Book Spotlight: Journey to Topaz – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Journey to Topaz is a semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the experiences of Yuki Sakane and her family when they are forcibly relocated from their Berkeley, CA home to the concentration camp at Topaz, UT.

What I liked:

  • Uchida’s prose reads very smoothly. The other two camp novels I’ve read thus far, Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, proceeded much more slowly for me. I’m not sure if the difference is solely attributable to Uchida’s writing style, or if I’ve simply become accustomed to reading fiction about the camps. I guess I’ll have to read a fourth camp novel by a different author and see what happens. I don’t remember enjoying Uchida’s prose quite this much when I read her other novels in middle school, but since they’re sitting in my TBR pile, I should be able to do a comparison in a future post.
  • The ending felt much more…honest…than, for example, the ending of Uchida’s The Bracelet, which I wrote about in a previous post. I assume the target audience of each book determined the difference – The Bracelet is a picture book, whereas Journey to Topaz is in a short-chapter format suitable for independent and middle school readers. Although Yuki expresses relief at being released from camp, her trepidation about going to Salt Lake City indicates she is aware their post-camp lives may not be easy. I didn’t see any acknowledgment of the difficulties JA/Nikkei faced in ‘reintegrating’ after the war in The Bracelet, so I’m glad to see it here. Uchida also tailors each character’s closing arc to their circumstances – the uncertainty Yuki’s father expresses about his employment prospects in Salt Lake City, Mrs. Kurihara’s struggle to learn English, and Mr. Toda’s bitterness and resignation at being left behind. It’s important for today’s JA/Nikkei readers to understand the variety of situations in which JA/Nikkei found themselves after the camps closed. Personally, I think I’ll be moving Karen Inouye’s book a little farther up on my TBR, since the unknown fates of Uchida’s characters motivated me to learn more about JA/Nikkei experiences in the immediate postwar years.

What I learned:

  • When I was about halfway through Journey to Topaz, I went to California for a few days to visit Manzanar with my parents. I’ve written about my experiences in this post. During that trip, I learned my grandfather, whom I’d previously been told was incarcerated at Poston, AZ, was actually sent to Tanforan and Topaz, just like the Sakane family. When I returned to Portland and picked up Journey to Topaz again, I felt my relationship to the book should have changed, or had changed, but didn’t know exactly how. After all, my grandfather passed away before I was born and I’ve never spoken to the two uncles who were incarcerated with him, so it wasn’t as if I could compare my family’s experiences with those of the Sakanes. Our Manzanar visit motivated my dad and me to dig into our family history, so maybe one day I’ll read this book with more than a vague feeling of connections lost.
  • In my post on The Bracelet, I critiqued the uncritical portrayal of white people, which I felt erased their complicity in Japanese American incarceration. I still believe my critique is valid, but after reading Journey to Topaz, I wonder if Uchida’s portrayal of white people in The Bracelet was influenced by the support her family received from white friends during their incarceration. I know Journey to Topaz is autobiographical to some extent, but I don’t know if the Sakane family’s friendships with white characters like the Nelsons and Mrs. Jamieson are based on actual white people in Uchida’s life. At any rate, if my assumption is true, I can see why Uchida might focus on positively portraying her white characters.

Questions I had:

  • Uchida primarily uses terms like “internment” and “evacuation” in the book. I also noticed this in Farewell to Manzanar, and in older camp-related works written by JA/Nikkei. As a JA/Nikkei who was never actually incarcerated, I’m certainly not here to police the language my predecessors chose and choose to utilize in describing their own experiences. At the same time, I always wonder if the word choices of older generations have more to do with adapting the language of the times – we know, of course, that white people historically used “internment” and “evacuation” to euphemize the incarceration – than with individual agency. In other words, if those who were incarcerated were asked to decide, on their own terms, how they wanted to describe their experiences, would they still use “internment” or would they choose something like incarceration? At the risk of overgeneralizing – to be honest, I don’t think I am, since I am Japanese, too – the tendency of older generations to use “internment” and other such terms makes sense to me if I interpret it from a Japanese mentality. I don’t just mean 仕方がない (shikata ga nai) and 我慢 (gaman), which, I think, are sometimes utilized in rather reductive ways to describe our community’s response to incarceration – but also the many other terms, ideas, practices, etc., which come together in myriad ways to form our mentalities as Japanese people. It feels like I’m doing a poor job of putting my thought process into words…at any rate, I think fellow JA/Nikkei, maybe especially those who maintain close ties to Japan-based family and friends, will understand what I mean. Somewhere in my TBR, I’m sure there’s a book by a Nikkei writer analyzing the ways in which JA/Nikkei relationships to and understandings of Japan and Japanese culture have changed over time, the scope of which includes such major turning points like incarceration (those who were and weren’t), and the postwar immigrant (Shin) generation(s). Suffice to say, if we hypothesize the nature of the mentalities the Issei/Nisei (the bulk of those who were incarcerated, I believe) grew up with – which should not be wholly conflated with allegiance to Japan – it isn’t hard to see why they might make certain choices regarding terminology and other public-facing forms of memory. Alternatively, if we hypothesize in terms of a bloodline continuum, I could also see formerly incarcerated Issei/Nisei choosing non-euphemistic terms in the present if their Sansei/Yonsei/Gosei descendants encourage them to do so. There are interesting possibilities here for a discussion about the ways Japanese-ness is (re)made outside Japan, by Nikkeijin and Nihonjin of various backgrounds…maybe one of my fellow JA/Nikkei from Twitter will drop me a line and we can talk about it?

Follow-up:

  • I have plenty of Nikkei-written nonfiction about the camps on my TBR, but I’ll have to double-check for any books specifically about Topaz. Ditto for the fiction and memoir sections of my TBR – I’m sure I have at least one or two books written by or about JAs who were incarcerated there.
  • I’d like to visit Topaz one day, with my family…

If any fellow JA/Nikkei reading this have or had family and/or friends incarcerated at Topaz, I would love to chat with you. @ me on Twitter or send me an email!

Advertisements