On April 30, 1942:
my father and his family lost their freedom upon entry to Tanforan Racetrack, a designated Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, for the wartime removal of Japanese. Arriving by bus, [ . . . ] they were housed in a series of empty horse stalls named Barrack 14. This was just the first stop; from Tanforan they would be transported by train into the Utah desert to live in a concentration camp named Topaz.
So writes Karen Tei Yamashita in Letters to Memory, to be published in September. She tells her family’s story through fragments of letters and diary entries from relatives about internment in the American west during World War II. After the last of those relatives died, Yamashita found a folder containing carbon copies of personal correspondence. The entries are generously supported with her grandmother Tomi’s photos and artwork.
On August 26, 1942, her aunt Kiyo, who was housed with her baby in a converted horse stall, wrote this diary entry about her marriage, the entries giving an intimate look into her mind: ”Today is our second anniversary, and a very disappointing one at that. I should learn by now [ . . . ] not to look forward to any special day, for the disappointment is too great, and the hurt too deep.” Yamashita builds on her aunt’s written disappointment, adding:
Four months previous, Kiyo stood in the rain for several hours with her baby in front of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, waiting with the rest of the Yamashitas, and every other Japanese American in Alameda County, to board buses en route to a “relocation center.”
In preparation, [ . . . ] the entire Yamashita family crowded into the small Parker Street house in those final days to make sure they would evacuate together.”
Letters to Memory is billed as a memoir, but it’s more than that. What sets this book apart is the addition of inventive correspondence between Yamashita and sages of old with the aim of making sense of her relatives’ lives and discovering how their experiences figure into the context of history.
She exchanges thoughts with Homer, Ishi, Vyasa, Ananda, and Qohelet. In an envisioned correspondence with Ishi, she writes of the significance of the written word to her family’s story:
The letters over many years were the necessary fabric that wove the Yamashita family together. They reveal an intense assumption of blood connection and loyalty but also the necessity of making it in the world independently.
Yamashita acknowledges that even with the letters, there is a lot that is unknown and addresses these words to Vyasa:
I am plunged close to the hearts of my folks, the raw stuff, and yet despite the immediacy, so much has gone unexpressed [ . . . ] and all is speculation. There are letters without corresponding replies. There are gaps between paragraphs and sentences. Someone left writing to brew a cup of coffee, to answer the phone, to leave that thought for another day.
She continues to examine her own part in the recording of her family’s history: “I am wary of my propensity for dishonesty or, as you say more kindly, fictionalizing. [ . . . ] I, too, grasp for clarity and simplicity, the simple truth. You shake your head.”
Some Japanese Americans faced a different challenge, unfortunately one that still exists and targets widely diverse peoples. Tom, Yamashita’s uncle, wrote in 1944 about trying to rent an apartment in Chicago where he moved for an engineering job:
The owner was willing and so were the immediate neighbors but one of the influential ladies in that district objected and wouldn’t even give us a chance to talk to her. She has 4 sons in the South Pacific and threatened to get the rest of the neighborhood aroused.
In 1945, Yamashita’s father John, a clergyman, reopened a church as a hostel for returning Japanese Americans. The result?
In the next year and a half, three thousand people would pass through the church into relocated and recuperated lives. In this busy churning of folks there was little time to thank anyone, but perhaps also little will to show gratitude. Mean years had turned people mean; that is also to say terse, speechless, socially closed and, as you can imagine, afraid and mistrusting.
And finally, she has this thought:
I have asked myself why the family saved these letter. You might say that they were historians, that they knew the value of their stories, this proof of their thoughts and actions in unjust and difficult times. [ . . . ] This is what we did. Do not forget us. Please forgive us.
Letters to Memory is not only for history buffs searching out new perspectives, but for anyone wanting to better understand humanity.