Book explores significance of JA camp art


By Thomas Girst (Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang, 2015, 261 pp., $64.95, hardcover)

With the latest Paris attacks and the subsequent call for the incarceration of Muslim Americans by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, the memory and history of Japanese American incarceration still looms large not only in the U.S. public but also in Europe.

Thomas Girst, a German literary scholar on Japanese American cultural productions in the concentration camps, argues the importance of examining how Japanese American inmates expressed themselves through art and literature. Girst articulates that, “through the art made in the camps, we can begin to learn more about the artistic output of a vital and prolific generation of Japanese American artists and start the ‘long process of reclaiming their histories’” (p. 38). By centering most of the discussion on John Okada and his seminal novel “No-No Boy,” Girst refreshingly demonstrates that “No-No Boy” was not initially neglected by the literary establishment, but rather, it was received well by Japanese Americans such as Bill Hosokawa’s review in the Pacific Citizen and Earl Roy Miner, a UCLA Japanese literature professor. Although Girst’s historical discovery is a needed contribution, a more important question, which Girst does not address, is why did the historical narrative of the initial rejection of “No-No Boy” come to dominate and prevail in the minds of so many in the Japanese American community?

“Art, Literature, and the Japanese American Internment” is organized primarily into two parts, with the first contextualizing the different cultural forms in the concentration camps. By surveying the cultural expressions of Isamu Noguchi and Miné Okubo and particular forms such as camp photography, prose and poetry, Girst allows for the reader to understand how others in the incarceration camps created cultural productions.

In the second part of the book, Girst dives deep into John Okada’s background and his novel, “No-No Boy.” The book is a good addition to any fan of Japanese American art and literature; however, there is one critique that should be noted to any potential readers. The first is the ways in which Girst attempts to bridge Japanese American incarceration with the concentration camps in the Holocaust. Girst does not believe that the Japanese American incarceration should be viewed as concentration camps, even though many in the Japanese American community, including the Japanese American Citizens League, have advocated for the labeling the incarceration as American concentration camps in “Power of Words Handbook: A Guide to Language about Japanese Americans in World War II” (2013). Although it is an important discussion, I did not see the benefit of re-evoking this debate in contextualizing Okada’s literary work. However, the book is a good contribution to the growing interest in revisiting the incarceration experience through the lens of art and literature created in these spaces.

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