Kirsten Emiko Mcallister: exploring the landscapes of memory
Kirsten McAllister first visited New Denver in 1991, helping document the Lemon Creek reunion and bus tour that saw former Japanese Canadian internees return to the Kootenays, where they had been incarcerated during World War Two. The video-documentary, released later that year as With Our Own Eyes: a Trip to Lemon Creek, was made by transplanted Hawaiian American artist Ruby Truly. Kirsten had been collecting oral histories for the JCCA History Preservation project, and was asked to come along on the shoot as sound person. She ended up basing her Master’s thesis on the creation of the video-documentary, not realizing that four years later she would return. Kirsten was asked by the Kyowakai Society’s chair of the History Preservation Committee to come back to New Denver to help organize and catalogue their historical collections. The elders of the Kyowakai (working together peacefully) Society had just finished building the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, an interpretive centre dedicated to the history of the uprooting and internment of Japanese Canadians.
At the time Kirsten was working on her PhD at Ottawa’s Carleton University but felt obliged to offer assistance so returned in July of 1995. The next summer she was asked to return again but, as she says, “I couldn’t really justify returning a second time, unless it was for research. And that is how I ended up focusing on the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre for my PhD.” Her original dissertation was to be on films about Japanese Canadians, pre-war and wartime footage in the government archives as well as contemporary films but she changed her focus, returning in July of 1996. She stayed on into September, assisting the History Preservation Committee while doing the research for her PhD.
Now an Associate Professor in Communications at SFU, Kirsten has spent a lot of time researching internments camps, including the photographic records taken by Japanese Canadians in Tashme, Slocan, Lemon Creek and other camps, though the experience she had in New Denver, working closely especially the elders, many of whom have since passed on, was the most transformative. She recently turned her experiences there into a book, Terrain of Memory: a Japanese Canadian Memorial Project, which is published by UBC Press.
Following a recent talk by Kirsten at the Japanese Canadian National Museum she spoke to The Bulletin about her research in New Denver. The following combines our interview with excerpts from an interview she did last year with sens-public.org, an International Web Journal, collected by Françoise Sule and Christophe Premat.
In Her Own Words
Kirsten Emiko Mcallister – Interview
Can you talk about your family’s history a bit, on your mother’s side, and their experience during the war.
Both sides of my family, the Nakashimas and the McAllisters/McQuarries, have been in the province of British Columbia for around four generations, so generations of family stories locate me there. But nevertheless it is as if there has always been something unspoken, something uneasy that as a child I could not articulate. That said, my brothers and I always knew about my mother’s family history because the family talked about life in Vancouver as well as their time in East Lillooet from 1942 to 1951. My mother, Rosalie Chitose McAllister, was born in Vancouver in 1931. Her parents were from the village of Mirozu in Wakayama Ken. Her father, Yasumatsu Nakashima, arrived in BC when he was about 16 years old to join his father and mother in Vancouver. He was a successful fish buyer for Queen Charlotte Fisheries. My Obaasan, Miyuki (Mukai), spent her youth in schools in Tanabe and Osaka. She came to Vancouver after marrying Ojiisan in Japan. Both were naturalized Canadians. They had a house on Jackson Avenue across from Powell Street Grounds so this is where my mother, her sister Lillian and her brother Bob spent their early childhood, attending Strathcona elementary school and the Japanese Language School.
From my mother’s recollections of East Lillooet, it always seemed like a a story-book place somewhere in the mountains. In contrast to their home in Vancouver, East Lillooet had “no electricity, no running water, no stores, no parks, no swimming pools, no ‘densha.’” But from her perspective as a child she saw it as a “new adventure” where all family members were involved in every aspect of “running a home, pioneer style.” From their accounts, I have a strong impression of the landscape: dry hot terrain in the summer and freezing cold in the winter with the mountains and pine trees and the surging power of the ever-present Fraser River. There is a story about my Ojiisan. Internees were not permitted to fish. But one night he threw in a rope with some meat on a large hook and the next day he discovered he had caught a sturgeon. These fish are very large, up to six metres in length. They had a difficult time hauling the fish out of the river but it meant that E. Lillooet had a welcome supply of fish.
Unlike many families, my mother’s family went to what is now referred to as a “self-support camp.” In East Lillooet Japanese Canadians leased land from Mr. Palmer, a local landowner. They used their own funds to build their homes and community buildings and also set up a farm cooperative to grow tomatoes. In East Lillooet families were also fortunate because many continued to stay there after 1945, unlike other Japanese Canadians in government-run camps whom were ordered leave BC.
Of course I did not know all these details as a child. I knew that the government took my mother’s home— but mostly I remember the stories. My mother’s family also had photographs from the camp, even though cameras were banned. The photo albums were in my Obaasan’s house. As a child I was fascinated by the photographs. In her albums there were pictures of pre-war Vancouver and East Lillooet that were like little windows into places that existed only in stories. The photographs were integrated into the family album so they seemed to be part of a continuous history of my mother’s family from when my great grandparents first came to Canada to the postwar period.
There were eight children in the family. Each had a different view of their time in Lillooet and the return to Vancouver—and this is how I learned that people’s experience of the same events can be different based on factors like sibling order, gender and age. I also learned how stories construct—give meaning to—events sometimes to protect their listeners as well as the speakers from the humiliation and pain. In my twenties, when I worked for the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association’s oral history project and began interviewing other nisei, including my aunt, they talked about how terrible the war years were. While I recognize that East Lillooet was different than the government-run camps, in addition my mother approached the situation in a determined matter-of-fact way, readily taking on various duties to help out, which reflected what she describes as her father’s view of “look and move ahead.” To me, she is quite extraordinary. She was awarded her school’s only scholarship to go to the University of British Columbia. Her father wanted her to go to a business college, not university, which he believed was inappropriate for a girl. When she was 18 she went alone to the coast, without her family, to the city which, I have heard from others, was still full of terrible racist tensions. She did a degree in biochemistry and became close friends with many other young women from different backgrounds who were entering university just after the war, whether beatnik, Jewish or Anglo-Canadian. She met my father while through Suess Tabata while she was doing her MA at UBC. Suess and my father did their degrees in oceanography and were roommates. After my parents married, they moved to Nanaimo where my father worked at DFO’s biological station. That’s where my brothers and I grew up. There weren’t many Japanese Canadians but I remember that my mother bought some of the earliest books about the camps that were written by Japanese Canadian authors, including Ken Adachi’s 1976 The Enemy That Never Was and Shizuye Takashima’s 1971 book, A Child in a Prison Camp. She gave my brothers and I Toyo Takata’s 1983 Nikkei Legacy. And later she avidly read books like Roy Miki’s 1985 This is My Own: Letters to Wes and Other Writings on Japanese Canadians, 1941-1948 and his more recent 2004 book, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Redress.
After listening to your talk, I sense that have some ambivalence towards working within the Nikkei community.
It can be difficult to return to the community’s past and see how the aftereffects continue to unfold across the generations. Researching and writing about the internment camps and the government’s systematic plans to remove “all people of Japanese racial descent” from Canadian territory from the perspective of people in the community—including people in my family and their generation—is very difficult to bear sometimes. Despite the difficulty, I have always been drawn to the camps, and the prewar world that lives on only in the memories of the nisei and issei I’ve interviewed at different times in the past. But researching the written documents, the sites of camps, immersing myself in oral testimonies and sorting through old records and photographs of the camps places you back in the spaces of internment—with all the loss and pain—and so there is a lot of sadness involved in this work.
The more you research the camps, the more you realize that it isn’t just our history. It is part of the larger history of colonialization and nation-building where governments systematically design programs to remove racially undesirable sections of the population. It is still happening today. I’ve often turned to the work of the Indigenous writers for inspiration on how to work with the damaging impact of the past.
With this type of research you also begin to unearth material about the dynamics of hatred and fear of “others,” complicated by confused feelings of guilt, resentment and sometimes a strange compulsive curiousity or desire—to collect, to study, to track, to control. It is can be unnerving. But it is illuminating. It has helped map out the postwar environment where I grew up as a child and a young person in Nanaimo. The adults of my world would have lived in a racially segregated society and witnessed Japanese Canadians being taken away by RCMP and Indigenous children taken from their families and sent to residential schools. Some were complicit and others had deep friendships with Japanese Canadians and Indigenous families. I grew up before the redress movement—before there were studies on “race” that identified the dynamics of exclusion and explained the economic, political and emotional forces at play. The redress movement gave us our history—they literally re-wrote us back into the history of Canada. It was a political history of racism but also a history of the dynamic prewar world of the issei and nisei. Before this history was written, before our stories began to be told—in novels, films, taiko, dance, academic studies, art, poems—it had a disturbing unspoken presence. It still does in many ways but at least now has been given a shape that can be worked on and transformed. This is what scholars call “memory work”—it involves more than historical research. It involves finding ways to transform the aftereffects of damaging past events.
Sorting out how to live—in this space—as a young person, meeting really supportive nisei and older sansei made a difference. When I moved to Vancouver to first work and then go to university, I was 18 and I met nisei and older sansei who took me under their wings, and offered mentorship and looked out for me and there was also my Obaasan’s household. I was very hard-headed and independent with my parents but somehow when it came to my Obaasan and other Japanese Canadians who were a generation older, I looked to them with respect. It was partly because of the encouragement of these mentor figures as well as my family—and their unquestioned belief in me—plus all the experience I later gained working as the coordinator of the JCCA oral history project that I did not hesitate to focus my graduate studies on the Japanese Canadian community, on the way our community has remembered the internment camps. I find it amazing—even though the community was dispersed—it was as if community found me. These were people like Roy and Slavia Miki, Audrey Kobayashi, Grace Eiko Thomson, Fumiko Greenaway, Betty Tasaka as well as sansei from my own generation like Katherine Shozawa, Michael Fukushima, Scott McFarlane, Mari-Jane Medenwaldt, Mona Oikawa and now younger and extraordinarily talented people like Cindy Mochizuki.
You’ve immersed yourself in the world of academia – what is it about that world that appeals to you?
You have the opportunity to explore problems and issues in detail—you are constantly learning. I am working generally in the area of political persecution and the role that culture—basically meaning-making—plays in victimizing people as well as engendering respectful sustainable relations and transforming damage and hurt. I don’t find this work easy but it feels necessary. There is also teaching and working with graduate students. This is rewarding and inspiring. As teachers we meet the next generation and see the issues that concern them and the new approaches and solutions they are developing. At the same time, it’s important not to idealize universities. They are hierarchical institutions with all of wider society’s divisions and systems of devaluation, whether based on race, gender, sexuality, or religion. With cuts to funding and increased corporate investment, the university is becoming driven by instrumental values like increasing profit and efficiency that ignore human and environmental costs—here work on humanitarian values, ecosystems, and the arts that don’t feed directly back into the corporate machine, a destructive machine that needs to be challenged, is given less and less space. Yet the university still remains a place where there is engaging work to be done. I have colleagues at SFU whose work I respect and our faculty is fortunate to have our new Dean, Cheryl Geisler, at the helm. I see the university as a place where you can still bring the knowledge, of say, Japanese Canadian elders, into dialogue with scholarly knowledge—and show all that is made possible by working with communities—and keep trying to press for knowledge that inevitably shapes policy that is based on more sustainable, life-giving values.
You spent some time with the elders and other community members in New Denver. What was it like stepping into that community from the outside?
The elders went out of their way to make me feel at home, inviting me into their homes, talking to me about the community’s history and their reflections on the community today. They gave me advice, shared their humour and were so encouraging. Some of them knew my Obaasan and Ojiisan from before the war. When I first arrived in New Denver, it is true that I was very hesitant to start my research. I did not feel comfortable conducting research—it felt too instrumental, like I was just there to get information from them. I ended up avoiding my research and spent the first long while just working on the Kyowakai’s History Preservation projects and the elders would invite me over to visit them and I’d help out at community events. Eventually, they actually began to get impatient with me—they knew I was there to do research on their centre and so they finally said, “Okay! Your time is running out! You better start interviewing us!” I realized at this point I had their permission to research their memorial and history and I knew it was my responsibility to communicate their accounts and their legacy.
Do you think as an academic you are by nature an outsider in situations like this? How do you reconcile the academic in you with the community member?
While I like working with people—collaborating—it is true that the idea of being on the margins is appealing. There is more freedom to think, assess, voice concerns and experiment. The more you are in the centre, the more pressure there is to say and do what conforms to the institution or organization you are representing. I am not saying that everyone in the centre conforms—there is just more pressure to do so. There is a place for everyone, whether in the centre and on the margins. Right now, I find the margins a productive and engaging space; perhaps at another moment, the centre will be somewhere that feels necessary.
Why are you so interested in memory?
For my Masters thesis, I wrote about the video-documentary following a group of Japanese Canadians who had been interned in the Lemon Creek camp. Ruby Truly was very adamant about the way the documentary was going to be made. It wasn’t going to be a regular documentary . . . a sensational exposé. We had to be respectful of the participants and to be unobtrusive. She wanted to follow their return to the site of internment, through their stories and movements. It was not scripted; whatever we recorded was what happened on the journey, including participants who came to us to share their stories on camera. I was in my twenties at the time and simply felt obliged to help with the project—these elderly people were the same age as my aunts and uncles.
We went back to the sites of the internment camps, including Lemon Creek. As a child I had been to East Lillooet where my mother was during the war. I passed through many areas where there were camps on family holidays and when I worked as a treeplanter but I had never really visited the sites. Most are now empty fields in the bottom of valleys or economically depressed mining and lumber towns with very small populations in isolated areas. Going back to the camps with these elderly people changed the landscape of the province for me. The elders introduced me to this other landscape of political violence.
I became interested in memory especially after working on Ruby’s video-documentary. The realisation that the province had different landscapes of memory, many of which were buried, drew me towards the problem of memory. Excavating these landscapes, as someone who grew up in this province, allowed me to make sense of an unspoken tension—an anxiety about the presence of Japanese Canadians in this province, along with Indigenous people and other migrants—troubled memories in the bodies and spaces of the province that were disturbing and powerful—memories that were not written about in the history books available when I was a child in school. More recently, I’ve taken what I’ve learned from Japanese Canadian experiences and have done research on refugees fleeing contemporary conflict zones.
You’ve got a project coming up, Arts of Conscience. What’s that about?
Arts of Conscience: from Hiroshima to Vancouver is a one-day symposium at Centre A, an art gallery for contemporary Asian and Asian Canadian art. I’m working with Tama Copithorne, Makiko Hara from Centre A and my colleague, Christine Kim as well as Julia Aoki from Powell Street Festival Society. It follows from some of the work I was doing with the Friends Across the Pacific group—who organized the arts benefit at VIVO for the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami fund—and the projects I’ve been doing on Asian Canadian issues in culture and research since returning to Vancouver in 2003. Arts of Conscience: from Hiroshima to Vancouver is a one-day symposium on art and aesthetics that explores peace and ways of transforming the damaging forces of war, military occupation and the resulting generations of trauma. The symposium is organized in conjunction with the visit to Vancouver by Miyako Ishiuchi, internationally renowned Japanese contemporary photographer, to celebrate her exhibition hiroshima. Linda Hoaglund, a documentary filmmaker is coming as her translator and also to film the opening of the exhibition for NHK. Both are speaking at the symposium along with Vancouver-based artists, Dana Claxton, Cindy Mochizuki, Larry Nickel, and Colin Thomas. We’re also screening Linda’s 2010 film, ANPO: ART X WAR during the symposium as the film gives the context for contemporary artists in Japan working on questions of war, military occupation and questions of peace.
People can reserve tickets, online before October 10th by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: 604-683-8632 or www.centrea.org/index.cfm?go=site.index§ion=news&id=85
The opening reception for hiroshima is on October 13th , 7-9PM at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. The public is welcome.