You Can't Stop Christmas

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II found it challenging to celebrate Christmas the way they were used to, but they did their best. That includes both the secular and the sacred aspects.

Take the residents of Topaz War Relocation Center, for example. Immediately upon arrival, four churches were formed: Buddhist (yes, they did call it a church), Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Seventh Day Adventist. The various Protestant denominations combined while they were in the camps, with their ministers sharing duties and taking turns preaching. Actually, all of these religious groups were already used to the system because they had organized the same way in the temporary assembly centers.

As the first Christmas behind barbed wire approached, the Christian churches and the secular community made plans to celebrate. School classrooms put up small greasewood Christmas trees, and dining hall staff participated in a contest to see which mess hall had the best decorations. The highlight of the week was a pageant entitled “The Other Wise Man,” with Goro Suzuki taking the lead role. (You may know him better under his stage name Jack Soo playing Detective Nick Yemana in the TV sitcom Barney Miller.)

The Topaz Times also got into the spirit of the season. Here is cartoonist Bennie Nobori’s Christmas comic from the December 25 edition. (Regular readers of this comic strip would have known that Jankee was in love with Topita.)

But Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, and the sacred celebrations are the most meaningful. The pageant had a religious theme, but the more traditional Christian elements were there, too. Yoshiko Uchida writes that carolers from her (Protestant) church came by on Christmas Eve and that she and her family attended its Christmas Day service.

The Japanese Americans celebrated Christmas behind barbed wire fences while they were being treated as enemies by their own country. If they could do that, then we can celebrate it wherever we are and in any circumstances.

Because Christmas is all about Jesus, and even Satan can’t stop it.


Most of the information from this post comes from various editions of the Topaz Times, which was the camp newspaper. As a U.S. Government publication, its contents are in the public domain.

Additional information comes from pgs. 128-130 of Desert Exile: The Uprooting of an American Family by Yoshiko Uchida.

When a Photo Isn't Worth a Thousand Words

Monday, December 18, 2017

Unaltered photos don’t exactly lie, but they can mislead. Consider this series of library photos taken by Dorothea Lange at Manzanar, California on July 1, 1942.

First, let me make it clear that I don’t believe Lange had any intention to mislead. To the contrary, her photos show a real desire to generate sympathy for the Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. As noted in last week’s post, many of her photos show the miserable conditions they were consigned to. She also personalized them with photos of family groups and children or ones showing them improving the camps on their own initiative.

I’m assuming Lange took the library photos because that’s the assignment she was given. But the captions she added had subtle messages contradicting the subject matter. Take the above photo. It appears to show a man comfortably reading (but note the crate for a chair) in a well-stocked library. And at first glance, that’s exactly what the caption says:

A barrack building has been turned into a library at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. A trained librarian of Japanese ancestry employs modern techniques in the management of this library which already contains a large stock of books donated by friends.

“A large stock of books donated by friends.” In other words, the government didn’t take any responsibility for stocking the library. The caption with this photo makes it even clearer.

The Main Library of this War Relocation Authority center. The Librarian is a graduate of the University of California Library School and employs modern library techniques. All books have been donated. [Emphasis added.]

Many donations were used books that people simply didn’t want, so the library collections at the camps weren’t nearly as varied as at public libraries and couldn’t meet the demand for popular reading material. And the donated magazines were probably more outdated than the ones you find in your dentist’s waiting room. The lack of variety comes out in the caption of this next photo.

A corner in the library at this War Relocation center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. This section contains books in the Japanese language, most of which are translations of English classics.

Since books written in Japanese were confiscated before or when the Japanese Americans left their homes, Lange’s caption tells us that they had no access to books with their own cultural stories and history.

Taken alone, these photos imply that the U.S. government was taking good care of the Japanese Americans it had incarcerated against their will. But the real story—or at least part of it—comes out in the captions.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words can be misleading even without Photoshop.

So be skeptical.


All photographs in this post were taken by Dorothea Lange. They are in the public domain because she was a War Relocation Authority photographer and the photos were taken as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government.

Hidden HIstory

Monday, December 11, 2017

Two weeks ago, I participated in a library book fair. Although I was selling copies of all my books, I wanted to highlight Desert Jewels, my middle-grade novel about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. So I put together a photo album with some of the official photos taken at the time by War Relocation Authority photographers.

I had plenty of pictures to choose from, but I was especially grateful for the ones that had recently become publicly available. Obviously, the Internet has increased access to almost everything, but that’s only part of this story. The other part is that many of Dorothea Lange’s most unsettling photos were quietly suppressed by the Army and buried in the National Archives. If you are interested in learning more about that story, I recommend Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. It’s worth buying just for the photographs.

Look at the picture at the top of this post, which Dorothea Lange took on June 30, 1942 in one of the hastily erected barracks at Manzanar, California. Manzanar was the first camp to be constructed, and many of the earliest residents lived there the entire time they were incarcerated. However, most of the Japanese Americans lived in temporary “assembly centers” while their more “permanent” accommodations were being built. Lange took the photos below on June 16, 1942 at the Tanforan Assembly Center, which was a former race track where horse stalls were converted into living quarters. There were some hastily-built barracks there, too, but I’m guessing that the interior photo shows one of these horse stall apartments.

As you can see, the living accommodations were anything but luxurious, and they came with minimal furnishings—one cot per person and nothing else. Eventually the Japanese-American residents built furniture from scrap lumber and found other ways to make their quarters more comfortable, but they had to rely on their own limited resources to do it.

Dorothea Lange didn’t last very long as a War Relocation Authority photographer, but I’m glad we have found the record that she left.

Photos are a great source of historical research, and they seldom lie. But even before Photoshop there were ways to make them tell a misleading story.

I’ll talk about that next week.


All photographs in this post were taken by Dorothea Lange. They are in the public domain because she was a War Relocation Authority photographer and the photos were taken as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government.

Writing Slave Dialogue

Monday, December 4, 2017

My current work-in-progress is about a Mississippi riverboat disaster, and part of it is set in Louisiana. The year is 1850, and slavery is still going strong. One of the supporting characters is a twelve-year-old slave, and that creates a dialogue problem.

I want Caleb’s dialogue to sound authentic, but I also want it to be readable and respectful. By respectful I mean that I’m trying to avoid stereotypes and also that I don’t want to give the impression that Caleb is less intelligent than my white protagonist, Lizzie. So how can I write dialogue that accomplishes all three goals?

Resources on writing dialects suggest choosing a few common characteristics identified with the dialect and that differ from what many people call “standard English.” Some sources suggest using them in the initial dialogue and then reverting to occasional references to remind readers that the character is speaking in dialect. Others suggest consistent use throughout. That sounds good in theory, but it is much harder in practice.

Obviously, the first step is to study the actual dialect. My primary resource for slave dialect is the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression (available at the Library of Congress website ( I have read a number of them looking for common characteristics that I can incorporate into Caleb’s speech.

The most dominant characteristic—used extensively in each narrative—has the speakers replacing “th” with “d,” as in “dese” instead of “these.” Unfortunately, I’m concerned that doing that may violate all three of my goals, making the dialogue hard to read, stereotypical, and unintelligent sounding. Take, for example, this sentence where Caleb tells Lizzie about the poisonous snakes in the bayou: “Dey only bite when you step on dem or dey are mad.” So even though that’s the most dominant characteristic, I may ignore it and concentrate on dropped “a”s at the beginning of words (“bout” for “about”),” dropped “g”s in words ending with “ng” (“talkin” for “talking”), and a few idioms such as “ain’t” and “chilluns” (children).

I’m only halfway through the second draft, so I still have time to figure it out.

But it’s hard.