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Read all about the adventures of the Tsao Family during the summer of 2012

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Author Highlight: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was the most moving of the four speakers at last Saturday's Festival of Women Authors presented by the Berkeley YWCA.

Wakatsuki Houston is Japanese and lived in Southern California until 1942 when her family was sent to live in the Japanese internment camp Manzanar. She was seven years old at the time. She and her family were detained at Manzanar until their release in 1945.

Wakatsuki Houston told the crowd at the festival that after her family was released, they rarely talked about what had happened to them. She certainly didn’t until twenty five years later when her nephew asked her to share her feelings about her time there. Unable to tell him, she broke down and admitted that it was too painful for her to talk about. She promised him she would write down her experiences about the place where he and six of his cousins were born, the place that Wakatsuki Houston and her family preferred not to talk about.

Wakatsuki Houston then told her husband about her experiences at Manzanar. This was a man with whom she had been together for years, yet she never had shared with him this part of her life. Together they spoke with other family members, many of whom had never openly--or privately--grieved for the years they had taken from them by their internment and the damage done to their psyche because of it. Growing up, Wakatsuki Houston felt it was "not only bad to be Japanese, but criminal."

What came out of countless interviews besides "full bore psychotherapy and a lot of despair" was Wakatsuki Houston's book Farewell to Manzanar, an autobiographical account of her and her family's experiences at Manzanar. This book is now required reading in many California schools.

In 7th grade, my advanced English class read Hiroshima. We discussed how it felt to read a first-hand account of the suffering of people who survived the United State's atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

This was back in the early 1980s, when cold war tension in our country was particularly high. Who would hit the red button first!?! US or THEM!?! Looking back, I think our teacher was trying to present a humanistic side to the idea of nuclear war, although I don't remember her making direct (or indirect) comparisons of the two times in our history.

It wasn't until I was in my twenties, fifteen years later, that I found out about the internment of Japanese Americans here in our own country. This fact wouldn't surprise Wakatsuki Houston. She mentioned that she still gives lectures today to audiences that contain people unaware of the detainment of Japanese Americans on American soil.

Wakatsuki Houston talked about what writers can do: "Speak for others who do not speak; give voice to others who came before us who have no voice." She mentioned that knowledge of what went on at Manzanar, which is now a National Park, is particularly crucial at this time in our history when we are again living in a time of hysteria. She recommends a visit to Manzanar as a sobering experience and a reminder to all of the danger of a barbaric mindset during times of fear.

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