literature

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Today’s Illustrated Women in History was illustrated by Sophia Parsons Cope @soufexdraws and the biography was written by Melaina Leung. It will be included in the next Illustrated Women in History zine!

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston is a Japanese-American writer, best known for Farewell to Manzanar, her autobiographical novel about life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was born on September 26, 1934 in Ingleside, California to Ko and Riku Sugai Wakatsuki. She was the youngest child out of four sons and six daughters. The first seven years of her life were like any other normal childhood, up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Following the event, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which established the relocation of people of Italian, German, and Japanese ancestry from military zones along the West Coast to internment camps. In 1942, Ko Wakatsuki was falsely accused of supplying oil to Japanese submarines and was put in jail in Bismarck, North Dakota. Separated from his family, he was imprisoned for nine months, while the rest of her family was transported to Manzanar, an internment camp in eastern California.

At the camp, the Wakatsuki family experienced many hardships: Jeanne’s father, after being released, turned to alcohol as a means of escapism but also started committing domestic violence against her mother. The barracks where they lived did not allow any privacy. Jeanne’s once close family began to fragment as her siblings began to get work at farms outside the internment camp and in the army. However, Jeanne weathered this all by trying to maintain a “normal” life: she learned how to twirl the baton, acted in school plays, read the Nancy Drew books, and even tasted a snowflake for the first time. In 1945, the family left the camp.

During her teen years, she tried to fit in by becoming Americanized. Dealing with the racism of her peers, she became a majorette and a beauty queen, accomplishing two of her goals. She then went to San Jose State University where she became the first person in her family to receive a college degree and met her future husband, James D. Houston. The two got married in 1957.

In 1973, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston published Farewell to Manzanar with her husband after being asked by her nephew, Gary, who had been born in the camp about her experience there. His desire to know all about this traumatic experience caused her to have a breakdown, and she decided to write a memoir to deal with the long-dormant pain. The book was well-received for its portrayal of an overlooked part of history and the challenges faced by the interned Japanese-Americans.

Farewell to Manzanar still is influential: the book was adapted into a movie in 1976 and is read in many schools. It is a story about resilience and ultimately through her powerful words, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston continues to teach us empathy in a time when we need it the most.

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