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“Fear Itself,” a short story by Hana Chittenden Maruyama, illuminates the intergenerational trauma(s) of camp history in Japanese American communities by alternating the memories of an incarcerated twelve-year-old girl with the post-9/11 reflections of her grandchild.
What I liked:
- I bookmarked this story some months ago and forgot about it until a slow moment at work. When I finally hunted it out (note to self: reorganize bookmarks) and started reading, I got all the way to the end before remembering I had a job to do because THIS AUTHOR GETS IT. I’m not sure if this is what other readers mean when they talk about seeing themselves in a story, or feeling seen by a story, but I connected at a heartfelt level with Maruyama’s work and I highly recommend it to any fellow JA/Nikkei if the camps are part of your family’s history.
- Reading the first paragraph, I definitely thought the story was historical fiction in the tradition of Weedflower or Farewell to Manzanar, and it was a pleasant “gotcha” when I hit the second paragraph and realized some type of cross-generational dialogue was about to take place. I have nothing against historical fiction, but as someone who often contemplates the different ways historical silence has shaped JA/Nikkei spaces and experiences, as well as how we as individuals and as a community can have these conversations before it’s too late, I’m especially excited whenever I come across a fellow JA/Nikkei writer who appears to be considering similar questions.
- Maruyama pulls no punches when it comes to articulating the emotional and mental tolls of incarceration on her characters. According to one of her tweets, the story is based on her grandmother’s experiences, which, at least to me, explains the rawness of the emotions on the page. It’s difficult to put this next point into words, but I’d say the personal nature of the narrative also comes through in the Japanese-ness of her character portrayals. Lines spoken by Kiyo and Fudeko as they recall their experiences are straightforward and spare, with no sense of embellishment on behalf of the reader. Any fellow JA/Nikkei who have heard older JA relatives speaking English probably have an idea of what I mean.* In fact, I found myself thinking Maruyama’s style is very similar to my own when I try to write about (or around) the camps in my fiction.
- A few times in the text, I wondered how Maruyama managed to write exactly what I’ve thought or felt about the camps and JA/Nikkei history any number of times, so I’ve decided to highlight them here. From paragraph four: “[…] a line firmly drawn by all that has gone unsaid.” This line is extremely relatable to my own family history, especially considering I have no memory of ever speaking to those surviving relatives who were formerly incarcerated. From paragraph six: “Instead we read the stories others set loose, and over time those stories have become our own.” Here, I was like, ‘Maruyama, are you WATCHING me?!’ But seriously, this is very much a part of what I’ve been doing with my attempt to read more JA/Nikkei literature over the past few years. I also considered it in relation to Nikkei perspectives on Japanese/homeland culture, specifically regarding Nikkei consumption of anime/manga and Nikkei retellings/recreations of Japanese mythology in books and other media. (I realize this latter bit is probably completely out of context relative to what Maruyama intended, but that’s how my mind works.)
- Kats! Haha. Bilingual JA/Nikkei who remember being bewildered by this phenomenon when you first witnessed it in your own family, join me for a laugh.
- Yay Kiyo and his friends for disrupting the pledge! I could see that scene making it into a picture book. I wonder if Maruyama is familiar with the Ken Mochizuki/Dom Lee collaborations.
- The excerpts from the family’s incarceration records instantly reminded me of the records my dad looked up and sent to me about my grandfather. We also viewed them together after returning from the Manzanar pilgrimage last April. Did Maruyama include them in a nod to JA readers, or for some other reason?
- Once or twice while reading, I lost track of whose perspective was on the page and had to backtrack a little. This is probably only because I was reading quickly out of excitement, but in retrospect I wonder if Maruyama also intended for there to be blurred lines to some extent. I tend to dislike narrative ambiguity, but in this case I think it works for the story by emphasizing how camp history impacts multiple generations in our community, and how familial bonds might simultaneously intensify and relieve the shared trauma.
What I learned:
- Were high school students really recruited to build barracks? This is the first I’ve heard of such a thing, but it just reminds me I need to read some long-form nonfiction on the camps themselves, not just fiction, memoirs, and short pieces.
- Was the Kiyokazu/Seiichi mix-up a common phenomenon during immigration? I was recently talking to my mom about why Japanese media writes even the all-Japanese names of Nikkeijin in katakana (if you guessed Ishiguro, congrats), and of course it was an “oh, duh!” moment when she explained about not knowing the correct kanji or hiragana. I wonder if there’s a JA/Nikkei-written book about the translation and evolution of Japanese names in diaspora spaces, with everything from the katakana thing to people altering/anglicizing their names for various reasons…and how such changes might be viewed in relation to how Nihonjin use katakana and non-Japanese words (especially English) for completely different reasons.
Questions I had:
- If any Muslims and/or Middle Eastern people read this story, what did they think of the 9/11 reference toward the end? Personally, though I agree the JA community has absolute reason to speak against and oppose any kind of ‘camps’ targeting Muslim communities, I felt the insertion, coming as it did so late in the story, to be slightly gratuitous. I would have preferred if the final lines of the story provided a more definitive tie-in between JA history and the Muslim community’s present/possible future, rather than seemingly cycling back to an introspective moment on the narrator’s part. I almost wonder if the insertion was done at an editor’s request, or perhaps as a last-minute decision by Maruyama without taking the time to more thoroughly integrate it into the larger narrative. At any rate, I hope any Muslim and/or Middle Eastern readers who did read the story were not hurt by it.
- Is Maruyama planning to write a longer piece on JA history? I would love to read a novel or novella expanding on the characters and experiences chronicled in “Fear Itself.”
- Apparently I’m just thinking a lot about silence now, but seeing as the other half of my lineage is Nihonjin/Shin-Nikkei, I wonder if any Japanese writers of any background have produced or considered a book about the silences between Nikkeijin and Nihonjin regarding not only the war,** which would surely be a focal point, but also notions of immigration, departures, diaspora, authenticity, language, etc. I have various books about Nikkei history and experiences on my TBR, but I don’t recall any of them having a particular focus on silence and what it means specifically in the context of being Japanese. Maybe such a book is untenable as a concept – it seems to me, though, that I can’t be the only JA/Nikkei who has ever experienced the many ways Japanese people utilize silence to define community boundaries. If this book doesn’t exist yet, a Japanese writer better jump on it before some non-Japanese person tries to twist it into yet another ‘look how quirky/exotic/fascinating Japanese culture is’ take because fuck that. Instead, I would love to read a collaborative work by Japanese writers of diverse backgrounds, through which process our communities find more inclusive ways of understanding each other’s Japanese-ness.
- I need to try sukiyaki with daikon oroshi on top!
*It’s not an accent, exactly, but rather a direct, efficient use of words. I didn’t even realize there was a ‘JA English’ (distinct from the English spoken by Shin-Nikkei or Nihonjin) until a white (former) friend made fun of the way I spoke and I figured out it was because I learned English from my dad, who grew up in one of these older JA households.
**I guess another way to think of this hypothetical book is as a logical expansion of Akiko Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat, which I greatly admired for its astute meditations on topics often left unspoken or glossed over in Japanese spaces.