Susan Aihoshi: on family, history + finding a new voice
Tuesday, October 27
Kay and Emma went to a meeting about the teaching jobs after breakfast, so I was on my own. I took a long walk along the main road until there were no more houses. The only traffic was a big truck loaded with logs. I noticed a sign to Rosebery, another internment camp north of here, and another sign pointing east to Sandon and Kaslo. I kept going as far as the railway tracks and nearly jumped out of my skin when a boy my age suddenly appeared and asked if I was lost!
I told him I wasn’t. Then he asked me whether I was from Rosebery or The Orchard, because if I was from Rosebery, it was faster following the tracks than using the main road. I thanked him and said I was from The Orchard, even though that’s not entirely true! He smiled and said he might see me there. His father is one of the Doukhobor farmers in the area who sell vegetables to the Japanese. They’re usually at The Orchard on Thursdays.
The boy’s name is Alex Davidoff. He likes walking the tracks because he often sees birds and deer. We headed back to the road together just as a bearded man in a horse-drawn wagon pulled up. Alex said it was his father and went to meet him. But before he did, he tipped his cap and wished me good day! I waved as the wagon went by and Alex waved back. It’s strange he wasn’t in school.
After lunch, my sisters and I went to visit the Yamasakis. I was stunned when we went inside but tried not to show it. It’s tiny, yet Mrs. Yamasaki said it’s really a two-family cabin. There’s no electricity and no running water here either. The wooden kitchen sink has a hole that drains straight outside!
Mrs. Yamasaki sent her daughters to fetch water for tea so I went along to help. It’s quite a distance to the village. The full buckets were very heavy but Mrs. Yamasaki gave the youngest girl a metal teapot to carry instead. Now I understand why Sachi wrote that this was such hard work.
The girls are so polite, not yancha like Harry. Dori is nine, Joy is seven and Bonnie is five. The older lady, Mrs. Imai, is Mrs. Yamasaki’s mother and the girls’ baachan. Mr. Yamasaki owned a Vancouver dry cleaning shop, but like Mas, he was sent to Angler for protesting back in May. His family hasn’t had a letter from him since September.
The cabin has two wood stoves, one for heating and one for cooking. My sisters helped Mrs. Yamasaki start the fire in the cooking stove because she was so used to her electric stove in Vancouver. The ocha was good and Mrs. Imai brought out a tin of senbei to munch on. Mrs. Yamasaki apologized for not having any nice teacups but, like everyone else, the family left their good dishes behind at home. We had a nice visit all the same and made some new friends. And I think I may have made friends with a Doukhobor today too!
from Torn Apart, The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, by Susan Aihoshi.
The latest book in Scholastic Canada’s Dear Canada series, Torn Apart, The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, is by Toronto’s Susan Aihoshi. Written in the voice of a fictional 12-year-old girl, the first entry is May 24, 1941, Mary’s birthday—several months before the events that would change the lives of all Japanese Canadians living on the British Columbia coast. From there it goes on to chronicle the building tensions in Vancouver, fanned in large part by the media and anti-Japanese politicians. The story itself is familiar but what sets it apart is the age and gender of its narrator.
The book is poignant in its depiction of a community swept up in events beyond their control as seen through the eyes of young girl trying to make sense of it all. Labelled an enemy alien even as she is affirming her own sense of self, Mary is by turns bewildered, outraged and powerless. She watches her father lose his job as the government tightens the restrictions on those of Japanese descent, leading eventually to their removal from the coast to internment camps in the interior, all of which she chronicles in her diary.
The Dear Canada series, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, is aimed at Canadian girls, with each volume written in the voice of a young girl and covering a portion of Canadian history. As such this book is good way to introduce young people, particularly girls, to the wartime experience of Japanese Canadians.
Susan talked to The Bulletin by e-mail from her home in Toronto.
Susan Aihoshi: In her Own Words
Your parents and grandparents were interned in New Denver during the War. Tell me about your family’s history in Canada prior to that.
I am the only daughter of James Naotaka Aihoshi, who died in 1967. My father’s father, Naosuke Aihoshi, was a tailor in Vancouver. I am unsure when my grandfather came to Canada from Kagoshima-ken in Japan but he first worked on the railroads and quit soon after when he saw how the Chinese workers were being exploited as cheap labour. He decided he would learn to be a tailor instead and set up his own business. His wife died shortly after the last of my father’s five siblings was born. I always thought my father had been born in Vancouver but as I only recently learned, he was actually born in Japan and came to Canada as an infant. It was a struggle for my grandfather to raise his family and earn a living. He adopted a young Japanese woman, Mary Wari Shimodozono, to look after his children, someone we always regarded as part of our family.
My mother is Marie (Molly) Aihoshi, nee Iwasaki. My mother’s mother, Sakai Kusu, died when my mother was three years old. Mum had an older brother and two older sisters when her father, Yoriki Iwasaki, remarried the woman I knew as my maternal grandmother—Midori Iwasaki. They had another daughter and son, and later adopted another girl who was left without family in the internment camps. Before he remarried, my Iwasaki grandfather worked at Powell Drugs in Japantown.
My Iwasaki grandparents both worked at the Tairiku Nippo Sha or Continental Daily News because my grandmother’s uncle, Yasushi Yamazaki, owned the newspaper. Great-Uncle Yamazaki was famous for organizing the WWI Japanese Volunteer Corps that eventually enlisted in Alberta and fought bravely overseas.
Did you grow up hearing about the War years, or did your family, like many others, keep generally silent?
My grandparents never talked about Vancouver or the internment. Even if they had, my inability to speak Japanese would have hindered any real communication. My parents, aunts and uncles occasionally mentioned New Denver or the ghost towns but that was all. My mother did tell me about her childhood growing up in Vancouver but those stories were pleasant—being in Girl Guides, playing tennis with her friends, cycling to Lion’s Gate Bridge. And even though my mother and her two older sisters had been teachers in New Denver and Rosebery, I never thought to ask them why. The past, especially that of my older family members, did not interest me in my callow youth! I was so ignorant that, growing up in urban Toronto, I looked at the photos in my mother’s album and envied what I thought was my parents’ idyllic time in the beautiful Slocan Valley.
Are there parts of this book that mirror your family’s history or experience?
There are many aspects of the book that reflect my own family’s experiences, from small domestic details to real-life incidents. For example, my aunt told me that once, when she picked up her family’s party-line telephone to make a call, someone actually said: “Get off the line, you dirty Jap!”
Were various characters based on real individuals?
Because of the nature of the Dear Canada series, I had the liberty of creating my own fictional family, the Kobayashis. But Mary and the others are loosely based on my mother and her immediate family, as well as my father and his brother closest to him in age. Mary’s parents are roughly modelled on my maternal grandparents, with a bit of my paternal grandfather thrown in for good measure. I certainly had to rely a great deal on my mother’s and her oldest sister’s memories to bring Mary’s story to life.
From a young age, I have always enjoyed reading and someday hoped to become a writer. I studied creative writing and English literature at the University of Toronto and have worked in publishing most of my life, but had never written a book before. I’d quit a full-time editorial position in an attempt to become a writer back in 2002 but ended up as a freelance editor before I was offered a contract to write this book in 2009. Most people in my family were pleased and excited to learn I’d finally be writing one, particularly on this subject.
How did you get hooked up with Scholastic Canada?
It was thanks to my former manager, Hugh Brewster, a well-established children’s book author in his own right, that I was put in touch with Scholastic Canada. He told me that I was capable of writing a book for the Dear Canada series about the internment years and I guess the timing was right as my proposal was accepted!
How did you research the book?
Once I was offered a contract by Scholastic, I knew I had to begin my research in earnest. Although I became more aware of the uprooting and evacuation of the Japanese community during WWII as an adult, I realized how little I really knew about how it happened. I pored over Ken Adachi’s The Enemy That Never Was as well as Barry Broadfoot’s Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame and Muriel Kitagawa’s This Is My Own. That last work was a real eye-opener for me because for the first time I was hearing the anger of the voice of a nisei writing about those terrible events at the very time they were happening. I also read other books on this subject, both historical and fictional, along with various newspapers and magazine articles of the time. And I talked to my older family members. Many were reluctant to speak to me, largely because they thought they had nothing of interest to say—how wrong they were! And I also spoke to others who were not family, as well as my mother’s close hakujin friend from those long ago days in Vancouver. They all gave me different but still valuable perspectives. I gathered a wealth of material, more than enough for another book.
Was it difficult trying to squeeze so many historical details into one girl’s diary?
It was a great challenge to cover so much historical detail in one book and in the format of a 12-year-old girl’s diary too. I knew it wouldn’t be possible to include everything relevant, but I tried to incorporate as much as possible. For example, one of my uncles had been one of the few Japanese Canadians to join the army before WWII was over, so I wanted to depict how difficult it was for young men like him to enlist at the time. That’s why Mary’s older brother wanted to sign up.
Was it a challenge writing in the voice of a 12-year-old girl?
It wasn’t as hard to imagine myself as 12 years old as it was to write in the diary voice. It is unlike any other writing I have done because you can’t simply rely on narrative description or dialogue to tell the story! My wonderful editor, Sandra Bogart Johnson, helped me to find the right tone.
Did you have people who would have been the age of Mary read through the manuscript for authenticity? Or have others got through it?
Scholastic is very thorough—the manuscript was fact-checked for accuracy and period detail. Even the candy that is mentioned had to have been available back then! An academic historical consultant, Dr. Michiko (Midge) Ayukawa also read the text. I even asked a friend’s daughter close to Mary’s age to read through a version to see if it was credible to her. She found many of the events shocking but told me that the diary seemed “real” to her.
Was there anything you came across in your research that surprised you or gave you new insights into the internment experience?
The surprising aspect of my research was learning more about the family history of both my parents. It is an unexpected gift. I also have an enormous pride in what my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles were able to overcome as well as a greater appreciation for how I have been the beneficiary of their hard work and effort. I realize how much I had emphasized my Canadianness when I was growing up. Now I recognize how much I owe to the Japanese side of my heritage.
There have been many books written about the internment, A Child in a Prison Camp is one that comes to mind. How is your book different and why should people read it?
A Child in Prison Camp by Shizuye Takashima is a moving, lyrical work beautifully illustrated by the author’s own watercolours. Both Takashima’s book and Joy Kogawa’s retelling of her novel Obasan for children, Naomi’s Road, explore life in the camps in much greater detail than mine. Although the subtitle of my book is The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, one reviewer felt somewhat misled by it. But in showing more of Mary’s life as an ordinary Canadian girl who happened to be of Japanese heritage, I hoped to more fully dramatize the sustained impact of the community’s uprooting over several months in 1942, as well as its eventual displacement. I hope I have succeeded.