I’m not quite sure what is happening in my head these days. I seem to have developed an irrational fear of a collective forgetting, a fear that once the ageing survivors of national and international atrocities die off, the rest of us will stop remembering, or worse still, start denying. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in camps like Terezin and Salaspils. Or perhaps it goes back even earlier to the realisation that things have happened in my lifetime that I simply wasn’t aware of. Like the last partisan in Lithuania emerging from the woods when I was sixteen.
And then I think of books and authors, and the role they play in keeping this collective memory alive. I’ve just finished Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet and yes, I realise that the operative word here is ‘novel’ – it is a work of fiction but one that is based on real life events in Seattle, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
This heart-rending account of how Japanese Nisei (second-generation) and Issei (first generation) and Sensei (immigrants) were treated as spies, collaborators, saboteurs, and threats to national security under the guise of protecting them from the nationals is beautifully written. That much of the West Coast was declared a military zone; that the Japanese themselves built many of the camps they were housed in; that huge numbers of those interned were second-generation American and didn’t even speak Japanese shows just how far we can be carried along by the tide of mass hysteria and collective frenzy.
On February 19th 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, some 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified their action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown disloyalty to the nation. In some cases family members were separated and put in different camps. During the entire war only ten people were convicted of spying for Japan and these were all Caucasian.
Harrowing accounts of people burning wedding photos and kimonos and anything that might tie them to being Japanese show the lengths we will go to belong. Stories of some Chinese putting their safety on the line to store precious belongings for their Japanese friends or even hide them, as Jews were being hidden in Europe, testify to the ability of friendship to break through bigoted boundaries. These passages resonated all the more given the title of this blog – unpacking my bottom drawer – and the collection that I have amassed over the years that is very much a mirror of my life.Would I willingly destroy it all?
The novel revolves around the friendship between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, their love of jazz, and a discovery at the Panama Hotel. Henry (the Chinese lad) has to wear a badge saying ‘I am Chinese’ in case someone might mistake him for being Japanese. Imagine. Through the reactions of the various random characters that pop up during the days they spend trying to assimilate, man’s inhumanity to man comes to the fore. It doesn’t elbow its way to the front row as happened with, say, the Holocaust, but rather edges its way forward until it is just as pervasive if not nearly as violent. Boycotting of Japanese businesses, refusal to sell to Japanese consumers, general maligning and debasing of their culture and traditions might seem light enough if placed side by side the trainloads of Jews that were being ferried to their death on the far side of the Atlantic. If we are speaking in terms of the numbers affected, the sheer magnitude of the atrocities committed, and the far-reaching effects that are still with us today, there is no comparison. But neither should have happened.
To my shame, I’ve only just gotten an inkling of what went on. When I was doing History at school we alternated between European and American and my year was on the European roster. While I am growing increasingly cynical about the ovine-like minds of the human race, it was a shock to read about the mass hysteria that cost so many people so much. Yet we saw the same in the 1960s in the UK where every Irish accent heralded a potential terrorist. We see the same now with Muslims where every hijab masks a potential suicide bomber. I’m just back from Ireland, sickened by accounts from black taxi drivers of how the Irish (my people) openly scorn them and refuse to get into their cabs. This blanket painting of peoples as one collective image is keeping me awake at night. Literally.
The subtle treatment of the Japanese love of swing jazz is woven into the reaction of Black America to what was going on. Whether or not jazz legend Oscar Holden was in fact blacklisted from Jazz Clubs in Seattle for his outspoken protest against what was happening is something I can’t verify. I’d like to think it was true, though. It would go some part way to restoring my faith in human nature.
The Panama Hotel in Seattle is now on my list of places to visit (to think that I lived in the vicinity for the bones of a year and didn’t know of any of this is disheartening). Jamie Ford is on my list of authors to watch. And the victims of this hysteria have been added to my list of those not to be forgotten.