This year marks the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
New Hampshire public libraries and high schools have hosted a series of talks about this part of our country’s history called “Bitter Injustice.” The final episode of the series is Tuesdays 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 featured in the series. He was also a presenter on the program Bitter Injustice. 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 a camp of internment. It’s been talked about across the state of New Hampshire, from Sandown to New Durham. What do you hope Granite Staters take away from this reading?
Jamie Ford: I see myself not just as an author, but as someone in the business of creating compassion and a book like “Hotel,” which tells about a perhaps lesser-known chapter in American history, especially when studied in a state so far off the west coast, a state that certainly has no institutional memory of internment, hopefully it’s an empathy-expanding experience as well an educational experience, as well as an entertaining experience.
RG: Well, I wanted to ask you about that — the difference in that kind of, long memory of something that happened, as you said, mostly on the west coast, and the attitudes on the coast is about it, a knowledge of what something happened 80 years ago.
JF: On the west coast, the areas that were directly affected by the internment in most of those areas, a lot of those people are still there. They came back or their children are there or their grandchildren are there. There is therefore 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 assumed everyone had a working knowledge of Japanese internment. But on my very first book tour, and okay, that was ten years ago, I had an event in Chicago and a woman came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m retired high school history teacher. I taught for 30 years and I had no idea this had happened. And so he was omitted from our history books for a generation. Now there have been many books. There are graphic novels. George Takei is an ardent defender of the memory of what happened to all those Japanese Americans. And so I think the know-how spread across the country, but without George, without Daniel James Brown’s books, Julie Otsuka’s books. It’s been a slow process from the ’70s to now, but also within the Japanese-American community, the Sansei, the third generation, they’re so much louder than their grandparents.
RG: I know you recently presented in New Hampshire at the Timberlane Performing Arts Center and the Wright Museum of World War II, both alongside Dr. Monica Chiu of the University of New Hampshire. What did you and Dr. Chiu bring up in those conversations?
JF: It’s not always that I share the stage with an academic and someone who is so knowledgeable in history, as well as culturally connected. What we really wanted to convey is that there is a cultural difference between Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans. Their process of assimilation, from immigrants to their children born here, follows slightly different paths. And certainly Japanese Americans, because of World War II, had a traumatic time in this process of assimilation. We really wanted people to have the 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 to have that interaction and to be able to go a little deeper.
RG: Well, you talked about that earlier, talking about how this period of American history is talked about in American schools. Are we talking about it enough?
JF: It’s something that I talk about on my high school visits that I’ve done in Wolfesboro and Plaistow is that I ask all the kids a question and have them 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 college, maybe. And I’m talking about the fact that if we forget 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 born in the United States, then we are diminished as a people, in my opinion. So one part of the story is just a bit more important than another story. And yet, in the history books, all of this sometimes carries the same weight.
RG: Well, this year is the 80th anniversary of the passing of Executive Order 9066 which ordered internment. Why do you think it is important to continue talking about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? And I think in particular, as we lose more and more of this generation.
JF: As we lose the Issei and Nisei generations, that institutional memory goes and it’s up to us to perpetuate those stories. And when I wrote “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” there was a question at the end of the book and a kind of book study guide. And they asked me if I thought something like this could happen again. And in 2006, I said, “No, I think we’ve learned our lessons as a society. We have evolved. But over the last 10 years, maybe, we’ve regressed and become more polarized and things about ethnicity and who becomes American, it’s all been politicized. Shortly after my book came out, there was a book called “In Defense of Internment”, and I thought it was just some kind of weirdo book. But you can go to a website and check the reviews, and there are a lot of people giving this book five star reviews. So there are people who believe the propaganda and feel threatened by people of color who assimilate into our society. The shootings in Buffalo, New York, were racially motivated. Someone, a young, very influenced, very immature person with weapons that take out that fear and that frustration on innocent people. And so I think it’s super important that we remember the 360-degree view of our story and not just one angle of perception that can be very closed-minded and violent.
RG: Let me ask you, why tell the story in the form of a novel?
JF: The thing is, non-fiction tells you what happened and fiction tells you what you felt. And I think that’s where the magic lies in telling very important aspects of our history in fiction, because you invite readers to put themselves in the shoes of the people who went through this moment. And they can feel it. They can see it. And I don’t write these books to be morality plays. But I want to recreate that world and invite readers to see it from the inside and experience it that way, not just from the outside in. Anything I can do, not just to educate, but to create compassion. I think it’s a great use of my time and I’m using my superpowers for good.
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