In Julie Otsuka’s historical novel, When the Emperor was Divine, a Japanese American Berkeley resident, in the process of returning a library book, sees a sign in a post office window, takes a few notes on the back of a bank receipt, goes home and begins to pack. In a few swiftly moving pages, she and her family are aboard a train to an internment camp.
Otsuka’s novel is fictional, insofar as it contains fictional characters that she has textured into the arc of her plot; but the plot was constructed of America’s factual history. This is a story of immigrants rounded up and sent to barbed wire enclaves. It is a story of becoming the “other” within the narratives of our assimilation.
The fortitude of the immigrant spirit is limitless. At every instance of estrangement, we often become stronger in our ability to withstand and endure. We come closer to others similarly marginalized. Every one of these damaged links in our society has the potential to become a stronger tie that knots silkily around our shared experiences.
This was an acknowledged shameful episode in America’s history. Sadly, little is known or told about immigrant internment experiences in India.
Chinese-Indian-American Berkeley resident Yin Marsh in her memoir, Doing Time with Nehru, relates how she and her family were “carted off like common criminals” in India during the India-China war, when ethnic Chinese were herded and dispatched to an internment camp in Rajasthan, while her neighbors looked on through their windows. In the camp, young Marsh and her brother forged friendships, learned strategies for survival and adjusted to their incarceration with youthful inventiveness.
Each one of us has personal experiences of being excluded or alienated. It is that feeling of becoming a mere observer in the events that shape our own lives. It gives wings to the sense of inferiority that lies latent in us. It could be as simple as being excluded from a work meeting; benched at a basketball game; dropped from an invite list; or unchosen during a pick-a-partner session.
But these very instances make us sit up, take stock, and reinvent ourselves. These are the ways that we begin to reorder our self-worth as individuals and as a community.
I admire the tenacity we have to overcome our various mistreatments. It was Ernest Hemingway who once said, that “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” We are the “some.”