Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of “Farewell to Manzanar” will invite listeners to ask questions about the book next week at the South Lake Tahoe library as a way to facilitate discussion of the incarceration of Japanese Americans that took place more than 70 years ago.
“It’s a personal talk about why I wrote the book, how I wrote it. There are a lot of people who aren’t familiar with that event and I’m pretty open. They can ask me anything they want,” Houston said Tuesday.
Students of the California public education system will likely remember reading Houston’s account of the Japanese American internment camp in Manzanar, Calif. The memoir is required reading at schools across the state and one of five books selected for the California Reads program, yet it delves into a chapter of American history few people know about, Houston said.
Denise Haerr, the volunteer programs coordinator at the South Lake Tahoe Branch Library, said during the many years she drove between her hometown of Temecula, Calif., and the Lake Tahoe Basin, she never stopped at Manzanar.
In September, she decided to tour the site with her husband. After the visit, she bought “Farewell to Manzanar” and read the book aloud to her husband. When she heard Houston had spoken at another El Dorado County library, she wanted the author to visit the basin for what she described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Haerr said she’s exchanged emails with Houston since November to prepare for the upcoming discussion.
“She’s a living legend and a cautionary tale. It’s an important tale to be told. I hope everybody hears the lesson ... It’s wonderful to bridge the existing prejudices that still exist,” Haerr said.
Houston published the book in 1972 with her husband and co-author, James. It took about three decades for Houston to tell the story of her childhood years in the camp, and it wasn’t until her nephew — who was born in the camp — mentioned Manzanar that the flood gates opened. When he asked her how she could talk about her time in a prison so lightheartedly, Houston broke down in tears.
“All of us have suffered from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, some traumatic incident we’re made up to survive so that your brain remembers it but it takes 30 years for the defenses to wear down,” she said. “Writing the book was really a healing process.”
Since she wrote “Farewell to Manzanar,” Houston has published several more books including “Legend of the Fire Horse Woman” and “Beyond Manzanar” and is currently working on another novel set after Manzanar. Many of her writings center on ethnic diversity in the U.S. and fostering empathy. There will always be racism — a mentality Houston attributes to self-hate and a fear of the Other — and prejudice, but it’s important to appreciate the strength a multicultural history imparts to a country, she said.
“When you have multiple colors, it makes for a much richer country. America is probably the only democratic country in the world that is totally multiracial and multicultural. Being that, we have to get along and we have to respect each others’ backgrounds,” Houston said. “To me, it’s amazing that in my lifetime I’ve seen a black president of the U.S. Times change and we become more educated.”