‘Nisei Daughter’ bold and truthful, full of historical treasures

Sumi Hayashi July 30, 2014 0

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I first read Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone as a 13-year-old girl. I had come across it while browsing through the stacks at the old Susan Henry Branch of the Seattle Public Library on Capitol Hill. Bill Hosokawa’s landmark book, Nisei, had just come out and because of that title I was able to recognize the spelling of a word I had heard my parents use when they spoke about their generation of Japanese Americans.

In those days no one talked about the World War II experiences of Japanese Americans. The internment was not taught in history classes, and it was rarely talked about by the families who had lived through it. I had grown up hearing my parents tell stories about “camp,” but when I asked them if their camps had been like the summer camps I attended, they would just say, “it wasn’t that kind of camp.”

As I read Nisei Daughter, a memoir written by a Japanese American woman from Seattle, where my parents had also grown up, I came to understand what my parents had experienced as young adults. I recognized that the author had been sent to the same camp where my parents and their families had been sent.

I remember bringing the book home from the library and as I was reading it one day in our living room, suddenly hearing my mom’s voice. “Oh, you’re reading that book,” my mother said, “she was a friend of mine.”

It would be decades before the U.S. government would issue a formal apology and reparations, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans would become something openly talked about and taught in high school courses and books about World War II, yet here was a book that had been published in 1953, telling the story of what it was like to grow up Nisei in Seattle and to have your life disrupted by such inconceivable events. The book was reissued in 1979 with a new preface written by Sone where she talks about the efforts underway to gain redress for the internment.

For the 1979 reissue, Frank Miyamoto wrote an introduction explaining the Japanese American community in Seattle during Sone’s childhood and the “paradox” of Nisei identity faced by Sone’s generation. A newly released 2014 edition includes an introduction by Seattle University Professor Marie Rose Wong, discussing the book’s current place in the Asian American literary canon.

As I re-read the book, I kept thinking about today’s 13-year-olds, and how the book would be read by the children of today’s immigrants from anywhere in the world. No one talks as openly and unself-consciously about race and discrimination as Sone did in the early 1950s. And yet, while her experiences are in some ways clearly from the time period, they also might be something many minority group young people can relate to in a personal way that might not be spoken about out loud anymore.

For example, shortly after high school Sone lived in a sanitorium while she recovered from tuberculosis. While living there she noticed differences in behavior between the Japanese American and non-Japanese American young women who live there with her. “At the sanitarium,” she wrote, “I noticed I was not quite in step with my companions. These discrepancies came as tiny shocks to me, for I had been so sure of my Americanization.”

It was also fun to follow the story’s descriptions of Seattle and what it was like during the period. Sone’s father owned a hotel “on Seattle’s waterfront” (what we would now call Pioneer Square) where the family lived when Sone was a young girl, and she and her brother took classes at Nihon Gakko, the Seattle Japanese Language School that still operates at 14th Avenue and Weller Street. Her descriptions of community picnics at Jefferson Park, solemn ceremonies at the Nippon Kan Hall, and the Mickey Mouse Club at the old Coliseum movie house bring back memories of Seattle in the early to mid-twentieth century.

But the book’s true historical treasures come in the second half of Sone’s book, when she describes the events leading up to and during her community’s removal from Seattle, first to a temporary location (“Camp Harmony”) at the Puyallup fair grounds and then to Minidoka in Idaho. One can read the historical descriptions and see the photos of families making a life in the 20 by 25 foot barracks of the camps, but Sone’s stories bring to life the lives of those internees and the challenges they faced to find comfort and keep their lives moving forward in spite of the circumstances forced onto them.

Nisei Daughter is a book of its time, but it deserves to be read and re-read and considered within changing cultural perspectives and treasured for the voice it gives to a period in American history that still needs to be understood and should never be forgotten.

Pacific Reader 2014:


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