The creative writing assignment was two-fold: Personalize a story the teacher had read to the class about a bank robbery and then write something about herself that might be of interest to others. For the latter, Jeanette S. Arakawa wrote about her time in Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas.
After reading her story, the teacher asked to see her after class.
“Is that true?” he asked.
Arakawa said that despite his academic background and having done his undergraduate work at the University of Arkansas, the instructor had never heard of the camps.
“He said, ‘You absolutely have to write this,’” she recalled.
She explained to him that internment camp memoirs were already a genre and that many books had been written on the subject. But not her story – yet. He told her to “write it from the perspective of the child that you were – write your story.”
That she did, crafting it over several years. The result is “The Little Exile” (Stone Bridge Press, 2017).
Told from the perspective of the little girl that she was when war broke out – Arakawa was born in 1932 – the story follows “Marie” (her fictional name), her parents and her brother from their life in San Francisco in 1941 to their internment in camps in Stockton and Arkansas and their postwar relocation first to Denver and finally back to San Francisco in 1945. The book has been well received, with Arakawa now busy doing readings and talks.
Arakawa’s husband, Kiyoto, also spent time interned in Arkansas, at Camp Jerome. They have two sons and one granddaughter. They’ve lived in Los Altos Hills since the 1970s.
Arakawa graduated from San Francisco’s Lowell High School and UC Berkeley, where she earned a degree in public health. Her husband became a dentist and the couple settled in Palo Alto, where they lived in an Eichler home.
“At that time, Eichler was one of the few developers who would permit nonwhites,” she said. “But we were in a neighborhood where there were some highly educated stay-at-home moms, as was the custom at that time.”
Arakawa became involved with the PTA.
“It was always my feeling that one of the reasons that I was not recognized as an American was because of children’s education,” she explained. “One of the areas that could possibly be controlled or influenced was the textbooks.”
She was elected human relations chairwoman of the Palo Alto PTA council and started the evaluation of textbooks for a multicultural perspective, working with various politicians toward diversity in textbooks and writing essays on education and multicultural issues.
Sharing her story
Later, Arakawa wrote accounts of her travels for friends to read. She took creative writing classes through Stanford Continuing Education.
“It was fun. I learned a great deal, because what I wrote was factual before,” she said. “And basically the rule was, ‘Don’t tell me, show me.’ So as much as I could possibly do that in my story, I tried to show people.”
In “The Little Exile,” Arakawa writes: “There was also an invisible war going on in the United States that I didn’t understand. It was unseen and mysterious, because there were no battles. It was this invisible war that made us prisoners and caused things to happen to me and my family. The army of my country decided we were the enemy, although we never attacked them or did any harm to anybody. The FBI even proved that we were not enemies. But that didn’t matter. That invisible force was strong. It was an enormous thing like the white blob that invaded my dreams when I was sick. It invaded my mind then seeped down into my stomach and sucked it empty, leaving me alone and afraid.”
Arakawa said her writing is “something I’ve done out of necessity, and it’s something that’s been a source of satisfaction and enjoyment.” Her first personal story, written many years ago, came about after a painful moment.
“During the period when I was working on textbooks, we were on our way to Santa Barbara … and there was a car that had a license plate (frame) that said ‘Pearl Harbor Survivor’ – it just threw me into a panic,” she said. “It resulted in very irrational behavior on my part: My husband was driving and … I was ducking under the dashboard.”
She wrote a story about the experience for a local newspaper for Japanese-Americans, which had a yearly contest. Her story won second place.
“One of the readers responded, chastising me for being so weak-minded,” she said. “And I thought, ‘That’s the last time I’m going to expose myself like that.’ … I definitely would not have written the book at that time.”
Arakawa’s Stanford teachers inspired her to tell her story. When she finished, she distributed copies of the manuscript to friends but never got around to sending it to a publisher.
Then Arakawa met Satsuki Ina, the filmmaker behind “Children of the Camps,” a documentary that chronicles the stories of Japanese-Americans who were interned as children. Ina encouraged Arakawa to submit her manuscript for “The Little Exile” and gave her the name of a publisher.
“So now I’m having this amazing experience with it,” Arakawa said of her book.
Arakawa’s friend Irene Sasaki was born in an internment camp, as was Sasaki’s husband.
“But we were infants, and don’t remember any of the things Jeanette describes,” Sasaki said. “So to hear what it was really like… . It speaks a lot to Jeanette for being able to put it down.”
Arakawa wrote in the book’s “Note to the Reader” that most of the incidents in the book are real, but she created details that she no longer remembered.
“I had fun with some of them, For example, the thing with my father wanting to brew sake” (to disastrous results), she said. “It sprouted wings and sort of flew out of my imagination.”
When the young Arakawa and her family returned to San Francisco after their stay in Denver, they lived in Japantown.
“That’s where the housing was,” she said. “Before that, the two places we lived in were not part of the Japanese community. After that, I never really got integrated into the general community.”
Most of the returnees, she noted, remained outsiders. Racial segregation in San Francisco continued long after the war, with “racial covenants” determining where people could live.
“When Kiyo and I were married in 1956, we were looking for an apartment,” Arakawa said. “The newspaper ads would say ‘Covenant,’ which told us we shouldn’t even bother calling.”
The pain of the past remains. Arakawa said when Executive Order 9066 was issued in 1942, “it required anybody of Japanese ancestry to move out of the restricted areas. … Basically it says Japanese ancestry – aliens and nonaliens … instead of saying aliens and citizens. … So we were sort of deprived of our identity as citizens.”
Arakawa said the two things that have remained with her are “wanting to be considered an American and … not being responsible for the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”
She wanted “The Little Exile” to express a feeling of shared humanity, emphasizing that “we shouldn’t let artificial boundaries separate us.”
Arakawa has found writing her story therapeutic. But the best thing may be “the fact that people would want to read what I’ve written,” she said. She is considering writing a sequel at some point, continuing on with their post-camp lives.
“Like my father said prophetically before we left Denver, ‘We’re going to have to start all over again,’ and that’s basically what we did,” she said.
Her advice for seniors considering writing memoirs: “I say go for it. And don’t tell us, show us.”
For more information on “The Little Exile,” visit stonebridge.com/catalog/the-little-exile.