Whose Memory? Contemporary Narratives of the Japanese American World War II Incarceration

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceOral presentation


    This paper addresses the contemporary surge of narratives about the post-Pearl Harbor incarceration of 120, 000 Japanese Americans. There are a number of incarceration narratives written by third-generation Japanese Americans, like Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) and Kimi Cunningham Grant’s Silver Like Dust (2011). These early 21st- century narratives no longer embody the lived memories of the generation that was imprisoned, but the mediated, imagined memories transmitted to the next generation in a way that resonates with Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory” (2008). In these writings, the personal and family past is often merged with the public past, as the unearthing of what actually happened at camp is closely linked to the search for identity and an answer to what it means to be a Japanese American. In contrast, the purely fictional works by non-Japanese authors, such as Sandra Dallas’ Tallgrass (2007) and Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky (2014), raise the question of the ownership of memory.

    An important starting point for my analysis is the recognition that literature has an important role to play in “creating shared narratives and hence in collectivizing memory” (Rigney 2012), which begs the question of who gets to formulate these shared narratives. What might be at stake when this historical trauma is depicted by authors who do not have the personal relationship to it that the Japanese American authors do? Are Dallas and others broadening national self-understanding, or do they commodify the incarceration as an exciting topic of historical fiction lending itself readily to motifs of secrecy, betrayal, and guilt? These issues are explored in relation to Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory (2004) and Levy and Sznaider’s concept “cosmopolitan memory” (2002).


    ConferenceHistory, Memory, Nostalgia. Literary and Cultural Representations, Department of English Philology, Vilnius University, Lithuania, September 29-October 1, 2016.
    Period80-01-01 → …

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    • Humanities and the Arts (6)


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