Saturday, October 30, 2010

Topaz

Yesterday at an Open House at an escrow service deep in the suburbs, an overcast day, sad drizzle softening our thoughts, we sat around a table, strangers from other worlds nibbling food and drinking wine, while drowsily droning on about this and that, name-dropping, pontificating, exchanging cards—seeking common ground the way folks do at cocktail parties…

And then—wham—with little by way of segue, we were suddenly onto the Holocaust, the WWII American concentration camps of Manzanar, and Topaz with a real Japanese American survivor. I was wide awake. I remember the desolation of Manzanar in the early 1970s before it was sanitized and upgraded into a national historic monument. No apple orchards—bleakness and fine red dust everywhere like pulverized blood.

I visited Manzanar around the time Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's memoir, Farewell to Manzanar was published (1973), but it was before the TV movie was made (1976). I think excerpts of it were printed in the SF Examiner's California Living. I remember meeting Jeanne later, in the early 1980s when I met with James Houston over some poetry matter when he was teaching at the U of Hawaii.

(I once met a Manzanar survivor in the 1980s when (my then boyfriend) John Oliver Simon's mother, Frances Cassandra Kehrlein Adler, was interviewing him for a newspaper—I  was the photographer. Frances was once the Look Magazine staff writer and photographer, and cousin to Ansel Adams, so the pressure was on. But soon I was entranced by his story of survival. I forgot all about taking photos. Someday, I hope to find that story and his name. It is a story that will have to wait its turn. Meanwhile this is a placeholder.)

Eddie reminded me very much of the Manzanar survivor—at first I thought it was him, but as his story began to unfold, I realized he wasn't the same person. Eddie said though he was born in San Francisco, they were given a hour to evacuate. They took only the clothes on their backs. Their new Chevy sold to a neighbor for $5. They lost everything.

As the afternoon stretched into nightfall, we sat transfixed as Eddie recounted the broken fragments of his life. He said of all the internment camps, Topaz, aka The Central Utah Relocation Center, near Delta, four times the size of Manzanar, was the worst. He was separated from his family, never got to know his little brother.

I had recently read Sandra Dallas' novel Tallgrass where a World War II Japanese internment camp called Amache, near Greneda, Colorado, as told through the eyes of a 13-year-old Caucasian girl, is the centerfold of the story. Eddie told us stories of life at camp—similar to Tallgrass—only this wasn't fiction, this was the real deal. Oral history at its best.

Returning to civilization after the war did not improve the plight of foreign-born Japanese Americans. Eddie told us how the foreign-born Japanese weren't allowed to own land and how they had to set up dummy corporations to own land.

(My grandfather helped Indians "buy" farmland in the Central Valley, we had our own Jahn Singh stories of social injustice.)

One place in San Francisco was "bought" by the YMCA for a Japanese American Club, but later, the YMCA decided to "sell off" the clubhouse—a Julia Morgan building. Eddie's brother knew where the bodies were buried, so to speak, himself dying of cancer, he tracked down the documentation, translated the minutes, and with a lawyer, forced an injunction.

Then he mentioned Cecil Williams and how Cecil's wife, Janice Mirikitani read a poem about the internment camp on Angel Island. The hairs rose on my arms, the room stood still. How small the world, how the stories survive us. I was there. I remember that day. Janice reading to us in the basement of Glide Memorial.


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