Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Full name: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Real name: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Years: 1934-09-26 / Present day
Famous books: Farewell to Manzanar
Genres: Narrative Nonfiction
With the publication of the memoir Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese-American Experience during and after the World War II Internment, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston "became, quite unintentionally, a voice for a heretofore silent segment of society," according to a Los Angeles Times reporter. The book, which Houston coauthored with her husband, James D. Houston, describes the experience of Houston and her family as residents of an internment camp in Nevada where Japanese Americans were forcibly kept during World War II. Widely read, the book has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 1973, and has been made into a film for television. In 2001 copies of the film were distributed to every public school and library in California as part of a curriculum focusing on history and civil rights.
Born in California, Houston was only seven years old when her family of first-and second-generation Japanese Americans was shipped to the Manzanar internment camp near the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Wakatsukis were one of the first families interned there and one of the last to be released. Farewell to Manzanar describes the indignities of the camp experience and the harmful effects it had on Houston's family, particularly her father. As a New Yorker critic observed, Ko Wakatsuki "was too old to bend with the humiliations of the camp.... His story is at the heart of this book, and his daughter tells it with great dignity." As Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in the Saturday Review, "Houston and her husband have recorded a tale of many complexities in a straightforward manner, a tale remarkably lacking in either self-pity or solemnity." A New York Times Book Review critic concluded that Farewell to Manzanar is "a dramatic, telling account of one of the most reprehensible events in the history of America's treatment of its minorities."
Silenced by guilt and shame, Houston was thirty-seven years old before she felt comfortable articulating her feelings about the internment. As she later explained to a Los Angeles Times contributor, her experiences made her feel "sullied, like when you are a rape victim.... You feel you must have done something. You feel you are part of the act." Farewell to Manzanar was among the first works to publicize the story of the Japanese-American internments ordered by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Los Angeles Times contributor Ajay Singh, almost a quarter century after its original publication it remained an "accessible and unsentimental work" that "shed light on a subject that had been largely ignored in popular histories." In 1998 the U.S. government formally apologized for interning 120,000 Japanese Americans during wartime.
Houston further explores the tribulations of Asian Americans following World War II in her 1985 book, Beyond Manzanar, and Other Views of Asian-American Womanhood. Using a combination of essays and short fiction, she describes the difficulty she and other women have found in trying to assimilate within U.S. culture while maintaining the traditions of their Japanese heritage. "Her descriptions of how she handles this challenge ... constitute the book's most substantial assets," commented James W. Byrkit in Western American Literature. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Jonathan Kirsch, too, found the book a worthwhile endeavor. "Houston writes poignantly of the chasms of myth and expectation that must be spanned when a Japanese-American woman marries 'a blond Samurai,'" wrote Kirsch.