Tuesday 23 January 2018

Camp Notes, by Mitsuye Yamada (1976)

It must be odd
to be a minority
he was saying.
I looked around
and didn't see any.
So I said
it must be.

Mitsuye Yamada, LOOKING OUT (Camp Notes)


The one in San Francisco who asked
Why did the Japanese Americans let
the government put them in
those camps without protest?

Come to think of it I

    should've run off to Canada
    should've hijacked a plane to Algeria
    should've pulled myself up from my
    bra straps
    and kicked'm in the groin
    should've bombed a bank
    should've tried self-immolation
    should've holed myself up in a
    woodframe house
    and let you watch me
    burn up on the six o'clock news
    should've run howling down the street
    naked and assaulted you at breakfast
    by AP wirephoto
    should've screamed bloody murder
    like Kitty Genovese


YOU would've

    come to my aid in shining armor
    laid yourself across the railroad track
    marched on Washington
    tattooed a Star of David on your arm
    written six million enraged
    letters to Congress

But we didn't draw the line
law and order Executive Order 9066
social order moral order internal order

YOU let'm
I let'm
All are punished.

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Mitsuye Yamada was born in Japan in 1923 and immigrated to the US at the age of three. In 1942, her family (including her) was incarcerated at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. In her writings, she focuses on her Japanese American heritage and feminism.

"The core poems of Camp Notes and the title come from the notes I had taken when I was in camp, and it wasn’t published until thirty years after most of it was written. I was simply describing what was happening to me, and my thoughts. But, in retrospect, the collection takes on a kind of expanded meaning about that period in our history."
Mitsuye Yamada

"I don’t think [feminism is] dead. I think that what has happened to feminism is what should happen. Back in the day, a feminist was seen as this angry man-hater or man-eater. We have fought the battle, not completely won, but now women have incorporated into their being the fact that they are entitled as women. In some ways, you don’t have to fight as hard as your mother or former generations, and in those ways [the movement] was a success. I don’t think we will ever go back. Many women don’t know that they’re feminists, but their parents fought and paved the way for them in many respects. This is also true of ethnic Americans. When you think about how black Americans paved the way for the civil rights movement, we have to acknowledge the fact that we have benefited from their battles and their deaths – because many of them did die in battle. So, we have to build from there. In some respects, we slide back, two steps back and three steps forward. But we have to keep pressing."
Mitsuye Yamada

"The thing that I always tell young people when I talk to them is that you have to be politically active, that you have to keep your mind and heart open and be aware of what’s going on in the world. And to have a critical sense of the world around you, I think that’s very important. I think the worst kind of thing is passivity. There’s a Japanese phrase, Shikata ga nai, meaning “it can’t be helped” – it’s the way it is. But then you become known as the model minority, and it’s just really deadening to be invisible. You should not be invisible. You should stand up and be counted."
Mitsuye Yamada

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- Yamada, M. (1998). Camp Notes and Other Writings. New Brunswick, New Jersey & London: Rutgers University Press
- photograph via