'Bitter Injustice' invites N.H. residents to reflect on the internment of Japanese Americans 80 years ago
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
Public libraries and high schools across New Hampshire have been hosting a series of discussions about this part of our nation's history, called "Bitter Injustice." The last installment of the series is on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Hampstead Public Library.
Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Jamie Ford, author of the novel "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," a book about Japanese internment that's being discussed in the series. He's also been a presenter as part of the Bitter Injustice program. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Rick Ganley: Jamie, your novel, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," tells the story of friends who are separated when one of them, who is Japanese American, is sent to an internment camp. It's been discussed around the state of New Hampshire from Sandown to New Durham. What do you hope that Granite Staters are taking away from reading this?
Jamie Ford: I consider myself not just an author, but someone in the compassion creation business and a book like "Hotel," that educates about a perhaps lesser known chapter of American history, especially when it's studied in a state so far removed from the West Coast, a state that certainly doesn't have an institutional memory of the internment, I hope it's an empathy enlarging experience as well as an educational experience, as well as an entertaining experience.
Rick Ganley: Well, I wanted to ask you about that — the difference in that kind of, long memory of something that happened, as you said, primarily on the West Coast, and attitudes in the East Coast about that, a knowledge of what something that happened 80-something years ago.
Jamie Ford: On the West Coast, the areas that were directly affected by the internment in most of those areas, many of those people are still there. They've returned or their children are there or their grandchildren are there. So there's definitely an institutional memory. There's a resonance in those areas that you just don't have on the other side of the country. I grew up in the Seattle area and I just assumed everyone had a working functional knowledge of the Japanese internment. But on my very first book tour, and granted, this was ten years ago, I did an event in Chicago and a woman came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm a retired high school history teacher. I taught for 30 years and I didn't know this happened." And so it was left out of our history books for a generation. Now, there's been a lot of books. There's graphic novels. George Takei is a vocal advocate for remembering what happened to all of these Japanese Americans. And so I think that working knowledge has spread around the country, but without George, without Daniel James Brown's books, Julie Otsuka's books. It's been a slow going process from the 70s to today, but also within the Japanese American community, the Sansei, the third generation, they're so much more vocal than their grandparents were.
Rick Ganley: I know you presented around New Hampshire recently at the Timberlane Performing Arts Center and the Wright Museum of World War II, both alongside Dr. Monica Chiu from the University of New Hampshire. What were you and Dr. Chiu able to touch on in those those conversations?
Jamie Ford: It's not always that I get to share the stage with an academic and someone that is so well versed in the history as well as connected culturally. What we really wanted to impart was that that there's a difference in culture between Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans. Their process of assimilation from going from immigrants to their children being born here, has slightly different paths. And certainly Japanese Americans, because of World War II, had a traumatic moment in that assimilation process. We really wanted people to have an opportunity to ask questions, honestly. You can read the books, you can form an opinion, but it's really nice to have that dialogue and have that interaction and be able to go a bit deeper.
Rick Ganley: Well, you touched on this earlier, talking about how this time in American history is talked about in American schools. Is it talked about enough?
Jamie Ford: This is something I talk about in my high school visits that I did in Wolfesboro and Plaistow, is I ask all of the kids a question and I ask them to respond vocally. I say "The cotton gin was invented by..." and I pause and they all shout, "Eli Whitney." And that's just one of the things we all remember from middle school, perhaps. And I talk about how if we forget about the inventor of the cotton gin, we're not really diminished as a people. But if we forget that we incarcerated 120,000 people, most of whom were American-born, then we are diminished as a people, in my opinion. So some history is just a little more important than other history. And yet in the history books, sometimes it's all given equal weight.
Rick Ganley: Well, this year is the 80th anniversary of the passage of the Executive Order 9066 that ordered the internment. Why, in your opinion, is it important to keep talking about Japanese American internment during World War Two? And I'm thinking in particular, as we lose more and more of that generation.
Jamie Ford: As we lose the Issei and Nisei generations, that institutional memory goes away and it's up to us to carry on those stories. And when I wrote "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," there was a question in the back of the book and sort of a book study guide. And they asked if I thought something like this could ever happen again. And back in 2006, I said, "No, I think we've learned our lessons as a society. We've moved on." But in the last 10 years, perhaps, we've regressed and become more polarized and things about ethnicity and who gets to be an American, that's all been politicized. Not long after my book came out, there was a book called "In Defense of Internment," and I thought that was just sort of this crackpot book. But you can go to a website and look at the reviews, and there are plenty of people giving that book five-star reviews. So there are people out there that believe the propaganda and they feel threatened by people of color assimilating into our society. The shootings in Buffalo, New York, were racially motivated. Someone, a young, highly influenced, very immature person with weapons taking out that fear and frustration on innocent people. And so I think it's super important that we remember the 360-degree view of our history and not just one angle of perception that can be very closed minded and violent.
Rick Ganley: Let me ask you, why tell the story in the form of a novel?
Jamie Ford: The thing is, nonfiction tells you what happened and fiction tells you how it felt. And I think therein lies the magic of telling very important aspects of our history in fiction, because you invite the readers to step into the shoes of the people that went through this moment in time. And they can feel it. They can see it. And I don't write these books for them to be morality plays. But I do want to recreate that world and invite the readers to see it from the inside out and experience it that way, not just from the outside in. Anything I can do, not just to educate, but create compassion. I think that's an excellent use of my time and I'm using my superpowers for good.