Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book #24: Impounded Images

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had archive fever. I’ve been reading a pile of history books on the Japanese Internment. I’m looking to gain insight into what my grandparents experienced as internees as part of my attempt to write an historical novel, centred on a secret romance in one of the camps. The idea is loosely based on snippets of stories and half-disclosures that my grandmother let slip over the years, giving me certain ideas (fantasies, really) about how she met my grandfather. The beginning of their strange, turbulent marriage.

But the problem with reading history books, I’ve come to realize, is that “facts” only get you so far as a writer. They’re full of quotations by politicians and statistical data, whereas I’m interested in accessing the taste (or lack of taste) of the camp food, the sounds and smells of the barracks, the feel of the floorboards against our heroine’s bare feet as she sneaks out at night.

So I decided to read something different. Or not read at all. The other day, I came across a collection of photographs by Dorothea Lange, who is best known for her portraits of U.S. migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers during the Depression. What is not so well known about Lange’s career is that she was commissioned by the U.S. government to document the Japanese Internment. She toured many camps in California and took a slew of stunning photographs: bewildered, beautiful girls clinging to the slip of shade outside a mess hall; the Inyo Mountains rising pale and ghostly behind the camp at Manzanar, barely visible through the dust haze; and internees gardening with the materials at hand – to describe just a few of Lange’s moving images.

More than simply documenting the group’s degraded condition, Lange’s photos distill a timeless, universal sadness to their plight. There appears something almost mythic about their suffering. Since these images were seen as so obviously sympathetic to the internees’ perspective, they were impounded by the U.S. government and not published until recently.

These photos are a wonderful source of inspiration. Looking at them, I’m able to imagine how the dust would feel sticking to my skin and mixing with my sweat and from there … the thoughts of my heroine start to come alive in my head. I can feel her yearning for some escape and becoming susceptible to the advances of a certain stranger who pushed his way into her life.

Photo from: here

3 comments:

Bushpig.vrc said...

This seems like a very interesting resource.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Here is a collage of images from Lange's book, to give you a taste: http://www.laborarts.org/exhibits/impounded/

nathaliefoy said...

Fantastic post. What a find for you! Isn't it wonderful to come across the right thing when you need it? That the photos themselves have a history of forced confinement only makes them more haunting.

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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.