Q & A with Editor Brian Komei Dempster

January 29, 2012 by Admin

Brian Komei Dempster

Written by twelve Japanese American elders who gathered regularly at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, Making Home from War is a collection of stories about their exodus from concentration camps into a world that in a few short years had drastically changed.

What is the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California?
The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) is a vibrant community-based organization in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown. A gathering place for the Japanese America community, the JCCCNC is dedicated to the preservation of Japanese American arts, culture, history, and identity. Executive Director Paul Osaki and the staff have been wonderful supporters of our project, offering classroom space and administrative support and collaborating with us in the production and publication of our current book, Making Home from War, and our first collection, From Our Side of the Fence.

Why did you decide to put together these writing workshops?
Over ten years ago, in 1999, a group of the writers originally approached me to teach a class at the JCCCNC. At the time, they were primarily motivated by their desire to document their stories for their own families, especially the younger generation who were unaware of or only vaguely familiar with the incarceration. I put this first Internment Autobiography Writing Workshop together with that more personal focus in mind, and as the class continued, we realized the potential of the stories to reach a wider audience. A number of the stories from that workshop appear in our first anthology, From Our Side of the Fence, published by Kearny Street Workshop in 2001, produced by the JCCCNC, and supported by a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLPEP).

The second workshop at the JCCCNC, Resettlement and Beyond, began in 2007 for related yet different reasons. As we had compiled the work for From Our Side of the Fence, which focuses largely on incarceration, we had become aware that the postwar experience was an incredibly rich and complex saga that deserved its own collection. Moreover, we felt that the Resettlement experience was an area of creative and literary inquiry that needed further attention and recognition. Finally, the age of the writers played a role and made our task more urgent: time was even more precious this time around, and we needed to get the stories told.

How did your new book come to be?
We received a very generous and timely grant from CCLPEP that allowed us to create an anthology on the postwar Resettlement of Japanese Americans. Through the support of the JCCCNC, I conducted a series of autobiographical writing workshops, entitled “Resettlement and Beyond,” in 2007-08. In a series of handouts created by me and distributed during the classes, students were given multiple topics to write about pertaining to their Resettlement after World War II: leaving camp; homecoming; starting over in school and with jobs; material and psychological impact; connection and empowerment in friendships, relationships, and communities; appearance and identity; perceptions and expectations; gender roles. Other topic ideas evolved from class discussion and the sharing of student work. At each class, students shared their new work and revisions and received critically constructive feedback from me and other class members. In addition, I met with each writer multiple times for individual conferences, speaking in-depth with each author about the strengths and areas to improve in their writings, and ordering and revision strategies. In class and during conference, the authors and I engaged in dynamic exchanges about form and structure, voice and point of view, characterization and dialogue, theme and conflict. Through this multi-pronged process—workshops, conferences, writing, rewriting, and editing—each writer created a strong body of work that will be included in the anthology Making Home from War. Jill Shiraki, our project administrator, ensured the whole process went smoothly; she helped to gather photographs to accompany the writers’ stories and other important resources for the book.

Why is it so important for these elders to write their stories?
The writers, through the creative and collaborative process, transform the trauma of incarceration and feelings of anger, shame, and sadness into empowering stories that give an in-depth perspective of their experiences. By documenting past injustices and, in turn, sharing these stories with others, we deepen the general public’s knowledge of the incarceration and Resettlement; reach educators and students who can use the book as a resources; and motivate other former camp prisoners to tell their stories.

What challenges did you encounter?
While the project has been successfully completed, several challenges arose during the production of Making Home from War. The challenges of such a project included the following: how to best design and structure the course curriculum; how to handle the delicate and emotionally charged subject matter; and how to get the workshop participants, many of whom had limited formal training as writers, to relate their experiences in a way that was artistically powerful. In addition, the advancing age of the writers (generally in their seventies and eighties), various health problems, and diminished energy levels slowed the production of the work and made the revision process more tiring for the writers than in the past. Sadly, one of the writers—Florence Miho Nakamura—passed away during the project, and Jill and I worked with Flo’s family to ensure her work was included in the manuscript. The spirit of collaboration was evident not only in the completion of Flo Nakamura’s section but in Yoshito Wayne Osaki’s section, which was coauthored by his wife, Sally Noda Osaki.

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(This article first appeared on the Heyday website. It was written by Natalie.)

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In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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