THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Queer non-Nikkei figures in Japanese American history (Part III)

Editor’s Note: This is the third part of an ongoing series.

If Monika Kehoe fired off an article with barbed comments regarding the U.S. government’s wartime confinement of Japanese Americans, Karon Kehoe launched a bazooka attack in the form of her novel “City in the Sun.”

Karon was just 24 years old when she left the Gila River, Ariz. concentration camp and arrived in New York, in early 1944. It is not clear precisely when or why she broke up with Monika Kehoe. What is certain is that she enrolled at Hunter College, and majored in sociology.

Meanwhile, she threw herself into writing a fictionalized account of her experience at Gila River. In a speech to the New York chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League soon afterward, she explained that she had been “angered into writing” the book, both by her outrage over the principle of mass confinement of Japanese Americans and by the Wartime Relocation Authority’s careless treatment of inmates. While she had not met any Issei and Nisei before the war, she had gotten to know many Japanese Americans in camp and to see their plight.

In the process, she explained, she “became more and more incensed at her fellow Americans for permitting such atrocities to be established here while we were sending their sons to fight.” Kehoe added that she put together notes on her observations, but had initially waited for a Japanese American author to write about the camps, as she did not feel qualified as an outsider to discuss the social impact of mass removal or resettlement. However, when no work by former inmates appeared, she decided to write the story of an average family as a window into the larger experience. (In fact, some Nisei were engaged in recording the camp experience — Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir “Citizen 13660” appeared shortly before “City in the Sun,” while writer Hiroshi Nakamura drafted “Treadmill,” a “documentary novel,” though it did not see print until some 50 years later).

Kehoe evidently drafted her manuscript with great speed, because she was able to put together a synopsis and a rough draft in time to submit them for the Dodd, Mead Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship Prize, the deadline for which was April 1, 1945 — barely a year after Kehoe left camp. The book’s initial draft clearly impressed the judges, as Kehoe won an award (she shared the prize with Constance Beresford-Howe, a young author from McGill University in Montreal). In keeping with the terms of the fellowship, she took a one-term leave from school to finish the manuscript. (Presumably drawing from Dodd-Mead’s own press release, “The Fitchburg” (Massachusetts) Sentinel stated that the prize had been awarded to a “story of a Relocation Center, an American Concentration Camp”). The novel in its final form was put out by Dodd-Mead in the last weeks of 1946.

“City in the Sun” is a sympathetic account of the traumatic impact of the wartime incarceration on a Japanese American family, the Matsukis. Katsuji Matsuki, a YMCA secretary and New York University graduate, lives in Pasadena with his wife Tsuyo and their son, Hiroto Charles “Coke” Matsuki. Their world is shattered after Pearl Harbor. Katsuji is arrested by the FBI and incarcerated in Montana. Soon afterward, the family home is ransacked and pillaged by a mob. Coke and Tsuyo are sent to the Assembly Center at the “Santa Ynez” racetrack (based on Santa Anita), where they are sent to live in an abandoned horse stall, and then to the “Maricopa” camp in Arizona (a fictionalized version of the Gila River camp, built on Maricopa Indian tribal land). Tsuyo manages to adapt to camp by helping teach an English class for Issei. In contrast, Coke is demoralized by the camp environment and becomes hostile and unmanageable.

Much of Kehoe’s book is taken up by a series of subplots that explore the experience of various inmates amid the heat, dust, desolation and boredom of camp life. In parallel, she depicts the plight of white WRA staff, with their complicated interpersonal relationships and love lives. Although their living conditions are better than that of the Japanese Americans they watch over and their liberties remain unrestricted, the staffers suffer along with the inmates from the excessive heat, dust and insects in camp. These all lead to high turnover rates, alcoholism and inefficiency among those with what the author dubs “Maricopa fever.”

The book’s central white character is Dr. Kathleen Arnold. Like Monika Kehoe, Arnold is director of the camp’s adult education program. (She is depicted as a self-important and arrogant person who is overly proud of possessing a doctorate — if her character was similarly based on that of Monika Kehoe, one might suppose that Karon Kehoe was taking some literary revenge by slamming her former lover!). It is Arnold who sets the novel’s climactic events in motion. Again like Monika Kehoe, who sponsored a real-life Nisei teenager in order to get him out of camp, the fictional Arnold agrees to bring Coke Matsuki with her until his family can resettle — the author icily depicts this act of generosity as an ill-considered decision by a woman obsessed with playing Lady Bountiful. After bringing Coke to Brooklyn, Arnold then dumps him at her sister’s house. There the boy is regarded with suspicion by his host family and treated as a common servant. He is soon so miserable that he runs away. In the end, Coke’s parents, who have emerged from camp, take him back from the Arnolds and bring him off with them to an uncertain new life in Massachusetts.

“City in the Sun” received widespread attention and generally positive reviews, though mostly for its sociological content and message. The Los Angeles Times, which had beat the drum for mass removal during 1942, praised the book as “thoughtful, sincere, and honest.” Critic Irene Ellwood asserted that a more experienced writer could have made the work into a powerful and tragic novel. Nonetheless, she recognized the “authoritative” background of the story and conceded, “However the reader feels about this subect of evacuation and concentration centers, much that is true has to be admitted here.” The Hagerstown (Maryland) Morning Herald referred to the book as, “A moving story of the Katauyi (sic) family, condemned because of their Japanese blood to a Relocation Center in the Arizona Desert, and of their struggles to maintain their loyalty to the land of their choice.” The “Mansfield (Ohio) News-Journal” added that the author “paints with deep understanding the variegated Japanese Americans confined in a relocation center … The reader feels the helpless waiting and understands the tense drama of pride and frustration, hate and love in the heart of the desert city.” The New York Times enthusiastically praised the author for her “outraged sympathy,” while “Common Ground” admired her ability to project into the minds of her Japanese American subjects. The reviewer for the left-wing magazine New Masses praised the author for her unsparing portrait of the brutal treatment of Japanese Americans, but complained that she had not connected it with the plight of other American minorities.
The book attracted an enthusiastic response from Japanese American reviewers. Guyo Tajiri produced an admiring column in The Pacific Citizen: “For the Nisei, the evacuation was a horrible experience in humiliation. The remembering of the incredible humiliation and agony of that experience must be, to the Nisei who went through it, an experience that burns upon the heart. Even the reading of it, as in ‘City in the Sun,’ will bring back the anger and the vast loneliness that was the evacuation.”

Miné Okubo, whose memoir “Citizen 13660” was released the same month and who contributed an original drawing of camp life alongside her review, marveled that Kehoe had succeeded in presenting a true-to-life portrait that resonated with what she herself had gone through: “Parts of the story made me cry, parts made me chuckle, and parts made me howl with delighted recognition of center types and parallel situations.”

Karon Kehoe does not seem to have interacted further with Japanese Americans after the appearance of “City in the Sun,” or taken any public position on issues related to wartime confinement. I have not been able to discover much information on her later life. In 1950, she married Raymond F. Graeter in Philadelphia, but apparently kept her name, at least for professional purposes. In the 1950s, she lived in New York, where she was employed as jobs editor at the women’s magazine Charm. In 1955, she gave a lecture at a conference on secretarial work sponsored by New York University’s Gould House on the question, “What do you want to be doing five years from now?” At a conference the same year sponsored by the American Management Association, she proposed that increased hiring of women would help ease an anticipated labor shortage in American industry. In 1970, she obtained a master’s degree in theater at University of Connecticut, where she appeared in stage productions. During the late 1970s, she was employed as a teacher at Walnut High School in Natick, Mass. In later life she lived in Chico, Calif. She died in 2011, at the age of 91.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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