Author of landmark memoir leads isle writing workshop
It's been 36 years since the publication of "Farewell to Manzanar," a book Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston wrote with husband James Houston about her family, and specifically, as the book's subtitle states, "A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment."
The landmark book opened the eyes of Americans to the hardships of an ethnic group ostracized from the rest of society during wartime, and it's a book that still shocks and surprises readers and students today.
In the spirit of this year's biennial writers' conference, "Writing Beyond Boundaries," sponsored by the Honolulu branch of the National League of American Pen Women, Wakatsuki Houston will give the keynote address Friday night at Punahou School on "Crossing Cultural Borders: The Making of 'Farewell to Manzanar.' " (She and musician-filmmaker Eddie Kamae also will be giving master's workshops Saturday at the conference -- she on "Memoir as Fiction" and Kamae on "Talk Story to Get the Story.")
"We are excited to present the Hawaii writing community with the opportunity to hear and work with (Wakatsuki Houston), whose 'Farewell to Manzanar' is such a pivotal part of school curricula across the country," said branch president Joan Gencarelli.
The message of "Manzanar" is "still alive," said Wakatsuki Houston by phone from her Santa Cruz, Calif., home. "It's still being taught in so many schools, and over the last couple of years, I've done many community readings."
The book's success "is still kind of amazing to me and my husband," she said, noting that news of the Japanese internment was not common knowledge outside the Asian community 30 years ago, appearing in American history books in little more than a paragraph or two.
"(In) the last 10 years or so has the book's impact has been really felt. It's now sold well over a million-and-a-half copies in its Bantam paperback form, and last year, Houghton Mifflin brought it back as a special hardback edition.
A few years ago, Universal Studios, who made a Emmy-nominated teledrama back of the book in 1976, gifted to California libraries and schools 10,000 copies of the drama, plus hardcover copies of the book and lesson plans.
"It's a miracle that the stories still come back to life, mainly documenting one of the most extraordinary events in our history, where the U.S. government violated the Constitutional rights of one ethnic group."
Wakatsuki Houston said that in spite of the growing knowledge of the Japanese-American internment, she still encounters shock and disbelief from people she meets in schools and readings across the mainland.
"And this is how many generations further down since it first happened," she said. "Back in the old days, people couldn't understand the distinction between Japanese-American citizens and Japanese nationals, so they thought 'what's the problem?' "
Wakatsuki Houston said "that with kids so ethnically diverse now, they understand immediately the violations of Constitutional rights that occurred, so it's gratifying that I don't have to explain the injustice to them."
While Wakatsuki Houston feels a continuing commitment and responsibility to the community to talk about "Farewell to Manzanar," she also will be presenting readings here from her 2003 debut novel, "The Legend of Fire Horse Woman" at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes and Noble, Kahala Mall, and Friday night at the conference. The book draws upon her Manzanar memories again, this time focusing on three generations of Japanese-American women, and drawing parallels with the Native American experience.
"The idea for the book actually came when we lived in Hawaii for a brief time back in the early 1980s, when my husband was a guest teacher at the University of Hawaii and the kids were going to the Lab school. My mother was born on Kauai, where her family worked on the Makalele plantation, and she moved to the mainland at age 9. During our stay, I was actually writing another book, but when I heard that these women who were once picture brides were at the Kuakini care home, I got an idea to interview them."
"Legend" was subsequently released by the independent Kensington Publishing in New York, and while Wakatsuki Houston said it received an initial good reception, "maybe the novel was too ethnic, and although the publisher marketed it as best they could, I really tried my best to write a love story for a mass audience."
Still, she hasn't given up on "Farewell to Manzanar" reaching an even larger audience, in the form of a movie musical.
"It's still in the conceptual stages," Wakatsuki Houston said, "but I hope there'll be somebody out there interested in producing it. I'm also looking for the right librettist and composer. I'm thinking it could work as a story-within-a-story, like 'Chicago' and 'Moulin Rouge.' I remember camp high schools putting on musicals, so it could work. And it was a wonderful period for music, with the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller. And we could have fun with it, adding a contemporary edge, like with some taiko drumming."
13th Biennial Writers' Conference
» Where: Science Center, Punahou School
» When: 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
» Admission: $75 includes Friday readings, Saturday standard workshop sessions with lunch. Master's workshops with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and Eddie Kamae cost an additional $25 each.
» Call: 254-3271 or visit www.nlapwhonolulu.org