Q&A With Author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
As we observe the Day of Remembrance, author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston shares a cautionary tale about civil rights
This past February 19 marked a Day of Remembrance, the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which sent more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent to internment camps in the western states.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of the California Reads selected book Farewell to Manzanar (with husband James D. Houston), spoke with Cal Humanities about how the very personal story of her family's life in an internment camp became a cautionary tale about civil rights violations read by hundreds of thousands of students in the United States.
Houston was seven years old in 1942 when her family was uprooted from their home and fishing business in Long Beach, California, and relocated to Manzanar in the foothills of California’s Eastern Sierras, taking only the belongings they could carry. At age 37, Houston came to terms with the experience and wrote about life at Manzanar.
In what ways is your book Farewell to Manzanar a book about democracy?
Farewell to Manzanar is a true story about one family's experience during WWII, told from the perspectives of a child experiencing the event and an adult looking in retrospect and finally understanding the impact it had on her identity as a Japanese-American. The larger picture of this story is the flagrant violation of the United States Constitution—the imprisonment of a group of individuals (120,000, of which 70% were native-born American citizens) because of their race.
Do writers have special roles or responsibilities in democratic societies?
In 1973, I had the idea to write a "family memoir" for my seven nieces and nephews born in Manzanar. As I began, I opened wounds I wasn't aware existed and was unable to follow through. I turned to Jim for assistance. He remarked, "This is not a story just for your family. This is a story every American in this country should know. Let me help you."
What relationship do the literary arts and humanities have to democracy?
Democracy is dependent on the participation of the population. Literary arts and the humanities voice ideals, hopes, thoughts, and creative imagination that can be shared among readers in an inclusive and affordable way. No entry fees—just the ability to read.
What concerns you about the current state and the future of our democracy? What makes you hopeful?
The press and television fueling economic fears—politicians blaming immigrants, migrant workers, and "the other" for job losses and the economic downturn; and the thinking that a military problem overseas spurs economic growth in the U.S.
I am hopeful when I become aware that there are movements and events countering this "scapegoat" thinking. Most inspiring is the fact that a council for the humanities, on a state level, can create and sponsor a program such as California Reads, which furthers reading, enlightens readers, and highlights our libraries as important bastions of cultural knowledge.
Your book raises the questions “Who are We the People? Who is really American?” in relation to the WWII period. Are these questions still relevant today?
Being "American" is not a question of race, tribe, or physical attributes. It is a non-physical identity—a state of mind that values freedom and governance by the people for the people. It values individuality, and hopefully will extend to cultural diversity, making the tapestry of varied cultures in American society a truly American value. Our differences are our strength and our power.
For 2012, the California Reads program is part of our Searching for Democracy initiative. Leading into the 2012 national elections, Searching for Democracy is the culmination of a two year-long initiative that provides Californians with various ways to explore how the humanities can provide insight and opportunities to converse about the nature, state and needs of our vibrant American democracy.
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