THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Nisei stories

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bioline_Greg RobinsonIn an essay in my co-edited 2018 book “John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy,” I described Okada’s writing as “a seed in a devastated landscape.” The devastated landscape, of course, was the field of Japanese American writing after World War II. During the 1930s, Japanese community newspapers served as a forum for a broad selection of Nisei authors, who published reams of short stories, poetry, and columns in their pages. After the war, they all but disappeared from view. The new and revived Nisei press no longer featured the Sunday literature pages that brought together readers and writers, while the prewar generation all but disappeared from view. Whether out of psychological trauma, lack of creative time and ready outlets for their work, family and job responsibilities, or pressure from outside the community, they largely ceased to produce literature in the postwar years, especially in regard to their wartime experience.

Yet, if few Japanese Americans, in the years surrounding 1945, were able to convey through creative fiction their group’s wartime experience, numerous white writers took up the pen with that intention. Authors such as Florence Crannell Means, Anne Emery and Karon Kehoe published novels with Japanese American main characters. The 1946 novel “Tale of the Twain,” by Samuel Constantino, Jr. which had a white protagonist, dramatized the plight of Nisei in prewar California. In a recent column on Constantino, I mentioned that he was one of several GI authors who had published fiction on Japanese American themes. I also referenced in this regard Pvt. Al Hicks’ story “The Menace,” which appeared in Rob Wagner’s Script Magazine; and T/5 James Milton Meade’s “Home in the West,” which appeared in the March 10, 1945 issue of the Army magazine The Amphibian.

I wish to discuss today two short stories from this period that stand out in terms of their quality and authorship. The first is “Nakamura Comes Home,” by (Rev.) Henry H. Hayden. Hayden, born in Connecticut in 1918, had served during the war as pastor of the Community Congregational Church in Guerneville, Calif., where he had denounced from the pulpit the treatment of Japanese Americans. After witnessing incidents of prejudice against Japanese Americans who returned to the area after being released from camp, he wrote a fictionalized account. Hayden’s story, “Nakamura Comes Home” first appeared in a literary magazine based at the University of New Mexico, and soon after was reprinted in the Pacific Citizen. The story recounts the return of Kido Nakamura to the California town of Bonneville, where he had grown up. After being confined at Tanforan (there is no indication in the story whether he was ever sent to a War Relocation Authority camp) he had joined the Army and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. While his chest is lined with medals and he walks with a perceptible limp due to a war wound, Nakamura faces prejudice against him as a Nisei. He first stops at the hotel where he used to live and work, but a former colleague tells him that the new owners are unwelcoming. He proceeds to walk through the town, seeing racist signs all over as tangible evidence of anti-Japanese sentiments. Walking outside town to a farm where he thinks he can get a job, he is harassed by drunks. The experience finally forces him to ponder his future in the town. Hayden may have rethought his own place in Guerneville, since by the time the story appeared, he was serving as a Protestant chaplain at the University of New Mexico. He returned to California a decade later, where he served as a pastor at UCC churches and as a civil rights advocate. He retired in 1984 and died in 2018.

Another story of note is “Welcome Home!” first published in Yank, the weekly GI magazine published by the U.S. Army. It was also reprinted in the Pacific Citizen. “Welcome Home!” tells the story of a pair of soldiers returning home after serving overseas. The two run into each other on a train and talk about the reception that they look forward to upon arrival. The first soldier, who is not named or described, but who is inferentially white, proceeds to get off the train to a warm welcome by parents, a girlfriend and the family pet. The second soldier, a Japanese American, has no one waiting for him, since his family is still incarcerated in an Arizona concentration camp. He is ignored or greeted coldly by the locals in his hometown, and when he gets to his family home, he finds that it has been vandalized and painted with racist epithets.

The author of this story, identified as “Sgt. Len Zinberg,” was Leonard Zinberg, whose colorful career has been recovered by the literary historian Alan Wald. Born in New York City in 1911, Zinberg was a member of the left-wing League of American Writers during the late 1930s. His first published novel, “Walk Hard-Talk Loud,” (1940) is a proletarian fiction whose main character is an African American prizefighter. It drew critical praise from the likes of Ralph Ellison and George Schuyler. Zinberg served in the Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1945, and was employed as a correspondent for Yank in southern Italy. In the months following his discharge, he published short stories on a nearly monthly basis in The New Yorker. “Welcome Home” seems to have served as a kind of prelude or trial run for these stories, many of which also dealt with the problems of ex-servicemen — including racism against non-whites. In the late 1940s, Zinberg published two more novels under his own name. However, beginning with his 1951 fiction “The Woman Accused,” he turned to writing crime and detective novels under the pen name Ed Lacy, and produced a series of successful potboilers. In his 1957 novel “Room to Swing,” the author introduced the private investigator Toussaint “Touie” Marcus Moore, who stands as one of the first African American detectives in mainstream popular fiction. By the time Zinberg died in 1968, he had more than 30 novels to his credit, both under his own name and that of Ed Lacy.

The outburst of literature about Japanese Americans by non-Japanese in the period surrounding 1945 testifies to the electrifying impact on the country of news of the Nisei soldiers and their exploits. The bravery of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, widely reported in military dispatches and the mainstream press, further demonstrated the injustice and absurdity of mass incarceration. However, as the stories depicted, even Nisei combat veterans would be forced to confront prejudice anew on the West Coast following their return home.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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