Gasa Gasa Girl Goes To Camp

 

This memoir, by turns engaging and haunting, details the coming of age in two Japanese American internment camps of Lily Nakai, the often disobedient and always curious daughter of Japanese immigrants. Before the war began her family had a happy enough life on the poorer side of Hollywood. Then Pearl Harbor: the Japanese—even those born in America and therefore citizens—were swiftly interned, labeled as enemies.

Havey has a distinctive voice and a gift for writing---the text flows, even when she is discussing emotionally difficult material.  She also has a talent for putting herself inside the head of her rebellious preteen self and explaining how she felt at the time, which gives the work immediacy. The book not only speaks eloquently about the pressures on the camp inmates, but provides useful insight into some hitherto hidden matters.

-Greg Robinson, author of A Tragedy of Democracy:  Japanese Confinement in North America and After Camp:  Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics

"The Lights Searching"

 

    One night I awoke with an urgent need to use the bathroom. The toilets were four barracks away. I peered out the window. A door banged. A dog barked. A dog? Pets weren't allowed. It began to howl. A man called out...then silence. A child cried out, "Mama! Mama!" Footsteps passed beneath my window. Maybe if I concentrated---thought of something else---I wouldn't have to go. Was the soldier in his tower moving the searchlight all night long? Was he alone? No use--I had to get to the toilet.

 

    I felt for my shoes, slipped them on, and padded outside. It was only a few steps to the corner of our barrack. Then, wham! A brilliant light slammed into me. For a second, I didn't know what it was. It felt like a physical blow. I whirled around and started back to our room. Now, I couldn't go back; I'd wet my pants. My heart pounded. The spotlight seared my face. Step by step. Another step. When I finally reached the bathroom, I was trembling. I pressed against the door. Calm down. He won't shoot.

 

    Even in my hurry, I remembered my mother's warning: "Dirty germs on toilets. You can get something and die." I swiped the seat with paper and laid down some sheets before sitting down. I sat a long time, hoping that the soldier would forget about me. Naked toilet bowls squatted in a row like upside-down plungers ready to suck all the darkness into the sewers. A faucet dripped into a metal sink with a hollow echo. A cockroach scuttled across the floor.

 

    How to get back? Wait until the light raked past, then dash out and stay close to the barracks? If I screamed, would someone rescue me? I took a deep breath and opened my mouth to make a sound, but nothing came out. Just a weak "aahhh."

I had to go back. I cracked open the door. The light swept by. Could I sneak along and sidestep against the barracks? I recalled my mother's remark that she could be a troublemaker. Well, I wasn't making trouble now. I hadn't done anything wrong. The guard had no reason to shoot. My heart was pounding. I was scared, but I also resented the guard and the intrusion of the light.

 

    I flung open the door and strode into the center of the beam. Walk normally. Don't look scared. The guard trained the light on me. I walked back---step by anxious step---down the middle of the road. It was so far. Four barracks felt like a mile. As soon as I reached my barrack, the spotlight swept past me and out into the black.

 

I was still alive.

 

    I climbed into bed. Had it been real? Had I been dreaming? No, the searchlight still blinked across the window...over and over. I closed my eyes. The rhythm flickered against my eyelids...light, dark, light, dark. The beat went on and on.  

"Tower of Arcadia"

 

    Santa Anita Assembly Center, the temporary camp where we were placed before being sent to Amache, was in Arcadia, California.  Arcadia was a place of peace and simplicity in ancient Greece; our barracks camp was anything but. This painting expresses my bewilderment at my imprisonment.  A church in the upper right corner displays a gold cross, offering a glimmer of hope.

"Only My Freedom"

 

    Winter in Amache was sometimes gentle, often brutal, but always amazing. The first winter began with a chill suspended in the air. The sky was gray and featureless...a studied watercolor wash. A few small snowflakes flitted in midair, dancing as if unable to make up their minds, then floated to the ground. The flakes, weightless, melted instantly on my palm. I glimpsed a fleeting crystal on the back of my hand. The flakes wavered before they touched the ground and disappeared. As I stood there, they fell faster, clung to my clothes, and feathered the sagebrush.

 

    Soon the snow fell in clusters. I went inside and watched snow temper the angles of the barracks and glaze the windows. A gentle wind sculpted the snow into soft mounds. The desert was transformed into wispy cotton candy, swollen mochi, bloated meringues. The monotonous gray was layered with a soft sheen muted by the golden reflections of a late-afternoon sun trying bravely to push aside the clouds.

 

    I whipped at the snow with my feet to the end of our block and looked toward the vastness of Kansas, smothered by the same white blanket. Jackrabbits hopped through the barbed-wire fence, oblivious to the armed guards, nibbling at the scraps the mess cook had left for them. I crept closer and tried to coax one near. For a second, it looked at me, then scampered away. "Come on," it seemed to say, "follow me." I watched as it tracked black prints in the snow.

 

    "I envy you, Mr. Rabbit," I told him. "You're free. You can hop to Kansas if you want." I yearned for this place I had never seen and barely knew about, but it lay beyond the barbed wire, beyond the reaches of the searchlight. It symbolized nirvana, the Promised Land.

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