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

 

(Editor’s Note: This is the last of a multi-part series)

One especially noteworthy aspect of Karon Kehoe’s groundbreaking Japanese American camp novel “City in the Sun,” published in 1946, is its portrait of sexuality in camp, especially alternative sexuality, a point that raises interesting questions both for scholars of literature and for historians. In particular, Kehoe uses homoeroticism to illustrate the demoralization of Coke Matsuki, her teenaged protagonist, within the harsh climate of the Maricopa camp. Bored and resentful at his confinement, Coke responds by joining a gang of older teens led by Tosh and Joe, two young toughs from East Los Angeles. From the gang members, he learns to swear in Spanish, and engages in juvenile delinquency. 

What is especially striking is the author’s description of Coke’s initial encounter with the gang. Coke is invited by his buddy George to a clandestine nighttime rendezvous with Joe and Tosh in the men’s latrine (which is officially off limits at that hour). Once arrived, he finds the gang members all stripped naked. After stating with bravado how much he will love the feeling of a cold shower, Coke is told to disrobe and go with the others into the shower room, an order that fills him with trepidation:

“Coke swallowed. Something thick and pounding was pushing against his eardrums and his temples. His thoughts blurred. Lots of words swirled around in his mind, words he’d seen on fences and on the walls of toilets. Words he wasn’t supposed to know; in fact, some words he hadn’t known he did know. He wanted to get out of there. Tosh and George and Joe were acting queerly he thought. (p. 124)”

Mastering his fear, Coke strips and heads into the shower room. Tosh orders George to watch the door for them, as he looks Coke over, drawling: 

“‘I can see Peaches here seems to need a lot of teaching — about a lot of things.’”

His eyes dropped suggestively and his mouth twisted in a sly, mocking leer.” 

 

Before he can act, however, the encounter is aborted by a flash lightning storm, which forces all the boys to evacuate the latrine. Joe, who likewise addresses Coke as “Peaches” and “Lily,” says that he will take the boy back to his barrack, then threatens him with (unspecified) punishment if he informs on them. (p. 126) 

Although the scene ends there, Kehoe follows with another passage a few pages onward that indicates that some sort of illicit sexual relationship (though seemingly pleasurable) has ensued between Coke and Joe in the succeeding days. The author describes Coke’s life and feelings through a reverie: 

“Joe waiting for him after dinner. Joe waiting for him in the night to take him to the shower rooms. Coke’s days were filled with suspense and uncertainty, his nights riddled with fear and excitement. There were a few bad times — that first night had been the worst. Shame, in great scorching sheets, had alternated with frozen numbness in dread of discovery. And always pricking him when he was most ashamed, most afraid, was curiosity about the new experience that had been opened to him. As the visits to the shower changed to visits back to the hospital, between school buildings where the shadows lay thickest, curiosity changed to pleasure, pleasure to habit and with habit came callousness of conscience and dimunition in the intensity of conscious conflict.” (p. 132)

There is no further discussion of this sexual connection in Kehoe’s narrative. Rather, the author describes at length a sumo wrestling match in which Kaz (a heroic character presented as working to help keep order in camp) defeats Joe. Nor does the author depict any hesitation on Coke’s part about leaving camp, or relate his goodbyes to the gang members.

None of City in the Sun” reviewers seem to have made any comment on the book’s (admittedly brief) homoerotic scenes, which clearly passed through the publisher’s vetting process as well. The historian is left wondering whether this silence was one of ignorance, or whether Kehoe’s treatment of sexual relationships between teenaged Nisei males was considered unremarkable. Though the author’s meaning is self-evident to a current-day reader, is it conceivable that the passages in question were too vague or subtle to register with censors or critics? 

This question is difficult to answer with any certainty. To be sure, there were a few mainstream novels published during the period that addressed the subject of homosexuality more or less openly, such as Willard Motley’s “Knock on Any Door,” Charles Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend” and “The Fall of Valor,” and Richard Brooks’s “The Brick Foxhole.” Though they tended to describe actual intercourse — if at all — as allusively as “City in the Sun,” the presence of same-sex desire in these novels was well understood by critics, and it did not stop them from being published or acclaimed. (Motley’s and Brooks’s novels were successful enough to be adapted into Hollywood films, as was Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend,” though in each case all homosexual references were excised from the screen version). On the other hand, it is not clear in such a case why Kehoe made use of the words “acting queerly” to describe the gang members’ behavior: such a turn of phrase might usefully serve as coded language to telegraph the author’s intent to discerning readers if the general meaning of her words was not self-evident, but would seem an unnecessary addition if it was.

The larger historical question is how much the same-sex relations in City in the Sun” represent pure invention (or metaphor) on Karon Kehoe’s part, and how much they reflected the reality of life at Gila River, or indeed the other camps. This is an especially ticklish matter because longstanding taboos against homosexuality, both within Japanese American communities and in the larger society, make witnesses reticent about furnishing information regarding such matters. Even today, the mass of data regarding any incidences of homosexual conduct in camp remains hidden (historian John Howard has located a single instance where two male inmates were found in a compromising position and charged by center police with disorderly conduct).

As a result, it is difficult to determine the answer from the available evidence. 

On the one hand, there are solid grounds for presuming that the episode is imagined. Kehoe would have had little opportunity in camp to witness any actual same-sex contacts herself, or to obtain information regarding their existence. Monika Kehoe, for her part, subsequently testified that she and Karon were so grateful to be allowed to stay together in camp, and yet so fearful that their own romantic relationship would be revealed, that they refrained from seeking out other lesbian and gays within camp — they even avoided most socializing with other staffers or with inmates outside of work. What is more, the style of Karon Kehoe’s narrative fits closely with that of imaginative fiction: the language she gives to the gang members during the encounter with Coke in the shower, in particular, has something of the flavor of a pulp novel. 

On the other hand, there are strong points in favor of the overall authenticity of the portrayal. First, the author firmly expressed her intent to provide a realistic collective portrait of camp life, and it is difficult to believe that she would have risked arousing criticism by introducing such a jarringly discordant element if it was altogether false. Furthermore, as has been noted, reviewers of “City in the Sun,” including Japanese Americans, underlined the particular verisimilitude of Kehoe’s account. In a discussion of “City in the Sun” in the Saturday Review, Miné Okubo, who had been confined at Topaz, stated that the uncanny accuracy of Kehoe’s evocation of camp life alternately brought her to tears and to hysterical laughter. 

In sum, the evidence seems inconclusive, and unless historians can obtain direct testimony from former inmates on the subject, the question of same-sex activity in camp must remain tantalizingly unresolved.

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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