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07 July 2012 @ 08:48 pm
Kimi Cunningham Grant's Silver Like Dust: One Family's Story of America's Japanese Internment (Pegasus Books, 2011) is about the author's grandmother, framed thoughtfully by the story of how the author went about collecting stories from her Obaachan over a series of visits.

I have not read too widely in Japanese American internment literature and history though I understand that it is a key historical moment for Asian Americans and for the field of Asian American Studies. What I have read is mostly the short stories (Hisaye Yamamoto) and poetry (Lawson Inada, Mitsuye Yamada) by survivors of the war imprisonment camps--the writing that forms a core of the Asian American literary canon. There are many wonderful historical studies of the camps, too, that explore different facets of Japanese American experience during the war.

Grant's book is interesting to me because it is first and foremost a family memoir. It is the story of a hapa granddaughter, a young woman in her early twenties who grew up mostly disconnected from a strong sense of her Japanese American identity in small town Pennsylvania where she was one of a handful of non-white people along with her mother and brother. The journey that Grant undertakes in interviewing Obaachan, then, is as much about discovering this aspect of her racial and cultural identity that she had not given much thought to as a child. There is a tension here between reclaiming a racial identity that is biologically rooted--inheritable--and holding to a more individualistic sense of identity. Even as Grant names certain traits of her Obaachan as decidedly Japanese, even as Obaachan herself does so (for example in the discussion of the concept of shikataganai, a Japanese sense of fatalism), Grant acknowledges that there are contradictions to these expressions of cultural sensibilities as with the no-no boys who did not accept things as they were in the camps and refused to swear allegiance to the United States.

Another aspect of the book that I found intriguing was the exploration of intergenerational connections and disconnections, something that I know others have considered with respect to internment. The silence of the interned generations has a ripple effect to the children of those internees and then to the grandchildren. Grant's book begins in the prologue with an explanation of how Grant herself first heard about her maternal grandparents' imprisonment for being Japanese. Her mother whispers it to her, almost as a confession, as something shameful and not to be discussed. It is clear in the book, too, that Grant's mother has not heard much about Obaachan's experience in the camps nor has asked her for those stories. Grant's distance--in time, in generation, in racial identity--seems necessary for uncovering those stories. And even then, as Grant chronicles in the book, her grandmother remains reticent about much of her experience.

Grant tells the story of internment quite thoroughly, moving from the bombing at Pearl Harbor to the immediate aftermath, initial relocation to holding centers, transfer to the war relocation centers, and then the dispersal of Japanese American families around the country after the war. What makes Grant's discussion distinct from most historical accounts is the focus on the details of her family's experience and particularly the experience of Obaachan. Grant shifts narrative voice from her own perspective as the granddaughter seeking stories of imprisonment from her grandmother to passages that read more like an intimate biography of her grandmother's past. In these latter passages, she explores the feelings and perceptions of her grandmother of all the key aspects of the internment, from the dispossession of her childhood home to the train journey across the continent and more.

A few of the details that I found especially interesting were:
  • Obaachan made frequent use of the library at Heart Mountain, which apparently had a fairly well-stocked collection of books. I'd love to read more about the history of libraries in the camps--how they came to be, who ran them, what they offered the internees, etc.
  • With the birth of her first child, Obaachan received a care package from Quakers in Philadelphia. Grant notes that they have not been able to track down which organization was responsible for sending this care packages to newborns and their parents in the camps. Again, it would be a wonderful research project to find out who these Quakers were and how they came to create these packages.
  • Grant mentions briefly that some Japanese from Latin America were sent up to Crystal City, Texas, to be imprisoned or traded for American POW. I feel like I've only heard mention of this particular group of Japanese Latin Americans, and I am curious to read more about their experiences.
For all of the focus on telling this broader history, Grant's narrative is still deliberately and thoughtfully constructed. At times, I felt like I was reading a mystery of sorts. The pacing of the chapters lends itself to that feeling of suspense and revelation, of questions that resonate for pages until the grandmother finally reveals some previously hidden information.
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