The Pierce County library system picks a book every year for county residents to share in the Pierce County Reads program. This this year the book strikes close to home. Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” a 2010 New York Times bestseller, sets a bittersweet childhood romance squarely in one of the Northwest’s – and America’s – most controversial events: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Through more than 30 free events, including appearances by Ford on April 13, the program helps participants explore Asian culture and history along with the book. And the program launches today: the Day of Remembrance, and the day in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order to imprison more than 100,000 Japanese Americans because of their perceived threat to national security shortly after the attack by Japan on the United States.
In many ways, it started with a yellow button. When Ford, who is descended from Chinese immigrants and was raised near Seattle’s Chinatown, heard that his father had to wear a button reading “I Am Chinese” during the war years to protect him from anti-Japanese sentiment, his interest was sparked. He developed a short-story idea into a novel, creating a deep friendship between a Chinese American boy, Henry, and a Japanese American girl, Keiko, who is moved from Seattle with her family to the Minidoka Relocation Camp in southeast Idaho. The story is told both from Henry’s 11-year-old perspective and his older self, many years later.
“The book’s not a biography or autobiography,” said Ford, “but there’s a lot of emotional angst that found its way in there (from my family). And my grandfather, like the older Henry, looked up a long-lost love after his wife died, after 60 happy years of marriage. It was amazing to see him press the reset button on his heart.”
The novel, Ford said, is also a “love letter to the old neighborhood” of Japantown, much of which is now lost beneath Seattle’s International District: jazz at the Black Elks club, Japanese shops. Some parts are still there, however, and Ford also got inspiration from talking with the current owner of the Panama Hotel, whose discovery of 1940s Japanese treasures inspired the ending for the book.
Other locations in “Hotel,” however, are more bitter than sweet. Camp Harmony, at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, was a real (and often squalid) barracks for Japanese Americans on their way to more permanent internment camps such as Minidoka, which still exists in an abandoned state near Twin Falls, Idaho.
“I’ve been back (to Minidoka) six times,” said Larry Matsuda, a poet who’ll be a guest speaker in one of the Pierce County Reads events. “There’s nothing there now, just broken-down cellars, a gate, a plaque. Old barracks have been refurbished as homes.”
For Matsuda, who was born at Minidoka and spent his first nine months there, the memories are inherited. His book of poetry, “A Cold Wind from Idaho,” is based on a childhood filled with adults who suffered lifelong trauma and depression, of regular funerals for friends who committed suicide, of a past shame that haunted everyone.
“Here I am, an American born in the U.S. into captivity without any crime or trial,” Matsuda said. “And the Supreme Court ruled that that was OK. Afterward, no one (in the Japanese community) said anything.”
Matsuda said part of the value of Ford’s book is that it tells this seldom-heard story. It’s not a period of history that’s taught much in schools, he said, and the Japanese still don’t speak much of it either. At his poetry reading March 10, Matsuda will answer questions about Minidoka, confirming that what Ford researched and describes is the way things really were.
“I often get asked whether people really did wear those ‘I Am Chinese’ buttons,” he said. “Yes, they did.”
Other free events during the two-month Pierce County Reads program include tea ceremonies, calligraphy, sumi painting, origami, Taiko drumming, dance and speakers.
Ford said things are different now for Asian Americans. While he puts his own childhood experiences into the book – a huge language barrier between the older, Chinese-speaking generation and younger, English-speaking one; the feeling of “not being Chinese enough” as a Chinese Anglo American – he also optimistically details Henry’s son’s engagement with a white American girl as a bridge between the cultures.
“It’s much easier now, being multi-racial,” he said. “Uniqueness is identified as beneficial, kids are looking for ways to be unique and race is part of that. The world is a better place now, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
Matsuda is emphatic about the value of books such as his and Ford’s, especially at a time of anti-Muslim tensions and increased military activity. “The key point is that we don’t let something like this happen again,” he said. “It’s the legacy of the Japanese Americans to stand up if this happens again to another group.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
PIERCE COUNTY READS EVENTS
All events are free, but organizers ask that you bring a nonperishable food donation such as peanut butter, baby food, formula, canned food, juices, rice or pasta to support the Emergency Food Network. Schedule also available at Pierce County libraries, or at piercecountylibrary.org
Feb. 29, 7 p.m.: Author Kristina McMorris speaks and signs her book on internment, “Bridge of Scarlet Leaves,” University of Puget Sound Collins Memorial Library, Room 020, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma; 253-879-3669
Feb. 29, 7 p.m.: Treasure box craft, Summit Pierce County Library, 5107 112th St. E., Tacoma; 253-548-3321
March 3, 11 a.m.: Photography and personal histories, South Hill Pierce County Library, 15420 Meridian Ave. E., Puyallup; 253-548-3303
March 3, 2 p.m.: Sumi painting, Gig Harbor Pierce County Library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive N.W., Gig Harbor; 253-548-3305
March 4, 1 p.m.: Sumi painting, South Hill library
March 4, 2 p.m.: Tea tasting, University Place Pierce County Library, 3609 Market Place W., Suite 100, University Place; 253-548-3307
March 5, 6 p.m.: Origami, Parkland/Spanaway Pierce County Library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma; 253-548-3304
March 5, 7 p.m.: Law professor Lorraine K. Bannai speaks on the Japanese internment and the Korematsu court case, Lakewood Pierce County Library, 6300 Wildaire Road S.W., Lakewood; 253-548-3302
March 10, 11 a.m.: Japanese treasure trunk, Buckley Pierce County Library, 123 S. River Ave., Buckley; 253-548-3310 or 360-829-0300
March 10, 1 p.m.: Photography and personal histories, Orting Pierce County Library, 202 Washington Ave. S., Orting; 253-548-3312
March 10, 2 p.m.: Chinese treasure trunk, Graham Pierce County Library, 9202 224th St. E., Graham; 253-548-3322
March 10, 2 p.m.: Japanese tea ceremony, DuPont Pierce County Library, 1540 Wilmington Drive, DuPont; 253-548-3326
March 10, 2 p.m.: Sumi painting, Sumner Pierce County Library, 1116 Fryar Ave., Sumner; 253-548-3306
March 10, 2 p.m.: Chinese dance, Tillicum Pierce County Library, 14916 Washington Ave. S.W., Lakewood; 253-548-3314
March 10, 2:30 p.m.: Poet Larry Matsuda reads and speaks on Minidoka camp, UP library
March 11, 2 p.m.: Japanese dance and music, UP library
March 11, 2 p.m.: Book discussion, Summit library
March 13, 6:30 p.m.: Japanese tea ceremony, Lakewood library; register online
March 15, 7 p.m.: Book discussion, Sumner library
March 17, 2 p.m.: Photography and personal histories, UP library
March 17, 2 p.m.: Chinese treasure trunk, Eatonville Pierce County Library, 205 Center St. W., Eatonville; 253-548-3311 or 360-832-6011
March 21, 7 p.m.: True internment stories from the Wing Luke Museum, Puyallup Public Library, 324 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup; 253-841-5454
March 22, 7 p.m.: Book discussion, Parkland library
March 24, 1 p.m.: Chinese calligraphy, Steilacoom Pierce County Library, 2950 Steilacoom Blvd., Steilacoom; 253-548-3313
March 24, 2 p.m.: Chinese tea ceremony, Bonney Lake Pierce County Library, 18501 90th St. E., Bonney Lake; 253-548-3308
March 24, 2 p.m.: Origami, Gig Harbor library
March 24, 12 p.m.: Origami, Lakewood library
March 24, 2 p.m.: Photography and personal histories, Milton/Edgewood Pierce County Library, Surprise Lake Square, 900 Meridian E., Suite 29, Milton; 253-548-3325
March 27, 7 p.m.: Book discussion, Steilacoom library
March 29, 6 p.m.: Photography and Personal Histories, DuPont library
March 31, 2 p.m.: Taiko drumming, Longbranch Improvement Club, 4312 KPS, Lakebay; 253-548-3309
April 2, 3 p.m.: Book discussion, Graham library
April 4, 6 p.m.: Photography and personal histories, Parkland library
April 3, 7 p.m.: Photography and personal histories, Puyallup library
April 13: Author Jamie Ford speaks and signs “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” at noon at Arts and Allied Health Building, Pierce College Puyallup, 1601 39th Ave. S.E., Puyallup, and at 7 p.m. at Sharon McGavick Conference Center, Clover Park Technical College, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd. S.W., Lakewood