I bought this book from a used bookstore for $4.99 after eyeing it for several weeks. I noticed the cover right away– a person clad in a traditional Japanese kimono, holding a parasol. Beat up and definitely well-loved by its previous owner, I foraged around in my cavernous purse, found my debit card and purchased it.
To be perfectly honest, I was not expecting much from this novel, perhaps an interesting read I could add to the ever burgeoning quest for more diversity in my literature. However, I was mistaken. This book was gut-wrenching, poetic in all the right ways, as well as being supremely lyrical. One thing that is important to note is that this book can be, at times, difficult to read… We’ll get into this in just a moment.
The premise of this story follows a collective narrative of a set of experiences that Japanese ‘picture brides’ traveling from their homeland to San Francisco face. They endure false promises, crushed hopes and despair. They work on farms, in laundromats, in kitchens, in rich white people’s homes- some of them work in the sheets and on the streets.
These women face working grueling hours on farms, living with husbands who use up their bodies, bearing many children or no children at all. Each life is different, but each life is similar. The collective, plural first person narrative shows this.
All of these women face similar experiences: their children’s rejection of their culture and language, the racism and racial tensions of the early 1900s and continuing through WWII, a sense of double consciousness, diaspora, the suppression of culture, an all-encompassing sense of grief and nostalgia, and an identity that must be questioned on this foreign American soil.
The final few chapters of this novella dictates the events that occurred in American history pertaining the Japanese-American Internment. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese Americans (as well as Japanese-Canadians) were accused of conspiring against North Americans, blamed for the attacks, and were feared and/or distrusted amongst the general public (Atomic Heritage Foundation).
These prejudices were met with acts of vandalism and racial discrimination, including hostile behaviour performed against those of Japanese ancestry.
President Roosevelt ordered the “‘evacuation of Japanese-Americans to relocation and internment camps two months after Pearl Harbour,” (Atomic Heritage Foundation). This caused families to be broken and dispersed; alienation and the removal of property and belongings were common.
For more information on the internment of Japanese-Americans can be found here: here
This book brought me to tears. As I mentioned earlier, it is a difficult read due to the subject matter. If you do not want to read about rape, sexual assault, or racial slurs, do not read this book. This being said, I think it is important to read these events, as it is an important piece of history, tying in this narrative to real events that took place that haunted this community. I believe this is an important book due to its nature as an act of release of the oppression the Japanese community has faced on the soil of the so-called “Land of the Free.” In reading this book, I found a sense of identity amongst these women. Their struggles, trials, and tribulations made me understand the privilege I have now as a Japanese-Canadian women. My destiny does not hold the same fate as these women. This book was the product of the heart and soul of my ancestors. Thank you for being brave. Thank you. Endlessly.
“And so we folded up our kimonos and put them away in our trunks and did not take them out again for years,” (Otsuka 54).
Buy the book here.