Moving beyond Manzanar. Japanese-American author heals old wounds, sheds new light
New York — When Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was eight and attending school in Santa Monica, Calif., she and her parents, along with 110,000 other Japanese Americans, were uprooted and moved to an interior internment camp called Manzanar. They lived there in army-style barracks from March 1942 to September 1945. ``I said, `Mama, why are we in this place?' '' Mrs. Houston recalls. ``The only answer she gave me was `because we are Japanese.' So after that I felt it was almost a crime to be Japanese. I internalized that feeling of guilt, and like most of those interned people I suppressed the experience both mentally and emotionally for over 25 years. But it was a burden to me and I found it hampering.''
It wasn't until 1971, Jeanne Houston noted in New York recently, that she felt an overwhelming need to examine what had happened to her and her family during the war. She had, in the meantime, taken a degree in Social Welfare from San Jose State College, worked in her field for a few years, married writer James D. Houston in 1957, and became the mother of three children. The family (the children are almost grown) lives today in a big Victorian house in Santa Cruz, Calif., where both Mrs. Houston and her husband do their research and writing.
She felt ready by then to face the full meaning of what had occurred during the internment and to write and talk about it. With her husband as co-author, she produced the book ``Farewell to Manzanar,'' which was published in 1973 by Houghton Mifflin, and is now in its sixteenth printing in paperback by Bantam Books. The book is written in the first person, told from her point of view as a young girl living through the experience, but with the added perspective of an adult looking back.
``What I finally saw, with some objectivity, was that I was dealing with an American issue, not just a Japanese- American issue. This World War II period was the first time in our history that all three branches of the government were in collusion to violate our Constitution,'' she says.
``But for us not to forget it and have it happen again, I decided I must expose this thing that had caused such great humiliation. No one likes to talk about their victimization because of racism. On the other hand, our Japanese forefathers, like those from Europe, came here because America was supposed to be free, a champion of human rights. And, for a time, those rights were violated. I found that many people do not, and did not, know much about that time, that part of our history.''
In 1974, she and her husband scripted the book's prizewinning film adaptation for NBC, a film cited for its ``display of humanitarian values.''
Writing the book and the film script, she says, was a healing experience, through which she overcame her sense of unworthiness as related to both the internment experience and to being a minority American. ``I had worked out my own inner farewell to Manzanar and could move on in freedom,'' she says, with the poise of a woman who has found both peace and purpose.
With her husband, she also wrote two more dramatic scripts for television. With Paul Hensler she co-authored ``Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder,'' a book published by Doubleday about Mr. Hensler's three years as a soldier in Vietnam working in a makeshift orphanage for abandoned children of GI fathers and Vietnamese mothers.
Since 1976, Mrs. Houston has written numerous essays, articles, and reviews, many of which will be included in her third book, ``Beyond Manzanar: Views of Asian American Womanhood,'' to be published this year by Capra Press of Santa Barbara, Calif.
She has also compiled an oral history of Japanese women who emigrated to the US between 1920 and 1925 as ``picture brides'' and were matched by photographs to single Japanese men who had come to America earlier. ``Picture Bride,'' a novel now in progress, follows two such women, pioneers in their own way, who came to California and contributed their own important chapter to the settlement of Western America.
In New York City, Mrs. Houston recently received a Wonder Woman Foundation award in the category of ``Women Working Creatively.''
Jeannette Paulson, director of the Hawaii International Film Festival in Honolulu, who nominated Mrs. Houston for the award, writes of her: ``Jeanne seems able to transcend those social, educational, or ethnic barriers we so often raise around us, and which so often prevent true communication.''
Joyce Yu, a member of the Steering Committee of Asian Women United, describes Mrs. Houston in another way: ``Jeanne has been both brave and courageous to open her life experiences to the examination and benefit of others. All her projects reflect her ongoing interest in the experience -- past and present -- of Asian-American women.''
By her own accomplishments, Mrs. Houston has helped put down the myth of Asian women as being exotic, pliant, and incapable of mastering the English language. This fall she and her husband completed a lecture tour, sponsored by the USIA Arts America program, of five Asian countries. During the tour they showed the film ``Farewell to Manzanar,'' and Mrs. Houston led discussions about it.
``That I, as a representive of the United States, could show and discuss a film in Asia that revealed a mistake of our government seemed amazing and incomprehensible to people in Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia,'' she says.
``While in the world scale of physical suffering, the internment camps don't weigh very heavily, what the Asians understood right away was the willingness to freely discuss the issue in other countries. ``It demonstrated how far, as a country, we have come in our understanding and practice of human rights. My discussion neither lays guilt nor attacks. In the final analysis, it is an affirmation of what America really is.''