Finding Inspiration in Internment History

Finding Inspiration in Internment History

Posted on May 2 by Leslie Shimotakahara in News
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Part of my novel, After the Bloom, is set in a decrepit boarding house in the Bloor/Lansdowne neighbourhood of Toronto. This house is inspired by an actual house I visited with my father a number of years ago – the house where he grew up. He lived there during the postwar era, after his family had been released from Japanese internment camps on the west coast (my grandmother was interned in Minidoka, Idaho, and my grandfather in Kaslo, B.C.). Along with my great-grandfather, who’d saved some money by working as a doctor in one of the camps, they migrated eastward and ended up in Toronto, where they scraped together a down payment on a tumbledown Edwardian house, large enough to take in boarders.

"This was where my ancestors had tried to salvage and rebuild their wrecked lives."

Standing on the sidewalk and staring up at this house, on St. Clarens Avenue, my father and I lapsed into silence. Memories of the past, some of which I could only guess at, weighed heavily in the air between us. At some point, the owner – a grey-haired woman in a flowered housedress – came out to chat and invited us inside, upon learning that my father had once lived there. I remember being struck by the narrowness of the hallway, and staring up the curved banister to the shadowy upper floors. This was where my ancestors had tried to salvage and rebuild their wrecked lives. As I stood in the dark space and examined the faded, peeling wallpaper, something quivered to life in my imagination.    

In the following weeks and months, I found myself increasingly fascinated by Japanese internment history. The internment had haunted my imagination since childhood, when some relatives spoke openly about the injustice they’d endured and others kept silent, immersed in shame and secrecy. I’d long wanted to write a novel about that turbulent time, but it wasn’t until visiting my father’s childhood home that distinct characters and narratives began to come into focus. I’d heard that before the war, my grandmother had competed in the Cherry Blossom Pageant, an ethnic beauty pageant for girls of Japanese descent. How had she gone from being that spirited young woman to the old person I knew as my grandmother, prone to stammering fits and dissociative spells whenever anyone asked her about the past? An image of a wilted flower flitted into my mind, perhaps because her longtime hobby had been ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement).

Archive fever took over. I read several books on the Japanese-Canadian and Japanese-American internments. Dorothea Lange’s documentary photography proved particularly inspirational. Although initially hired by the American government, Lange didn’t provide the sanitized view of the camps that the government expected. In fact, her photographs invariably reflected a critical perspective: long lines of people waiting outside in the blazing sun; filthy horse stalls where some had to sleep; the anxious faces of children looking away from the camera. That incidents of violent resistance – most notably, the Manzanar Riot – had occurred under these conditions isn’t surprising. The camp where my protagonist, Lily, had been interned began to take shape in my imagination, as I thought about how she might meet a rabble-rouser, fall in love, and forge a survival strategy in this bleak, dangerous environment.