Friday, August 20, 2010

The Person from the Past

The other day I noticed a copy of Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter on display at the public library. Originally published by Little, Brown & Company in 1953, it was reissued in 1979 by the University of Washington Press and is still in print. It turned out to be a loving re-creation of the author's Seattle childhood and early adulthood, including her family's internment in an Idaho concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Sone, who was born in Seattle in 1919, grew up in the hotel her parents ran on Skid Row, attended public schools plus Japanese school, and eventually became a clinical psychologist. I can't believe she remembered all the details she includes -- for example, her mother's tea set:
The tea set was stunningly beautiful with the uneven surface of the gray clay dusted with black and gold flecks. There was a wisp of soft green around the rim of the tiny cups, as if someone had plucked off grass from the clay and the green stain had remained there. At the bottom of each teacup was the figure of a galloping, golden horse. When the cup was filled with tea, the golden horse seemed to rise to the surface and become animated. But the tea set was only for special occasions and holidays, and most of the time we used a set of dinnerware Americana purchased at the local hardware store and a drawerful of silver-plated tableware [12].
Or one of her classmates at Japanese school:
Genji was a handsome boy with huge, lustrous dark eyes, a noble patrician nose, jet crew-cut setting off a flawless, fair complexion, looking every bit the son of a samurai. He sat aloof at his desk and paid strict attention to sensei. He was the top student scholastically. He read fluently and perfectly. His handwriting was a beautiful picture of bold, masculine strokes and curves [25].
But however she may have embroidered her story, it feels right, and much of it is wonderful, like her account of the time her mother went to a gala Mickey Mouse Club Party in which her children were performing and was mistaken by the reception committee for the wife of the Japanese consul. Or the crash-landing of her first romance, with the handsome and athletic Haruo. He gave her a photograph of himself when they graduated from grammar school and he went on to Franklin High. When they met again a year later in Japanese school, they were delighted until they stood up to bow to the teacher:
Before sitting down, I turned to smile at Haruo, but the smile froze on my face. I felt as if I were on the pinnacle of a mountain, looking down into Haruo's perplexed eyes. I was a good head taller than he. Haruo had not changed his appearance nor his height, but I had grown like Jack's beanstalk. I resumed my seat in a daze, my little world crashing down all around me [130].
One of the best things about Nisei Daughter, to my mind, is that it makes clear that Japanese families, even in Japan, were not all alike -- that a monolithic East/West divide just doesn't work. Nisei (second-generation, the offspring of Japanese immigrants) kids varied enormously in their conformity to traditional norms. Kazuko (Sone's Japanese name) and her siblings were noisy, rambunctious, and playful, while other kids at least put on a better face of standard Japanese manners. By depicting not only her own parents but other Japanese parents, Sone gives a varied picture of what it meant to be Japanese, and Japanese-American, in the first third of the twentieth century.

But there's also her account of her mother's search for a summer cottage near the ocean, which was blocked because Seattle whites wouldn't rent or sell to "Orientals." Or her grandfather's inability to come and live with them in the US because "In 1924 my country had passed an Immigration Law which kept all Orientals from migrating to America since that year" (107). Or:
One beautiful Sunday afternoon a carload of us drove out into the country to swim at the Antler's Lodge. But the manager with a wooden face blocked our entrance, "Sorry, we don't want any Japs around here."

We said, "We're not Japs. We're American citizens." But we piled into the car and sped away trying to ignore the bruise on our pride [119].
This is one reason why I become really angry when people idealize the America of this period as a time of happiness, safety, and harmony. Sone's account of the evacuation and internment is quietly furious and drips sarcasm like acid:
Once more I felt like a despised, pathetic two-legged freak, a Japanese and an American, neither of which seemed to be doing me any good. The Nisei leaders in the community rose above their personal feelings and stated that they would co-operate and comply with the decision of the government as their sacrifice in keeping with the country's war effort, thus proving themselves loyal American citizens. I was too jealous of my recently acquired voting privilege to be gracious about giving in, and I felt most unco-operative. I noticed wryly that the feelings about the Japanese on the Hawaiian Islands were quite different from those on the West Coast. In Hawaii, a strategic military outpost, the Japanese were regarded as essential to the economy of the island and powerful economic forces fought against their removal. General Delos Emmons, in command of Hawaii at the time, lent his authoritative voice to calm the fears of the people on the island and to prevent chaos and upheaval. General Emmons established martial law, but he did not consider evacuation essential for the security of the island.

On the West Coast, General J. L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command did not think martial law necessary, but he favored mass evacuation of the Japanese and Nisei. We suspected that pressures from economic and political interests who would profit from such a wholesale evacuation influenced this decision.

Events moved rapidly. General DeWitt marked off Western Washington, Oregon, and all of California, and the southern half of Arizona as Military Area No. 1, hallowed ground from which we must remove ourselves as rapidly as possible [158-9].
That last sentence presages current Christian hysteria over the 'hallowed ground' of Ground Zero in New York.

Despite passages like this, Nisei Daughter has been seen by many critics as less than fully militant, even assimilationist. For example, in her pioneering Asian American Literature (Temple UP, 1982), Elaine H. Kim wrote that Sone's "testimony is made lightly, with good-natured humor and plenty of self-mockery, and it ends hopefully with what sounds like a high school civics speech" (75), though she added, "But the reader is left with a terrible uneasiness." I suspect that "the reader" will be left with different feelings depending on her situation: a white American who read the book on its first publication, for example, would probably feel differently than an American of Japanese extraction. Finally, though, Kim conceded:
The book is much more than it appears. It is not a chronicle of self-contempt. It is not an outraged protest book. But neither is it a cheerfully ingratiating document of Japanese American success through ability to "endure." It is rather the subtly documented story of the sacrifices demanded of the nisei by the racial exclusivity of American society, of a soul's journey from rage to shame, from self-assurance to uncertainty. At the end, Sone writes that "the Japanese and American parts of me were not blended into one," but somehow that statement remains unconvincing because the blend seems externally imposed, and everything, including the answers to Kazuko's unspoken questions, is left in limbo [80].
Fair enough, I guess, though I'm not sure I wouldn't add "and back again" to Kim's description of the story as "a soul's journey from rage to shame." And I've read enough immigrant literature to know that Sone's ambivalence is not unique to Asian-Americans. The "externally imposed" blending of the Melting Pot myth seems to have affected everybody since the Irish. But even so, it seems to me that Kim can't see the seething anger in the book simply because it doesn't have the words "WHITE DEVILS!" on every page.

I'd read so much about that "high school civics speech" that I was expecting a long patriotic lecture to close Nisei Daughter, but it's only a page or two. I suspect that the publisher required an upbeat, patriotic conclusion -- the tone of the concluding passages is off, and for all I know it wasn't written by Sone herself. (Has anyone ever asked her about it? She was still alive a year ago, as the video clip above shows.) 1953 was the height of the McCarthy Era, after all; I'm surprised that Nisei Daughter was published as it was, with so much of Sone's anger intact. In the preface she wrote for the 1979 reprint, she makes it clear that her anger and refusal to accept injustice remain undimmed.

A character in Marge Piercy's great Woman on the Edge of Time says emphatically, "Every piece of art can't contain everything everybody would like to say! ... Our culture as a whole must speak the whole truth. But every object can't! That's the slogan mentality at work, as if there were certain holy words that must always be named." Nisei Daughter isn't the whole story of the Japanese-American experience or even of the Internment, but neither is Joyce Kogawa's Obasan, John Okada's No-No Boy, any other single work. You can't reduce the experience of thousands of people to one book or one narrator, and who would want to? Only those who don't really want to know, and would like to take what they perceive as bitter medicine in one noxious dose. As Edmund White says, canons are for people who don't like to read, and so want a minimal list of what they must struggle through. But Nisei Daughter is no bitter pill; it's a welcoming book, full of humor and humanity. I'm glad I read it, and very glad that it exists.