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Author Profile: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston [in Notable Asian Americans]

Farewell to ManzanarOne day in 1971, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s nephew came to visit. He was taking a sociology course at the University of California at Berkeley and wanted to know more about the concentration camps that had incarcerated approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. The nephew, who had been born in one of the camps, Manzanar, asked to know more about the family’s experiences. “Whenever my family got together and we happened to talk about camp, we would joke about the lousy food, the dust storms or the communal showers, or we talked lightheartedly about recreational activities. I reiterated the same stories to my nephew in the same superficial way,” Houston recalled in an autobiographical essay she wrote in 1992 for Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Series. The nephew wanted more answers. “‘Aunty, you’re telling me all these bizarre things. I mean, how did you feel about being locked up like that?'” he prodded. Houston was stunned. “He asked me a question no one had ever asked before, a question I had never dared ask myself. Feel? How did I feel? For the first time I dropped the protective cover of humor and nonchalance. I allowed myself to ‘feel.’ I began to cry. I couldn’t stop crying,” Houston wrote in her essay.

Houston realized that the camp experiences were too difficult and too painful for her to talk about. “[P]erhaps I could write a memoir, a history – just for the family,” Houston considered. That history became Farewell to Manzanar, a haunting recollection of the Wakatsuki family’s memories of three-and a half years of unjustified imprisonment. Co-written with her husband, James D. Houston, who is also a writer, Farewell to Manzanar was a breakthrough accomplishment. For the first time since the actual event, the Houstons’ book gave voice not only to the Wakatsuki family, but to the thousands of Japanese Americans who had silently endured similar experiences. In the more than two decades since its publishing, Farewell to Manzanar remains an invaluable contribution to the annals of American history.

An All-American Family
Born on September 26, 1934, in Inglewood, California, Houston was the last of 10 children born to Ko and Riku Wakatsuki. At the time, Ko was a farmer on the outskirts of Los Angeles. When Houston was two years old, Ko turned to commercial fishing and moved the family to Ocean Park, a predominantly Caucasian, small coastal community whose main attraction was an amusement pier. Houston fondly recalled in her essay, “The pier was my nursery school, the amusement attendants my sitters. The neighborhood kids and I spent most of our days there.” …[click here for more]

Profile: “Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (1934 – ), Writer,” Notable Asian Americans, edited by Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall, Detroit: Gale Research, 1995

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

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