The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Go Forward with Courage

Sometimes book titles can literally be the hardest part of writing an entire novel. You can spend months or years thoughtfully creating characters, putting them into situations that create drama or suspense for your readers, and crafting dialogue that feels natural and realistic. But once the book is finished, finding the perfect title that feels worthy of the story can be elusive–nothing seems quite right. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across something that strikes like lightning, and you’ll know you’ve landed the perfect title.

That was the case for my latest novel, Go Forward with Courage. A central part of the novel deals with Michi and her family, who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the thousands of families impacted by the Executive Order to remove all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, every step of their journeys to these camps took courage. But it didn’t end there. When they were finally allowed to leave at the war’s end to return home, what were they returning to? It varied of course, but for many of these displaced persons, they had nothing tangible to return to.

The title, Go Forward with Courage comes from a quote by a Native American Chief after his realization that he had no other choice but accompany his people to a reservation.

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“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelope you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage”.

Pocono Chief White Eagle

When I came across this quote while writing the novel, the similarity of the plight of the Japanese-American citizens displaced from their homes to the Native Americans generations earlier seemed incredibly relevant. My character Michi, and the thousands of others like her, would need courage to face the unknown waiting for them when they returned “home” after the war. Some of the images captured from that time period, express more than my own words ever could.

I have so much admiration for the people who rebuilt lives after having them interrupted during the war. The courage it took is inspiring, and I hope that my story does them justice.

Still a Somber Day 75 Years Later

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On this day, the few remaining veterans who survived the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago and can still make the trip, are headed to Hawaii. There will be memorial parade commemorating the day that the fates of the world shifted for so many. Reading and listening to accounts of these survivors prompted me to write a novel that begins on this fateful morning in 1941.

In my novel, Go Forward with Courage, young Jackson loses his father on this day. His father (like my grandfather) is a doctor in the US Navy. Jackson’s father Lieutenant Commander William Lieber is killed while treating injured sailors being brought from Battleship Row.

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Photo Courtesy of The National Archives taken from an official US Navy photograph

Jackson’s mother, Margaret has to decide where to take her children after the death of her husband and decides to go back to where she’d grown up–McGehee, Arkansas. She believes that the war can never touch her children there. Margaret returns home with her children after a long estrangement caused by her decision to marry the son of German immigrants. Her father, a veteran of the Great War, was too consumed with bitterness toward the Germans after his experiences as a POW there to see that William was completely devoted to his only daughter.

 

Meanwhile, in California another family’s life is shattered by the bombings at Pearl Harbor in a different way. Michi’s family owns a grocery store, but soon has to pack their belongings and leave for an internment camp after President Roosevelt signs the executive order that mandates the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry.

Michi’s family ends up at Rohwer “Relocation Center” just a few miles from where Jackson is now living with his grandparents. Jackson and Michi ultimately cross paths and are forced to deal with feelings of hatred and betrayal they both feel due to the circumstances of their lives.

This time period has provided endless fodder for novelists for decades. For me, the appeal of this story was the convergence of two individuals impacted by the same event; the bombing at Pearl Harbor. I wondered how a young man who lost his father to Japanese bombers would feel about coming face to face with so many people in his mother’s hometown that looked like his enemy. And I wondered how a young woman, born in this country and entitled to the same rights as every other American citizen, would feel toward the locals in a place where she’d been forced to go. In researching the novel, I read every first hand account I could come across to gain more understanding of the personal experiences my characters might have had.

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If you’ve read my novel, I’d love to hear from you. If you have any personal experiences or were told stories from the war by your parents or grandparents, I’d love to hear them. World War 2, which America entered immediately after the attacks on December 7, was a defining moment for America. The internment of Japanese Americans during the war is something that should be studied in schools and discussed at length with every generation. If you’re interested in learning more on the subject, I highly recommend you visit Densho.org. If you’d like to read more about the actual camp where Michi’s family lived during the war, there is a museum there. Another great resource for a vast array of information regarding how the war affected Americans is at the National WW II Musuem’s website. Thanks for reading and commenting!