When I saw Calistro re-enacting that potent family story, I decided to atone. I bought him a new pair of boots.
Needless to say, he became a devoted friend. When I revealed I could sing in Spanish too, our friendship was sealed. As we picked strawberries under the relentless California sun, we sang to alleviate the hardship of stoop labor and heat. He taught me a cheerful song called "Mi Cafetal," which I can still sing today.
Aunque la gente vive griticando
Me paso la vida sin pensar en na
Pero no sabiendo que yo soy el hombre
Que tenga una hermosa y linda cafetal …
"Although people live criticizing the life I lead so idly, they do not know I am the man who has a beautiful coffee plantation…."
He loved bologna sandwiches, and I liked the hot burritos the braceros were served for their noon meal. We traded lunches. I always added a thick onion slice to the bologna sandwich, which he greatly appreciated.
By befriending the workers, I eased through the first summer away from Long Beach. When autumn arrived and the braceros began leaving, I had grown to like the pastoral pace, the clean green world of Northern California. But, I hated saying good-bye to Calistro.
The day he left he brought me a gift. Wrapped in newspaper, it was a matchbox with a tiny worn crucifix tucked inside. The figure of Christ was silver, delicate and smooth, and the cross was fashioned out of dark wood. I knew it was probably Calistro's most valuable possession. I still have the crucifix, safely stored with other good-luck fetishes I have collected over the past years.
Marriage. Blue diamonds, sapphires, sparkling turquoise light. The colors radiate from deep pools and surging surf, mountainous coastal valleys, lush rain forests—the jeweled landscape of the Hawaiian Islands.
At San Jose State I met Jim Houston. We were both journalism majors with Spanish minors, and thus had all the same classes. We began dating. After graduating from college, Jim went to Hawaii, and I remained on the mainland, working at Hillcrest Juvenile Hall.
After six months in the islands, Jim sent me a Valentine. It was an unusual card, a long slender Ti leaf with BE MY VALENTINE inked on one side and WILL YOU MARRY ME on the other. I later learned the Ti leaf was used in Hawaii for ceremonial purposes, the belief being it had powers to bless and consecrate. In those days mail from Hawaii took at least two weeks. By the time the Valentine arrived, the usually lush green leaf was a brownish husk. But the message printed on it had not lost one bit of its luster.
Within a month, after a thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco, I arrived at Honolulu at 7:00 in the morning. We were married that evening during a spectacular sunset at Kaiser Lagoon, now part of the Hilton Hawaiian Village complex in Waikiki. Jim and his friends had made all the arrangements weeks before so our only task was to buy a ring, which we hurriedly did that morning.
We were married on the beach where the only person wearing shoes was Reverend Sam Saffrey, who was fully attired in black robe, tie, and suit. Bible in hand, the sunset glinting off his glasses, he officiated the "traditional" part of the wedding.
For the Hawaiian part, Winona Beamer and Ed Kenny, professional singers and dancers whom Jim had befriended in Kona, performed a ritual of chants, drumming, and symbolic rites. Both Ed and Winona are steeped in their Hawaiian heritage and have worked at reviving Hawaiian culture for many years. When we married in 1957, respect and acknowledgement of indigenous cultures was not as prevalent in the public consciousness as it is today. In fact, Winona recently revealed ours was the first wedding ceremony she had chanted for.
It was hauntingly beautiful. They blew conch shells—to the east, west, north, and south. They rattled gourds and planted a Ti leaf in the sand. A burnished brown calabash held kukui nuts, rocks, and shells, which Winona gracefully retrieved, each one symbolizing a quality bestowed on our marriage—kukui nut for strength, shells for protection, lava rock for union. The final rite was the draping of a long maile lei over both our shoulders. Maile is a vine that grows in high rain forests, mostly in the Big Island and Kauai, and is prized by Hawaiians for its fragrance. Like the Ti leaf, it is often used to bless ceremonies. We have been married now for thirty-four years. Perhaps their "mana," spiritual power, flowed through that maile lei, binding us together in a strong and unusual way.
After the discouraging conference with my journalism teacher at San Jose State, I gave up hope of becoming a writer. I plunged into psychology and sociology and wanted to become a field probation officer, those P.O.s who worked in the community supervising delinquents on probation. Ironically, the same argument by my journalism professor to dissuade me from a writing career was also used by the head of juvenile hall when I asked to apply for a job in the field.
"This county is not ready for an 'oriental' P.O … especially female," I was told by an honest administrator. "You're better off as a group supervisor back in the unit."
Jim's intention, as long as I had known him, was to be a writer. By the time his request for marriage came, I was ready to hand over all my ambition to him and to vicariously experience his writing career as a "support" person. Besides, I was a "female of the fifties" … and an American with a Japanese cultural background. It was not odd to "live in the country of his shadow"—a phrase I remembered from a Japanese poem.
The seed to become a writer, planted by my English teacher in junior high, was nurtured through high school and for two years in college became dormant. It remained dormant for many years as my priority shifted from career for myself to wife and mother. It was not until 1971, fourteen years after our marriage on the beach, that the thought of writing resurfaced.
With Jim's encouragement and help, the long buried seed came to life. Farewell to Manzanar, our collaboration, was my re-entry into the world of writing other than as Jim's most avid fan. Later in this essay I relate in detail how and why this change came about.
GREY AND LAVENDER
Jim held an ROTC commission from San Jose State. Our honeymoon in paradise ended when he received orders from Texas to report for training at Lack-land Air Force Base, after which he would be sent to England. That fall, I took a train across the states to New York, where I boarded a Dutch liner for a five-day crossing of the Atlantic and my first visit to Europe.
After the tranquil blue of Hawaii, England was sharp, provocative, and heady. Elegant silver, delicate lavender lace. In many ways I found England to be almost overwhelmingly strange. Weather was a big factor. Except for the three harsh winters in Manzanar, I had never experienced such damp cold, which penetrated through layers of wool straight to the bone.
It was the East Anglian fog—thick mist rising from bogs and marshes, shrouding the countryside, sometimes never lifting for weeks at a time. I was used to sandals and tennis shoes, cotton shorts and T-shirts, and spending most of the day outdoors. I had to buy a new wardrobe, unaccustomed accessories such as scarves, gloves, woolen underwear, and fleece-lined boots. There were days when I never ventured outside, loath to leave the warm hearth of the kitchen fireplace.
Our first home in England was a ten-room, four-hundred-year-old townhouse. Called "The Roost," its rooms were small, some the size of large closets. Jim had to duck to pass through doorways. It was my first acquaintance with coal fires, musty oriental rugs, and antique furniture. The crooked, creaked floors and dark hallways reminded me of scenes from Great Expectations, and I fully expected to see Miss Haversham sitting in one of the bedrooms—or the ghost, perhaps, of Mrs. Hawker, the lady of The Roost who had died there two years before.
When we moved into our home, we had agreed with the rental agent to continue allowing a photographer the use of a small hut in the backyard as a darkroom. For several months we never laid eyes on our phantom neighbor. Then one rare warm and sunny day, I sat outside in the yard. A very tiny woman emerged from the shed-like building and, seeing me, approached shyly. She had short greying hair, thick and curly, and a smooth olive complexion. Even from a distance I was drawn to her smiling eyes, twinkling hazel eyes that looked both mischievous and curious.
As she walked toward me, I noticed she limped. Her back was deformed, causing her to appear stooped. "I must take your picture!" She almost shouted. It was as if lightning struck! Before I could answer or even say "hello," she had whirled around and in a flash had re-entered the darkroom. When she emerged again, she carried a square box camera a little smaller than a shoe box. Dancing around me like a drunken elf, she snapped pictures, all the while chattering in heavily accented English.
"So, you are the Americans," she said, looking at me through the camera lens. "But, you are different, yes? You don't drive those giant cars, so much they look like tanks. And where are you from? China? Japan? Shangri-La? Oh, what a lovely picture this will be!"
Occasionally she would look up from her lens, not at me, but at the sky. I later learned she was famous for the soft natural quality of her work. She never used artificial lighting, depending fully on the light from the sun.
"It's nice, too, that you shop at the green grocer's and Mr. Kincaide's butcher store. Most Americans shop at your base and, really, they keep their homes much too warm. It's not healthy. By the way, dear child, my name is Bertl … Bertl Gaye."
I was delightfully dumbfounded by this sprightly woman. When I recovered enough to tell her my name, she said, "But, what a strange name you have … you don't look like a 'Hooston.'" She prolonged the "oo's." "Are you not a Chinese princess or a samurai warrior?"
I laughed and told her my father was actually from a samurai family in Japan. "Then, I shall call you 'Sami,'" she said. "It suits you better."
We had no previous idea who our resident photographer was, nor had we made any inquiries. Yet Bertl seemed to know about us, about Americans. After we became friends, I learned the airbase was not very popular among the villagers—especially when Americans brought huge cars, Buicks and Hudsons, that hogged their narrow roads, and oversized refrigerators that blew out wiring. And, of course, there was the terrifying possibility the shrill jets streaking overhead, sometimes breaking their centuries-old windows, could be carrying nuclear bombs!
Bertl lived across the street, alone except for holidays and summer when her son Adrian, then fourteen, came home from boarding school. I spent many afternoons and evenings in her spare but tasteful house. I helped garden, sipped afternoon tea, and enjoyed many delicious meals with her. She introduced me to classical music … Bach, Schubert, Dvorák, Brahms. During many bitterly cold evenings, Jim and I huddled with Bertl in her small living room, playing Scrabble while Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik" warmed our spirits.
Near the end of Jim's tour in England, she moved to Cambridge, where she leased a large flat with rooms she could rent to students. That summer she decided purposefully to board two German students attending English-language classes. I happened to be staying with her while Jim was traveling on the continent.
"This is a lesson, Sami. Watch what happens," she said. "They will wonder if I am a Jew, but I will not tell them unless they ask. Then we can have a talk." She said this without malice. I knew Bertl had fled Austria in the 'thirties and that her family had died in the death camps of Germany. She never talked much about her past. But sometimes she would reminisce about her youth in Berlin, mentioning acquaintance with Oppenheimer, Teller, Planck, and Szilard. At the time I didn't recognize the importance of these physicists, and Bertl never dwelt on their fame. But I knew she was a pacifist and strongly opposed to nuclear development.
Bertl cooked the two German students tasty meals. She assisted with their English language studies. She took them to concerts and picnics. I could see they were growing fond of her, enjoying her wit and wisdom as I did. But the charged question never came up.
Then the last week of school arrived. Bertl said, "They will ask me tomorrow, Sami."
They did. At breakfast Mara, the dark-haired one, hesitantly asked Bertl if she was a Jew. When Bertl confirmed she was, both girls began to weep.
"Why do you cry?" she said gently. "It is not your crime. But you must go home and tell your parents you have spent your summer with a Jew, a Jew who didn't spit at you and treated you well. Then, they can cry, not you."
They embraced Bertl. "How you can show respect for me is to fight against nuclear bombs. No bombs! Go back to Germany and protest this madness!"
Years later I heard from Bertl that Mara had become a peace activist. I now see my time with Bertl taught me to be an activist of another kind. I, too, believe in peace and abhor nuclear weaponry. But Bertl's greatest lesson for me was about forgiveness, about understanding, and about "passing it on." Today, I try to express these values in my writing. In my life, I try to live them.
Bertl Gaye, my Austrian bodhisattva, will always remain a shining silver light in my memories of England.
In 1961 we returned from Europe after three years in England and nine months in Paris, France. Our eldest child, Corinne, was born, followed six years later by the twins, Joshua and Gabrielle. When Cori was eighteen months old, we moved from Palo Alto, where Jim was attending graduate school at Stanford, to Santa Cruz, where we still live today.
One day my nephew who was going to the University of California-Berkeley came over to visit. It was 1971. He was taking a sociology course and, for the first time in his life outside of talk in the family, had heard about Manzanar.
"Aunty," he said, "You know I was born in Manzanar and I don't know anything about the place. Can you tell me about it?"
"Sure," I said. "but why don't you ask your folks?" I felt no hesitancy in talking about the internment camp and wondered why he couldn't get information from them.
"I have, Aunty, but they seem reluctant to talk about it. Like I shouldn't be asking or there's some skeleton in the closet."
That's strange, I thought. I then began telling him about life in camp—about the schools, the outdoor movie theater, baseball games, judo pavilion, dances, and beautiful rock gardens. Whenever my family got together and we happened to talk about camp, we would joke about the lousy food, the dust storms or the communal showers, or we talked lightheartedly about recreational activities. I reiterated the same stories to my nephew in the same superficial way.
He looked at me intently, as if never seeing me before. "Aunty, you're telling me all these bizarre things. I mean, how did you feel about being locked up like that?"
For a moment I was stunned. He asked me a question no one had ever asked before, a question I had never dared to ask myself. Feel? How did I feel? For the first time I dropped the protective cover of humor and nonchalance. I allowed myself to "feel." I began to cry. I couldn't stop crying.
He was shocked. What had he done to send me into hysterics? I was embarrassed, and when I gained control of myself, told him I would talk to him some other time. But now I understood his parents' reluctance to discuss too deeply the matter of the internment.
At the time, I was "aunty" to thirty-six nieces and nephews. Seven had been born in camp. I realized none knew about their birthplace, Manzanar. Since it seemed too painful to talk about it, perhaps I could write a memoir, a history—just for the family.
I had not written for years. I tried to begin. But I found myself in tears, unable to concentrate. Was I having a nervous breakdown? It was apparent my nephew's innocent question, a question he had a right to ask, had opened a wound I had long denied ever existed.
I turned to Jim. "I'm having trouble writing this memoir."
"What memoir is this?" I hadn't told him about my project. "What seems to be the problem?"
Embarrassed, I explained, "I can't stop crying whenever I try to write about Manzanar. I think I'm going crazy."
"Let's talk about it," he said, now intrigued.
Through tears I told him what I could. I was emotionally honest for the first time. I remembered feelings—of loss, of shame and humiliation, of rage, of sorrow. He sat quietly, listening. Then he said, "I have known you for almost twenty years, married to you for fourteen … and I never had any idea you carried all this around. This is not something to write just for your family. It's a story everyone in America should read."
Thus began our collaboration of Farewell to Manzanar and my return to writing. We spent a year working together; I talked for hours into a tape recorder; we interviewed family and other internees; we researched the libraries.
When the book was published in 1973, my life changed. The year spent delving into those three years of my childhood and its aftermath was as powerfully therapeutic as years with a psychiatrist. I reclaimed pride in my heritage. I rediscovered my ability to write. I realized I could no longer hide "in the country of my husband's shadow." With Jim's encouragement and support, I left the comfortable safety zone of domesticity and ventured out into the open field. I began to write again.
Violet. Ah! Violet. My favorite color. A mix of red and blue. How fitting that the red of my happiest childhood memories and the blue of Hawaii and marriage should fuse to produce the "violet" period of my life! Red for groundedness, strength, yin power. Blue for expression, communication, yang power. Violet for spirit, the fusion of yin and yang.
I don't know whatever happened to Jessica, my friend from Hillcrest Juvenile Hall. I hope she is an accomplished artist someplace. Wherever she is, I wish her a "colorful" life and thank her for the friendship which inspired this memoir.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
After the publication of Farewell to Manzanar, I found myself involved in another kind of writing adventure, scriptwriting. As soon as my husband and I received copies, we sent one to John Korty, renowned filmmaker from Marin County north of San Francisco, who had just won eleven Emmy nominations for his television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. We felt John would be the perfect director to transform our book into film. Unknown to us, we later learned he had received several copies from individuals who knew of his long-standing interest in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
A week after we mailed the book, we came home one evening from a social event to have our son, Joshua, inform us that he had taken a telephone call from someone named John Korty. We excitedly demanded, "Well … what did he say? Did he leave a number? How did he sound?" Taken aback by our vociferous questioning, our seven-year-old son answered apologetically, "he said you would know what he was calling about."
And, indeed we did. My husband I began a collaboration with John Korty writing the script for a television drama based on Farewell to Manzanar. It was my first experience in scriptwriting and the world of film. We were extremely fortunate that John wanted our involvement in the project beyond writing the script. I was consulted regarding the casting of the family characters, and both Jim and I were present at the actual filming, something rarely allowed by directors.
Reliving a childhood experience was emotionally powerful. Seeing "extras" who were actual internees themselves playing roles of their parents, grandparents, or relatives was very moving, and there was hardly a dry eye on the set. The art director for the film had transformed the remnants of Tulelake, an internment camp located in Northern California near the Oregon border, into an eerily familiar site of the past.
In 1975, the film Farewell to Manzanar premiered on NBC television, and the script was nominated for an Emmy award, later winning a Humanitas prize. It was the first television film that featured Asian American lead characters with Asian American actors playing the roles.
After the movie aired, Jim and I were contracted to write two other scripts for television: Barrio, a three-generational story of a Mexican-American family; and The Melting Pot, about two young Cubans who cross to America during the Freedom Flotilla of May 1980.
Then in 1983, I received a surprising phone call that drew me back to narrative writing. Candace Lake, one of the literary agents who handled the filming of Farewell to Manzanar, asked if I would be interested in collaborating with a Vietnam veteran who had an extraordinary story to tell.
"Vietnam vet?" I asked incredulously. What interest or talent did I have for writing about the war in Vietnam? "I'm sorry, Candace," I said apologetically, "I don't think I'm the person."
"But it's about children, too … orphans."
Now that piqued my interest. And when she mentioned that the orphans were Amerasians, offspring of American GIs and Vietnamese women commonly referred to as "children of the dust," she had my full attention.
She quickly added, "There are two Vietnamese Catholic nuns, and both Paul (the American vet) and I feel his collaborator should be a woman, as the nuns are an important part of the story."
That clinched it. I met Paul Hensler the next week, beginning another collaborating project that lasted a year; however, this time the collaboration would be different from that of writing Farewell to Manzanar. In many ways, Jim had acted as a psychiatrist of sorts, guiding me back to childhood memories and, ultimately, to healing from the traumatic experience of internment. I provided the substance of the story, and he was the master at putting it down in writing. With Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder, the title of Paul's story, the partnership was the opposite. Just as Jim had helped me retrieve painful memories, I became the mirror for Paul to reflect on his. Working with Paul was a wonderful experience, and an educating one as well. I acquired a deeper understanding of the Vietnam war, a war which I had protested and shunned, never personally acquainted with anyone who had experienced it first hand.
Paul's comic antics and sense of humor kept me laughing much of the time, but it was his spiritual strength and deep compassion for the children that truly broadened my narrow view of American soldiers in Vietnam and taught me how an innocent eighteen year old was forced into manhood—not by fighting in the jungle with guns, but by caring for an abandoned, starving brood of orphans. During that year, I not only improved my writing skills but was exposed to a world other than that of motherhood, family, and Japanese-American experience.
In 1984, I returned to my "roots" and began collecting oral histories from first-generation Japanese immigrants, "issei," and became especially interested in picture brides, women whose marriages to bachelors already in America were arranged by match-makers in Japan. Because of miscegenation laws, the bachelors could not marry Caucasian women, and because there were few, if any, Japanese women in America at the turn of the twentieth century, they had to rely on match-makers from their own villages. Photographs were exchanged, and if the parties were in agreement, the bachelor paid for the bride's passage to America after she married him by proxy in Japan.
While in Honolulu, where Jim was teaching at the University of Hawaii for a semester, I learned there were some elderly picture brides at Kuakini Hospital. Not speaking Japanese, I hired a translator after gaining permission to visit and interview these women. What a surprise! It was not only their willingness to talk about their pasts, but the richness of the stories they told. Passion, betrayal, revenge, and unrequited love filled the tapes like scripts for great Kabuki drama. Whether the tales were true or created from their imaginations, they were wild and fascinating.
I saw the uniqueness of this material, how it blasted away stereotypes of the submissive, loyal and accommodating Japanese woman of the early twentieth century—a commonly held belief of many, including myself. Who would tell these unusual stories? Would they remain only as wistful memories of an incomparable group of women, disappearing before my very eyes, lost to future generations? I had vague notions of writing a novel focusing on a picture bride, but after the interviewing, I realized despite my ideas for plot and adventure, I had little understanding of the inner strengths that sustained these characters. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to find that grounding when I went to Japan for six months on a U.S-Japan creative artists fellowship to research for a novel.
Before embarking, I took a crash intensive course on Japanese language and learned a few survival phrases and the magic word "sumimasen" (pardon me), which I was told would absolve me from even the most unfor-giveable breach of manners. Officials of the fellowship program warned, "You may have a hard time. You look Japanese, so they will expect you to speak well and know how to behave."
At Narita Airport, I waited at the checkpoint with other passengers, mostly nationals returning from America. In my mind, I practiced sentences I had memorized, phrases explaining my miserable command of the language, generously accentuated with "sumi-masen." I smiled with a cheerleader's openness at the young attendant who sported thick-lensed aviator spectacles and an ivy-league striped tie. Before I could utter my carefully practiced phrase, he said in perfect English. "Your passport, please." Why wasn't he speaking Japanese to me?
Crestfallen, I stammered, "Sumimasen, watashi-wa-American-jin desu."
"I know." Again in BBC English. "May I have your passport?"
Later I learned from Japanese friends and knowledgeable foreigners that it was not the obvious explanation that I looked different—an older woman with long curly hair and wearing brightly colored attire. No navy blue dresses or grey suits for me. They said Japanese operate by "kokoro"; they sense attitudes, social status, and levels of sensitivities—not visually, but by feeling. Essence. This idea contradicted the stereotype I held about the Japanese as exquisitely polite, quietly conservative, practical, and understated. "Feeling"? Way at the bottom of the list. I soon learned I had confused "feeling" with emotions, surmising that because they were less outwardly expressive of emotions, the Japanese were not keen on feelings.
For the rest of my stay, kokoro became an invaluable concept in helping me understand the culture. A practical example of this concerned bicyclists. One of the most puzzling and infuriating phenomenon I encountered was the hordes of bicyclists nonchalantly weaving their way through pedestrian-crowded sidewalks. More than a few times, two-wheeled commuters in dark suits screeched to a halt as I stood in the way, paralyzed by the sight of their placid faces bearing down as if I were invisible. I soon learned bicyclists had the right of way. It seemed crazy, as I noted there seemed to be no consensus for which direction or on which side the pedestrian traffic—or bicyclists—should flow! This was pure chaos to me.
But I never witnessed a collision. It was eerie how pedestrians and bicyclists seemed to "know" the presence of the other, as if functioning by radar. It was kokoro, their extreme sensitivity to surroundings, the carefulness that pervades so much of the culture. Explainable when one realizes Japan is the size of California with almost four times the population, over 120 million. Consideration, politeness, and kokoro—thinking with the heart—are basic to interrelationships and to psychic survival in this small, crowded, and beautiful land.
Six months in another country doesn't entitle one to make pronouncements about its culture, and I don't mean to be doing so. What I learned mainly concerned my own identity, who I wasn't more than who I was. I didn't unravel another layer of my psyche or find another whole one. I didn't discover any new dimensions of my "Japanese-ness." What I did discover was that whatever parts of me that are Japanese had been transmitted long ago by my parents and other early immigrants. And I was astonished to learn that those transplanted habits—many still alive in America today—had almost died out in Japan. Certain foods we still serve today at holiday gatherings, certain dances still danced at seasonal celebrations, survive now only in remote farming and fishing villages, remnants of the rural regions from which early immigrants had come.
After my return from Japan, laden with research that would assist me in defining the character of prewar Japan's farming culture, I began writing the novel. My first idea was to tell a story about one picture bride who comes to America in 1902 and take her from then to the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. I began writing. As I got closer to World War II, I found myself procrastinating and finding other projects that took me away from the novel. After two years of this, I found I had written almost 500 pages, but was stuck in 1910! I had to confront the fact that I was resisting getting to World War II because I would have to deal with the internment. I simply wasn't ready to do that. It was safer emotionally to remain in an era totally outside my own experience. Moreover, I was worried that by "fictionalizing" an event so important in Japanese-American history, I might trivialize it. I didn't want to be irreverent—not that the internment was "sacred" territory in the annals of communal Japanese American history—but I realized I still had emotional issues about that experience and was not comfortable fictionalizing it.
I dropped the project for some time and began writing short stories with the internment as part of the narrative. Slowly, I weaned myself back into the novel, deciding to rewrite it completely; instead of only one character, the picture bride, I expanded the narrative voices to three: Grandmother, Daughter, and Granddaughter; and the internment experience became a central backdrop. I wanted, also, to somehow include the Native American experience, not its own history but its similarities to the Japanese-American one. To some degree, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World II compares to the "relocation" and "isolation" into reservations of Native Americans.
In the case of Manzanar, the Paiute had lived on that land for centuries. They were driven out by white farmers in the 1850s, who, in turn, were driven out in the early 1900s by the Los Angeles Power and Water district which, in the 1940s, would lease to the federal government the land where ten thousand Japanese Americans were interned. Thus, the site of Manzanar has experienced the displacement of three groups of people. One can imagine the energy surrounding that area of high desert land. I felt it when I visited the ruins, and other individuals who have toured the site have mentioned the ghostly feelings there.
I have strong childhood memories that revolve around Indian stories in camp. We searched for arrowheads in the sandy firebreaks and relished any word of Indian ghost sightings. One of my more pleasant recollections is the time an Indian entourage, all festively dressed in native costume, came into the compound and danced for us. I felt it was important to include an Indian sensibility in my novel, and thus, created "Cloud," a Paiute native.
In terms of the novel's structure, I decided to pattern it after the style of Kabuki drama—in five acts. By giving the narrative a kabuki sensibility, it would allow me to create heroic characters who were more mythological than realistic, so that the book would not be seen as true history—other than the actual fact of the internment. The Legend of Fire Horse Woman was published in 2003. Many ask about the book's title, often thinking the "fire horse woman" refers to an Indian legend. I explain that the "fire horse" is a sign in the Asian astrological calendar where, according to the year in which one is born, an animal sign—such as Tiger, Snake, Goat, etc.—is given. The Horse sign with the Fire element happens to be the most disastrous for a woman. The qualities attributed to the Horse—independent, strong-willed, passionate, and dominating—desir-able traits for men—were very negative for women. But I found this sign a powerful metaphor of how, in America, these attributes were necessary to survive for both women and men. Thus, my main character, a picture bride from Japan, is a "fire horse woman" who must embrace those qualities within herself in order to overcome the many ordeals she faces in America.
Earlier I mentioned the oral histories from issei women. Unlike immigrants from other parts of Asia (the Philippines, Hong Kong, India) who were familiar with the English language due to colonization by western powers, English was strange and difficult for them. Working long hours over many years to survive and raise their families, they had little opportunity to cultivate literary skills. They had to wait for the children and grandchildren to come along, someone younger with a story-teller's urge. Central to my ambition for the novel was finding a way to give voice to these women. I like to think that this is one of the things we can do as writers: speak for others who do not speak; give voice to those who came before us and had no voice.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: James Heneghan (1930-) Biography - Personal to Rick Jacobson Biography - PersonalJeanne Wakatsuki Houston (1934–) - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights, Autobiography FeatureJeanne Wakatsuki Houston