Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston is an #OwnVoices Japanese non-fiction memoir. It is the autobiography of the author’s time spent in a Japanese Interment Camp during the Second World War, when she was seven years old, and follows her life after her family was released.
One of the first things that I noticed about the book was the tone. The narrative feels like a conversation that you are having with the author. I felt like I was sitting with her outside on the porch, or in her living room sipping tea, as she candidly retraced her childhood spent in the concentration camps. I read in the introduction that her husband had taped their talks as she shared this very private and traumatising part of her life with him, and then using those tapes, they wrote the book. I liked the conversational and straightforward manner. It somehow made the book feel even more intimate and distinct with each new turn of the page.
Another example of what makes the memoir so informal is that when the author is talking about a specific memory, or event in her past, she will occasionally digress to offer more context via anecdotes or brief morsels of familial history. Initially, it created a mildly disorienting experience because she’ll bounce from this super intense scene at the internment camp, and suddenly recall its association with her life prior to camp. But the more that I read, I came to understand that these anecdotes and detours help provide a sense of the dissonance and homelessness that the hundred of thousands of Japanese-Americans must have been feeling. To go from a rather normal, American life to being treated as the enemy and the outcast simply because of their race, it’s a torture unlike any other; a hateful war crime straight and simple.
With the candidness, comes a naivety and innocence to her upfront honesty depicted during her time as a kid. Children, usually, don’t have a sense of bias. They say things as they see them, fuelled by growing curiosity. While Mrs Houston talks about specific points in her life, her tone sort of moulds to the attitude and persona that she more than likely had during that era. As a kid, she was honest and inquisitive, desperate to understand what was happening and why it was happening. As a teenager, she was rebellious and intensely against being Japanese due to the blatant instances of racism that she faced during a time where she’s supposed to make plans to build her future. As an adult, when she revisits Manzanar many years after the fact, there’s a sadness and longing and a realisation that she faces as she confronts her biggest fears. It provided a great sense of realness to the story, making it that much more forceful and haunting.
Farewell to Manzanar isn’t simply a tale of another Japanese-American who was interned, as I’ve read in some reviews. It is so much more than that. This woman went back to the interment camp that ended up being a home to her for years. A place where her family was ripped apart, emotionally, and psychologically as well as physically, and a place that robbed her of her identity as an individual. She returns, and she faces this place after long time, after fighting the stigma that tried so desperately to hold her down and drown her out. It was heart-breaking, yet simultaneously liberating.
One of the most difficult aspects of severe trauma and abuse, which is what happened with the Japanese-Americans, is to confront it and to accept that it happened. To look back years later and take comfort in the fact of knowing that when it tries to kill you, you kept on going and survived. She survived. She lost so much, and she may have had a completely different life than what she received if she was never interned, but she still survived, and she kept going. I found it to be beautiful, even though it’s so damn sorrowful.
There are a few things to keep in mind while reading this book. Firstly, it’s definitely outdated. I believe it was released in the 1970s, and I could feel how outdated it is by the language usage. A good, simple example of this is how White people are referred to as Caucasians, which is no longer correct. Another example is the fatphobic commentary that she makes once in a while, mostly while she’s an adolescent, and mostly in relevance to her struggles in high school. Secondly, some sections are presented in such a matter-of-fact way that it can heighten or diminish the impact of that scene/situation, depending on what it is. If it diminished the impact, then the actual astonishment of it won’t hit you until a little bit later. At least, that’s what happened with me. When that occurred, I put the book down for brief periods of time and took a break.
Thirdly, it openly talks about how a family was taken apart at the seams. Her father, who was an excellent dad and good husband, as well as successful and admired by many, turns into an abusive alcoholic who struggles so deeply with the sense of humiliation that came with being interned. Her family lost much of their familial values and the essence of what it meant to stick together through the hard times and the good times, which affected her life growing up once they left the camp. The instances of racism are raw and brutal and very difficult to stomach, especially if you are a person of colour who’s been stigmatised for not being White. All of these can be potential triggers. They were for me.
Farewell to Manzanar is an extraordinary book about the dehumanisation of the Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of which were American citizens by birth, by the United States. It’s about loss—loss of family, loss of childhood innocence, loss of identity—and it’s about acceptance and moving forward. I think anyone who has an interest in Japanese history, or this specific part of history, should definitely read this.