Poetry in History: Japanese American Internment

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts.  For each post in the series, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and  conclude with an idea that we hope will provoke you to respond.  Today’s post centers around the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

We’ve all seen the photographs: bleak desert landscapes, makeshift barracks, endless stretches of barbed wire fence.  We’ve heard the euphemisms: “relocation,” “evacuation,” and “evacuees,” put into circulation by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and the infamous public notices that appeared shortly afterward, stapled to telephone poles and pasted in store front windows addressed “TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY.”  For the Japanese American, Asian American — any American, really, regardless of “ANCESTRY” — what are we to make of this moment in our nation’s history, when approximately 110,000 men, women, and children were robbed of their rights, property, and due process of the law in the name of “national security”?

In an era of liberal personhood, when most — but certainly not all, recent legislation in Arizona being a case in point — citizens of the United States enjoy relative protection under the law, how are we to respond to the egregious moment in 1942 when crowds of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were herded onto fairgrounds, relegated to horse stalls and racetracks, and “relocated” to barbed-wire compounds and hastily constructed prison barracks throughout the nation?  And all this, in response to sentiment like that expressed by columnist Henry McLemore: “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don’t mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room in the badlands… Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

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Editors’ Picks: “My Issei Parents… Now I Hear Them”

I was browsing the American Literary History Journal the other day and came across Corinne E. Blackmer’s “Writing Poetry like a ‘Woman’.”   In it, I found this observation on the subject of writing by incarcerated Japanese American women during World War II:

The experience of these [internment] camps radically affected the writing of issei and nisei women poets.  Before the war, issei values of feminine propriety confined women to the household and prohibited public discourse; the experience of the camps, however, blurred men and women into a shared common world. (134)

Though Blackmer makes an interesting claim about the impact of changed spatial and social relations on “the writing of issei and nisei women poets,” I was most intrigued by the mere existence of the term “issei and nisei women poets.”  I was struck for two reasons.  First, I realized that I know virtually nothing of “issei and nisei women poets,”  nor of the writing they did before or after the war.  Second, to see the phrase “the writing of issei and nisei women poets” in print, in an academic literary journal, was shocking.  I had never thought of “the issei poet,” or “the nisei poet” as real figures in the history of American literature though I had certainly wondered what they might say.  It goes without saying that this realization has prompted me to search out some of these key figures.

Mitsuye Yamada, who wrote the book Camp Notes and Other Poems (Shameless Hussy Press, 1976),* during and shortly after the internment, is one of the poets mentioned in Blackmer’s article, whose voice comes to the reader with great force and a radical vision.  In the poem “Neutralize” she writes:

white floors walls ceiling white
white chairs tables sink white
only when I close my eyes do I see
beyond the white windowless walls

The poem, which opens with an epigraph stating “poetry… / has been my spiritual guide / throughout my incarceration,” details the speaker’s resistance to an outside “They’s” attempt to “kill / the sentient being in me,” that is, the seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing self.  Her strong and forceful diction, repetition of the word “white,” and conflation of objects, surfaces, and imagined/actual realities makes for a compelling first encounter with a group of writers with whom I am only just becoming acquainted.

One of Yamada’s earlier poems from Camp Notes, which I also found compelling, constructs an issei voice through the use of fragmented, non-standard English free verse.  I found this gratifying because this mode validates some of my own experiments with Japanese American “dialect” or “accented” writing.  An excerpt from “Marriage Was a Foreign Country”:

When we land the boat full
of new brides
lean over railing
with wrinkled glossy pictures
they hold inside hand
like this
so excited
down there a dock full of men
they do same thing
hold pictures
look up and down
like this
they find faces to
match pictures.

In this poem, the speaker’s gaze is turned forward toward a future in America, a country as foreign to the new bride as that of marriage (as indicated by the title).  The speaker, freshly delivered to an alien shore and tinged by her departure from Japan, brings with her the language of a person newly acquiring a foreign tongue.  Returning to this voice, or listening to the traces of it embdedded still in the Japanese American community, is a curious reversal of history and generational assimilation, and therefore one I find tremendously interesting.

I appreciate Yamada’s poem because it does for me something that I am unable to do for myself: imagine what a voice shrouded by time and, to a certain extent, cultural taboo (as many Japanese Americans have, through the generations after WWII, worked to shed their accents and mother tongue), might sound like.  Because much of Japanese America’s history has been an effort to make the assertion that “I am an American” (as seen in the Dorothea Lange photograph below), to evoke a “non-American,” or non-standard English voice is a risky move.  As always, more to come…

Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of The Bancroft Library. "Following evacuation orders, this store, at 13th and Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner... placed the I AM AN AMERICAN sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor."


* Now available as Camp Notes and Other Writings (Rutgers University Press, 1998)