Book Spotlight: Farewell to Manzanar – Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Farewell to Manzanar recounts the experiences of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her family during their incarceration in the Manzanar concentration camp.

What I liked:

  • I first read Farewell to Manzanar when I was in grade school. My recollection is very fuzzy, but I remember finding it super boring. I may even have DNFed* it because I have no memory of reading the second half of the book. I’m happy to report it was much more interesting the second time around, probably because I’m older and know more about JA incarceration now.
  • I appreciate Houston’s decision to share her story. The camps were and are a sensitive topic in the JA community, and not everyone agrees about whether or how these experiences should be shared. I wonder what kind of responses Houston has received from JA readers over the years. In the afterword, the authors tell us responses have varied over time, but they don’t specifically detail how the JA community, especially different generations, have reacted to the story. I also wonder what postwar Japanese immigrants with no personal ties to the camps think of the story. I suppose I could ask my mom, but I doubt she’s read the book.
  • Houston’s first-person descriptions of camp life and how her family members, especially her father, responded to incarceration, are a deeply personal window into this era of Japanese American history. Although I’m sure Houston omitted or changed certain things to protect her privacy, the overall story felt much grittier and more painful than, for example, Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower. I don’t know enough about the creative processes behind either Houston’s or Kadohata’s book to attribute the difference solely to Houston’s book being a product of personal experience while Kadohata’s is not – I would imagine there are many more reasons contributing to the differences between the books – but I do wonder if the ‘less censored’ feel I get from reading Houston’s book has to do with it being a firsthand account. In other words, Houston didn’t need to imagine the difficulties of camp life because she experienced them and knew exactly how it felt. As fellow JA/Nikkei readers may note, Kadohata’s comparatively “restrained” approach to depicting camp life seems to engage with the value we (as Japanese people) place on the relationship between personal familiarity and use of familiar language. Personally, I would be rather taken aback if Sumiko (Kadohata’s POV character) was presented through a lens as intimate as what we see in Farewell to Manzanar, since, as far as I know, Sumiko’s fictional experiences are not based on Kadohata’s personal life. I imagine this may sound like splitting hairs to outsiders, but I think my fellow JA/Nikkeijin will understand the importance of the distinction I’m trying to make here. Keeping these points in mind, I’ll be paying close attention to first- versus secondhand accounts of camp life in the Nikkei books I read next.
  • Several times in the text, Houston compares Ko to samurai. Each time I wondered how the cultural conflicts experienced by Japanese immigrants (whether Issei or the more recent Shin-Issei) compared with the conflicts experienced by Nihonjin as more aspects of Eurocentric cultures found their way to Japan. I’ve found academic texts by Japanese/Nikkei writers which tackle each of these topics independently, but I’ve yet to find a work which considers these processes from a comparative perspective. Obviously, many differences exist in what was (and is) experienced by Nihonjin versus Nikkeijin with regard to Eurocentric influences, but since neither group exists wholly apart from the other, I’d be very interested in what Japanese/Nikkei scholars have made of these contemporaneous issues.**

What I learned:

  • According to the information provided at the end of the book, the Houstons didn’t originally conceive of Farewell to Manzanar as a children’s book. I wonder if this is part of why I found it so boring as a kid. At any rate, I do think US students, especially Japanese American students, should be educated about JA incarceration as part of the required curriculum. Given that the JA community has produced a ton of material about the camps, if I was an educator I would probably teach Farewell to Manzanar in conversation with other works, including multimedia works, to make the information more accessible to students. As I explain below, I don’t think Farewell to Manzanar should be students’ ONLY classroom exposure to JA incarceration because the text contains a number of issues which, if not critically examined and refuted, might lead to misguided perceptions of how World War II impacted the JA community.

Questions I had:

  • I wonder if the Japanese translation of Farewell to Manzanar has a wide readership in Japan. Based on my personal experiences, Nihonjin don’t generally know much about JA incarceration, so I’d be curious to know by what avenues Nihonjin have come to this book.
  • Houston utilizes terms such as “Oriental” and “Caucasian” throughout the text. There are occasional uses of the words “Asian” and “white,” but overall many more uses of Oriental and Caucasian. I’m well aware these terms would have been widely used by older Asian Americans, but given Farewell to Manzanar’s continuing circulation in contemporary classrooms, I think it would be highly advisable to include a note at the beginning or end of the text on the relative obsolescence of these terms among today’s Asian Americans. It would be unfortunate for students to believe it is still acceptable to refer to Asians as “Orientals” simply because it is never refuted or questioned in the text. I also noticed multiple editions of the book have been published since its original release in 1972 – do any of the other editions include an explanation/critique of the language used in the text? I find it odd the authors/publishing team saw fit to update the afterword with references to 9/11 and Islamophobia, but didn’t see the problem with leaving words like “Oriental” unchallenged.
  • “American” is used interchangeably with “white” and “Eurocentric” many times in the text. I noticed this especially in the final few chapters, when Houston discusses her struggles to reconcile her family’s Japanese values with what she describes as “American” culture. I don’t have an issue with Houston making this association as a child, of course – I’m sure many JAs/other POC have done this and continue to do so – but I do think it should be challenged in the author’s note. The US education system already reinforces the fiction of American = white in many ways, and students reading Farewell to Manzanar will absorb this fiction yet again if no one contradicts it. I also think a critical analysis of Houston’s use of “American,” as well as similar instances in other texts, is a useful introductory point for teaching students about settler colonialism. From my own conversations with fellow JAs, it seems not many often consider how the US is a settler colonialist nation/state. I think Japanese American students in particular should learn to be conscious of how we benefit from and participate in settler colonialism specifically, since most of the critical discussions I see in our community spaces seem to center on unpacking our complicity in the model minority myth.*** For example, the camps are often described as being in “middle-of-nowhere” type locations, which seems to indicate the lack of a human presence and erases the indigenous peoples who occupied (and continue to occupy) these spaces long before settlers came along with their colonialist notions of what is or isn’t “nowhere.”
  • Houston chooses to use terms such as, “internment” and “evacuation” – I don’t know whose decision this was, or if it was ever challenged, but as I’ll explain at length in an upcoming post about Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz, I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to learn this is Houston’s own word choice. That said, I do think the author’s note should include an explanation distinguishing the reasons formerly incarcerated JA/Nikkei might use “internment” from the problems arising when non-incarcerated JA/Nikkei and non-Japanese people try to euphemize history by using such terms. Just as terms such as genocide and settler colonialism should not be skipped over when teaching students about the ongoing violence toward and displacement of indigenous peoples on this continent, so too should Japanese American incarceration be named for what it was.
  • How much of the actual writing is in Houston’s own words? What exactly was her husband’s role in crafting the book? The afterword notes how the story began as a series of tape recordings of Jeanne recounting her experiences to her husband, but what happened after that? To be clear, I am not criticizing Houston’s decision to co-write the book with her husband. Between the story and the afterword, it seems Houston spent many years coming to terms with her experiences, and in deciding even to share her story, she took a step many camp survivors chose not to. It seems natural she would enlist the support of someone close to her in taking on what was likely a stressful project. I do, however, feel it’s equally important for readers to know whether any of the content being presented is through a white lens. Although Farewell to Manzanar is often touted as a “true” story and a firsthand account, I feel a book with such a wide readership inside and outside classrooms should contain a more transparent explanation of its creation.

Follow-up:

  • Houston has also written a novel, The Legend of Fire Horse Woman, which I forgot about until I saw it mentioned in the interview at the end of the book. As far as I know, the novel is her work alone, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how her writing style changes when she isn’t working with her husband.

*DNF = did not finish.

**I couldn’t think of a word which would reflect the non-contemporaneous aspects of this, namely that Eurocentric cultures were, as far as I know, having significant impacts on Nihonjin long before any JA/Nikkei communities were firmly established in Euro/white-dominant countries.

***Of course, the model minority myth is an important issue for the JA community to address, but even a discussion of model minority is incomplete without unpacking its connections to settler colonialism.

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