A Conversation with Seattle Author Dr. Lawrence Matsuda on His Debut Historical Novel "My Name is Not Viola"
tags: fiction,Seattle,Pacific Northwest,Japanese American history,Asian American History
Lawrence Matsuda portrait by Alfredo Arreguin
On December 7, 1941, forces of the Japanese Empire attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and left hundreds of American military members and civilians dead or wounded. In response to the surprise attack, the United States declared war on Japan the next day. The attack on America inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment and hysteria that led to hate crimes, particularly on the West Coast, against aliens and US citizens of Japanese extraction—and those who looked like them.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s February 1942 Executive Order 9066, the US government forcibly removed 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes and incarcerated them in concentration camps. Most of these interned people were kept in the camps until 1945, with the exception of early releases of a few, such as the valiant souls who volunteered to serve in the American armed forces, including members of the Japanese American 442nd Regiment that became the most decorated American unit of the war. Others were released to attend college or work in defense industries like munitions factories in areas away from the West Coast.
The unfortunate internees subjected to the harsh and dehumanizing conditions of the prison camps had committed no crime but were rounded up, dispossessed, and detained unconstitutionally based only on their ancestry and race. And about two-thirds of the internees were United States citizens.
The detainees included Hanae and Ernest Matsuda who, with removal in 1942, lost their home and grocery business in Seattle. Like thousands of others, they were evacuated without due process and were incarcerated at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho where Hanae gave birth to two sons and a stillborn child.
Hanae and Ernest Matsuda’s youngest son Lawrence was born in 1945 in Block 26, Barrack 2, of Minidoka Camp. Their baby’s prisoner number was 11464d.
Now Dr. Lawrence Matsuda, a renowned Seattle writer and human rights activist, brings to life his mother’s travails, traumas, and triumphs in mid-20th century America in his debut historical novel My Name is Not Viola. The events experienced by the fictional Hanae of the novel mirror actual incidents in the life of his mother including her girlhood in Seattle’s Japantown; her pre-war journey to Hiroshima, Japan; her removal from her Seattle home and incarceration at the brutal Minidoka concentration camp; her quest for Hiroshima relatives after the atomic obliteration of the city; her marital woes; her severe depression and incarceration at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility; her resilience grounded in Japanese and western beliefs; and her evolution as a force for good.
The novel captures the rhythm of life in Seattle’s Japantown, the unrelenting misery of internment at the Minidoka camp, and the pain and loss of internees as they returned home after the war to face dispossession and poverty. This history through the eyes of the fictional Hanae grips the reader with its lively writing and evocative imagery while sharing an important and heartbreaking chapter from our American experience. Yet it is also a story of hope and triumph despite recurrent traumas—and quite timely as we face an unprecedented pandemic and political crises today.
Dr. Matsuda is known in Seattle as a voice for social justice, equality, and tolerance. He is a former secondary school teacher, administrator, principal, and professor. He received an MA and PhD at the University of Washington.
As a writer, Dr. Matsuda is most well-known for his poetry. His first book of poems, A Cold Wind from Idaho, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2010. He has published two other books of poetry, one in collaboration with renowned American poet Tess Gallagher, as well as a graphic novel about the Second World War experiences of the Japanese American 442 Regimental Combat Team. Chapter one and two of that graphic novel were animated by the Seattle Channel and both won regional Emmys, one in 2015 and the other in 2016. His poems have appeared in many publications including Raven Chronicles, New Orleans Review, Floating Bridge Review, Poets Against the War website, Nostalgia Magazine, Plumepoetry, Surviving Minidoka (book), Meet Me at Higos (book), Minidoka-An American Concentration Camp (book and photographs), the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, and many others. And he co-edited the book Community and Difference: Teaching, Pluralism and Social Justice, winner of the 2006 National Association of Multicultural Education Phillip Chinn Book Award.
And Dr. Matsuda continues to work tirelessly for a more just and tolerant nation.
He graciously talked about his new novel and his writing career by telephone from his home in Seattle.
Robin Lindley: You had a successful career as an educator, administrator, and professor. How did your “encore career” as a poet and writer come about?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: When I got my PhD, I decided to take something fun because the PhD was tough sledding and not always enjoyable. So, I took a poetry class from Nelson Bentley.
Robin Lindley: He was a beloved professor at the University of Washington.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. I enjoyed it a lot. I attended his class several times and read for the Castilla reading series for several years. He always encouraged me to publish my poetry. He was a good person and took great pride in having his students published.
I moved my energy into poetry after my PhD, and continued to write poetry when I was working. Most of it was not great, but mediocre poetry.
In about 2008, I decided to get good at poetry. I worked with Tess Gallagher. She helped me with my first book of poetry A Cold Wind from Idaho. I thought I was done because I had worked with some other people who helped. I gave the manuscript to my friend, the artist Alfredo Arreguin, and he said Tess Gallagher was coming to his house, and that he would show the book to her. Evidently, she was taken by the manuscript, but decided it needed revisions. She worked with me for about a year, mostly electronically. We finally met and I submitted to Black Lawrence Press as part of a contest. It didn't win first prize, but received honorable mention, and it was published in 2010. Currently more than 1,300 copies are in print.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that story. It’s wonderful that one of our great American poets, Tess Gallagher, helped launch your writing career. Now you've written this historical novel, My Name is Not Viola, based on the life of your mother. What sparked a novel at this time? Did you see it as a memoir for you as well as the story of your mother?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It started as a play in the Minidoka [concentration camp] canteen where old guys were sitting around and talking in a general store--cracker barrel scene.
I decided that the play wasn't going anywhere. It was just talking, and it needed a little more action. So, I looked to my own life and I compared it to my mother's and my mother had a much better story.
It's not a memoir because some of it is fiction, and it’s not an autobiography. It follows the same character in the first person from beginning to end. It’s a historic novel that looks very much like the memoir.
The bones of the novel are my mother’s story and that structure is true. My mother was born in the United States. She went to Japan and was educated there. She came back to the United States, and thengot married. She was incarcerated. And she went to a mental hospital. So, all the bones are true, and to add flesh, I borrowed some of the stories that she told me. I filled in the blanks and then, to move the story farther, I added stories that I heard from other people about Minidoka.
I’ve made pilgrimages to Minidoka six or seven times. They have a story time when former internees talk about being there. I borrowed some of those stories, and then farther out, I brought in stories of my friends, and then way out farther it was just fiction. So, the book is historic fiction based on the general outline of my mother's life.
What motivated me is, I have always thought that each person has a good story, and at least one novel. I decided I needed to write and find my one novel, but it wasn't my story. It was my mother's story.
The other thing is that I’ve always felt an artist should keep moving. I went from poetry to a graphic novel, to a kind of a poetry exchange with Tess. and then to a novel. I'm always trying to do different things. I think an artist should always try something new. Because the incarceration is so powerful it is very tempting to dwell on it and not move forward. For the novel, I wanted to present the context of the incarceration and the afterward to give a larger perspective.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your words on your process. How did you decide on the novel’s title, My Name is Not Viola?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I found my mother’s high school annual and there were inscriptions like “Good Luck, Viola.” I asked her who Viola was, and she said her teacher gave her that name.
Robin Lindley: In your novel, you take your mother’s life and add to the story. Picasso said that art is the lie that tells the truth. You share an engaging human story that deals on so many levels with the forces of history such as racism and injustice and the aftermath of war. It’s incredible how much she dealt with in her life.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: There are 120,000 stories of people who were
forcibly incarcerated and each one is different but similar. They all experienced the same thing at different levels. My story is only one of 120,000.
Robin Lindley: You were born a Minidoka in 1945 so you must not have any direct memory of the internment.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: No, but I do have borrowed memories. No matter what, at every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, every New Year's party, every wedding, funeral, the evacuation and the incarceration always came up. It's just a part of life. And I have these borrowed memories that usually focus on the worst of the experience.
I don't have clear memories in the traditional sense, but my friend, a psychiatrist, says that, when my mother was pregnant, more than likely some chemicals were sent to me in her womb and that affected me in terms of fear and stress that made up my personality. And he also has said that, when he talks to someone who has deep problems, oftentimes he asks if their grandparents suffered any problems? He says big traumas are passed down for three generations. He feels that what happened to your grandparents and your parents is relevant to your current situation.
Robin Lindley: I’ve heard about studies on genetics and past trauma. There are several studies with grandchildren and children of Holocaust survivors.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: So the trauma is passed down, and somehow you adjust. The third generation of trauma can still affect you.
Robin Lindley: So, we’re haunted by the traumas of earlier generations. You deal with almost a century of modern American history in the book. What was your research process as you wrote the novel?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I went to Minidoka about six or seven times. In 1969, I taught the first Oriental American history class in the state of Washington at Sharpless Junior High School—now Aki Kurose Middle School. So I was interested in history and, while there, a number of things happened. I met Mineo Katagiri, a reverend who founded the Asian Coalition for Equality, and we worked together.
Later on, some members of the Asian Coalition for Equality and I confronted the University of Washington because they were not admitting Asian students into their educational opportunity program (EOP). At the time, it was called the Special Opportunity Program, which served poor whites, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, but not Asians.
And so, my interest in history took a step into activism. Ironically, it did again with the kids in the Oriental American history class. At that time, we were still referred to as “Orientals” and the term “Asian” was emerging. The class made a display of miniature barracks like those at Minidoka for an exhibit called “The Pride and the Shame,” a Japanese American Citizen League’s traveling exhibit for the University of Washington Museum.
Bob Shimabokuro in his book, Born in Seattle, writes about how the traveling exhibit was the impetus for the reparations movement for Japanese Americans. So, my history interest moved me into activism, and my activism was rooted in history, especially anti-Asian, anti-Chinese, and anti-Japanese prejudice which culminated in the forced incarceration.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your work for change. To go back to your novel, I’m curious about the story of your main character Hanae, who is based on your mother, and your mother's actual experiences. Did your mother go to Hiroshima, as in the novel, when she was about nine and have a rather dismal experience with her relatives, especially her older brother’s wife?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: That was not true. She was born in Seattle and she went to Japan at age one and she returned with her mother and brothers about eight years later. Her father stayed in Seattle and sent money home to Hiroshima when the family was there. And when she was nine years old, she came back to Seattle. When she was 21, she returned to Hiroshima to live with her older brother and that's when she couldn't get along with her sister-in-law and left after a year.
Robin Lindley: And did she have an older brother Shintaro who was an officer in the Japanese Navy?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. He was a submarine officer. He was not a captain, but he was a high-ranking officer on a submarine. He mentioned that the warlords were feeling very confident because of the victory over a Western power in the Russo-Japanese War.
Robin Lindley: The militarists were building sentiment for war in Japan in the early 1930s. In your novel, you depict the removal, the evacuation, and the internment vividly. Was your depiction of Hanae’s story in the novel similar to what your mother experienced in the shocking removal and then the incarceration.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes, it was as described
I think most of the Japanese were shocked. They knew that the Japanese nationals were at-risk as non-citizen aliens. There was a law that wouldn't allow them to become naturalized citizens, so they were aliens. That would be her father's generation. But the initial thought among the Japanese was that they would not take the Nisei [second generation] who were US citizens. So, they were shocked when citizens were taken because it was totally unconstitutional and un-American. You don't round up and arrest citizens for no crime without due process, right?
Robin Lindley: Didn’t the US government contend that the order of evacuation and internment was to protect people of Japanese origin because of extreme anti-Japanese sentiment after the Pearl Harbor attack?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Some people used that excuse, but that wasn't the reason that they were evacuated. If you read the actual evacuation notice, it says all persons of Japanese ancestry, alien and non- alien, were to report to designated locations. And overnight the Nisei, who were citizens, became non-aliens.
Robin Lindley: And weren't the families and others of Japanese ancestry actually rounded up by troops armed with rifles with fixed bayonets?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. There were troops. The people were told to report to certain places. The earliest pickups were done by the FBI. They took mostly first-generation people who were leaders of the community shortly after Pearl Harbor while the bulk of Japanese were taken in April.
Robin Lindley: It was a heartbreaking violation of human rights and the rule of law. What happened once these citizens and non-citizens were rounded up? What happened to their property and possessions?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It was different in every region of the country, but here the Japanese obviously sold off a lot of their goods at fire sale prices. And they stored some items. My parents actually stored some goods at a storage company and also at the Buddhist church.
There were people in rural areas who left their land to others to care for. For example, on Bainbridge Island, some leased their land to their Filipino workers. They did take care of it and when the Japanesereturned, the land was in good shape. And some of the Japanese split the land with the Filipino workers. Other Japanese left the land and it was totally in disrepair when they came back. Many couldn’t keep their properties because they couldn't pay the taxes. So it was lost.
There are countless stories. One storeowner left his ten-cent store to a Jewish man to care for. I think he was a jeweler who watched the boarded-up store and took care of it. Nothing happened to that store, but other places such as farmhouses were destroyed, especially when they came back. A farm house was burned on Vashon Island. There were farm houses vandalized in anti-Japanese incidents in Hood River where the whole town signed a petition not to permit the Japanese to return--but the Japanese did anyway.
Each place has a different story, but overall, most of the people lost their businesses. Most of them lost their jobs. Most of them lost their homes. Most of them sold whatever they had at huge discount. So it was a very difficult time. Goods were sold for a penny on the dollar and customers took advantage because they knew that the Japanese were vulnerable.
Robin Lindley: You have some remarkable scenes in your novel. I was struck when some white person wanted to buy a piano for a dollar.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. The Japanese knew they couldn't take it with them. And, if a store was going out of business, they would sell at a huge discount on all goods. They were trying to make something, no matter how small.
Robin Lindley: Were their physical attacks on people of Japanese origin following the Pearl Harbor attack?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I hadn’t heard of any physical attacks. I know some Filipinos were beaten up because they were thought to be Japanese. The Chinese wore buttons saying “I am Chinese.” And I know that there was a man who was impersonating an FBI agent and he tried to do some bad things to Japanese women.
Robin Lindley: That was such a time of fear and hysteria. What are some things you’d like people to know about the conditions of the concentration camp at Minidoka where your parents were held and where you and your brother were born? You describe the circumstances vividly in your novel.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: They were in the desert. The food was not always sanitary. The quarters were cramped. There was no privacy. People had to use the latrines instead of regular toilets. There were scorpions and rattlesnakes and dust storms.
All of that was just a given, but the worst part of it was being betrayed by your country. I compare it to rape. The whole community was raped and we handled it like rape victims. Some were in denial and others tried to prove that they were good citizens. Some committed suicide. Others were just depressed. So, the worst part of it was the mental realization that the whole community was raped. And very few on the outside really cared. I compare it to a rape by your uncle--by someone you trust in your family. It was a rape by our Uncle Sam.
Robin Lindley: And wasn’t the internment out of sight and out of mind, without much press coverage or any outside attention?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. Minidoka was tucked into a ravine and 9,000people were imprisoned there. If you drove by, you wouldn't even see Minidoka even though it was the third largest city in Idaho at the time.
The physical conditions were bad, but I think the mental trauma was really devastating. The fact that your country betrayed you. And afterwards. Think about it. Who can you trust if you can't trust your government to protect you and maintain your rights? Who can you trust?
Robin Lindley: That history is devastating. What sort of housing did your mom and dad live in there at the concentration camp? I understand the shelters were very crude and crowded with little privacy.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: They lived in barracks that were hastily constructed. They had tar paper on the outside and weren't shingled or sided. It was like army barracks. It was open and they used blankets as curtains, and several families shared each building. The noises and the smells spread. The barracks were heated by a pot belly stove that burned coal.
At the first relocation center, my parents were given ticking and sent to a pile of straw to stuff a mattress. That's what they slept on at Camp Harmony in Puyallup, which was actually a county fairground. Some of the bachelors lived in the horse stalls that still had horse smells. My cousin got the measles and was quarantined in a horse stall.
When they moved to the permanent camps, like Minidoka and the other camps, they lived in hastily-constructed, army-style barracks with cracks in the floors, cracks in the walls. The wind would blow through. And the barracks all looked alike so people could get lost and wander into your area at night.
Robin Lindley: And there were extreme temperatures in the hot summers and cold winters. The weather must have been miserable.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It was cold and muddy in winter. The residents had to walk on boards that were laid down on the mud. And that was how they got to the mess hall. My mother would never eat Vienna sausage because it caused dysentery several times.
Robin Lindley: And wasn’t healthcare limited?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: There was a patient hospital on site. When there was an outbreak of dysentery, you had to line up at the latrine with everyone else, because everyone who ate at the same mess hall had dysentery. One night, the lines were so long and the internees were upset, the guards thought there was a riot. Soldiers were going to shoot. The residents shouted, “No, no, it's dysentery. We've got the trots.” And so, the soldiers left them alone.
Robin Lindley: When your parents were released from Minidoka with you and your brother, they returned to Seattle where they had been dispossessed. And your mother was facing the additional trauma of dealing with the probable deaths of her relatives in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: They actually released many people at Minidoka before the end of the war to work, attend college or join the army. My father left several times to find housing, which he never found. So, they stayed in camp until it closed. The administration shuttered it down, turned off the electricity, and told them to leave, and gave them a train ticket and $25.
Back in Seattle, my family stayed in the basement of my mother's friend's house for a while. We lived there until my dad could find proper housing, but it was in short supply because of the war and the GIs coming back.
It was not an easy time. And, there was racial real estate redlining in Seattle, so we couldn't move to the best part of town. We could only move to certain parts of town. If those areas were taken, it was tough luck. And in fact, some of the Japanese who moved out of the Central Area returned and found that African-Americans who came up from the South to work during the war had moved into the redlined area.
Robin Lindley: That’s another tale of discrimination in America, and we're still living with the results of racist red lining. Thanks for sharing that insight. I didn't realize the effect on the Japanese community. Your mother must have been shaken by the terrible atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lack of news about her relatives.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. The first news they heard was that Hiroshima was bombed. Tokyo had suffered firebombing with more or less conventional bombs like napalm, but the residents did not understand what an atomic bomb was and the results.
Recently, I read an article about how the US was suppressing news about the Hiroshima destruction until John Hersey visited Hiroshima and wrote his famous book, which revealed the aftermath.
The news came in very slowly. It wasn’t like today when, if something happens, CNN is there by the next day. This news dribbled in. They knew that Hiroshima was destroyed, but they didn't know quite what that meant. It was the instantaneous destruction that was hard to comprehend. You could understand something being destroyed slowly, but everything in Hiroshima was vaporized or destroyed in an instant.
My mother didn't know what happened to our relatives. It was only because of our relatives in the countryside that she found out the full story. But it was tough for her because she had lived in Hiroshima and she knew the city, so it was really devastating to realize that the city and many of her relatives were gone instantly.
The people of Hiroshima were not soldiers. Soldiers expect to be put in harm's way and die, but these were civilians: old women, old men, young children, and workers. They were evaporated and destroyed instantly or many died later of radiation sickness.
Robin Lindley: Have you traveled to Japan and visited Hiroshima?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. I was actually in Hiroshima during the 50th anniversary of the bomb. It is a strange city. Kyoto is very old. You see the shrines and the old architecture. Hiroshima is modern. It doesn't look like a Japanese city, but a modern city because it was totally destroyed. And in real life, our family home was only a thousand meters from ground zero.
Robin Lindley: That visit must have been very moving for you then. Now it’s the 75th anniversary.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. But I was surprised too when I met my relatives, the children and grandchildren of my mother's oldest brother. They were all very positive, very healthy, and very energetic. They were generally happy people. I met Akkiko who survived the bomb. She was in the family home at the time. I met her son, and her son’s son. So it seems life goes on.
Robin Lindley: Yes, that’s encouraging. Didn’t Akkiko suffer radiation illness and severe burns?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. She’s mentioned in the book.
Robin Lindley: Your description of Hanae’s treatment for depression at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility, is very moving. It happened in 1962 and you juxtapose her experience with the Cuban Missile Crisis. You also destigmatize mental illness. Does your portrayal in the novel parallel your mother’s own “incarceration” at the hospital when she was admitted for severe depression?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I really couldn't say for sure because she never talked about it. But I did talk to my friend who is a psychiatrist. He took me to the Western State Hospital Museum and I saw what it was like, and I knew what they did at the time. I studied the hospital’s history and learned that doctors specialized in lobotomies at the time.
Robin Lindley: Did you visit your mother when she was in the hospital? You must have been a teenager then.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I visited her once. They wouldn't let me go inside. We had to meet her in front of the hospital, in the parking area, at the turnaround. She came out to see us.
Robin Lindley: What do you remember about that visit?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: She was very thin and she looked worse than when she entered.
Robin Lindley: And what kind of treatment did she receive? Did she actually have shock treatment or electroconvulsive therapy?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I'm sure she did. My psychiatrist friend told me that was pretty standard.
Robin Lindley: Did your mother seem depressed to you before she was hospitalized? Did she talk about suicide?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes, she seemed depressed, and she was very distant and not engaged. But she did admit to her sister-in-law that she was contemplating suicide.
Robin Lindley: Wasn’t there almost an epidemic of suicide among the internees after the war?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. There’s no real data on that because nobody kept track of it. But I talked to Tets Kashima, who was a professor of Asian American studies, and he said in California suicide was prevalent. There were just a lot of suicides. And the other thing was, few people talked about it.
Robin Lindley: From some history I’ve read, such as The Nobility of Failure by Ivan Morris, it seems that suicide is honorable in Japanese culture and tradition. And in your novel, some characters see suicide as an acceptable way to cope with loss and depression.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: That's the samurai tradition. If you dishonor your master, or yourself, you must die too. That led to a custom of ritual suicide. Hara kiri, which translates into “cut your stomach.” And that’s what samurai did. And my friend, [the artist] Roger Shimomura had ancestors who were famous for a double suicide. They stood face to face and stabbed each other simultaneously. So, they committed ritual suicide together.
Robin Lindley: That's an elaborate way to go. You indicate that Hanae and your mother were influenced by both Japanese and Christian traditions. Were those traditions a source of your mother’s strength and resilience through the catastrophes in her life?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. I think both of them helped her. She could call on Japanese tradition to deal with her stress if an American tradition did not help. So, she had a little more of an arsenal, if you will, or two toolboxes to pull from. However, some tools that helped her survive became counterproductive. Take the Japanese word shikatanganai. “It can't be helped.” That word helps you get through, but after a while it doesn't move you forward.
Robin Lindley: Yes. “It can't be helped.” When I read that phrase in your book, it reminded me of Vonnegut’s refrain: “So it goes.” It can’t be helped seems a pessimistic adage rather than we can change this or we can do better.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It isn't really. Japan was a harsh land of starvation, earthquakes, and typhoons. When your house fell down, no one in the village wanted to hear you crying because their house fell down too. And so it’s shikatanganai, it can't be helped. It's just what happened.
And in America, a rich country, not a poor country like Japan, there is no shikatanganai. Here, your house falls and you call your lawyer. You sue the city. You sue the architect. You sue your neighbors. But it's not that it couldn't be helped. You’ve got to sue somebody. And it's really an irony that, in a poor country, they accept their fate but in a rich country, they always want to contest what happens. Not always, but there’s a different feeling. So this Japanese value helped my mother and others cope with overwhelming forces.
Robin Lindley: Maybe that's akin to the acceptance stage of grief.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes, you accept fate rather than get angry.
Robin Lindley: It’s a different perspective. I was interested in your influences, and you have mentioned the naturalist writers such as Frank Norris and his classic novel The Octopus. Naturalism concerns how characters deal with the forces of nature, the forces aligned against them, and you write beautifully of how your characters take on fate. Do you see the influence of writers like Norris in how Hanae deals with forces beyond her control and then, it seems, becomes a force herself?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. The naturalists felt that the forces of nature superseded human ambition. Human beings have to deal with natural forces at work in this world and these forces often overcame individuals. In The Octopus, the novel by Norris, the railroad was a force which had to reach from coast to coast to deliver grain to the starving people in India. So that was another force to deal with. And even though the ranchers resisted the railroad, they couldn't stand up to it because the force was more potent. It had to deliver the grain to feed the starving masses.
If you look at our situation today, there are numerous outside forces at play. One is obviously the pandemic. The other is the political situation. And these forces that are largely out of our control. But in the novel, Hanae managed to survive the adverse forces and learned to surf the waves of the tsunami and become a force herself--not a capital letter F force like feeding the starving in India, but a small force that is filled with equality and social justice.
We're in that kind of a situation now. The large forces out there can destroy us, but we must learn to use them and to survive them and become forces for good. And if many people get together and become forces themselves, they can become a large force, like a natural force, like the starving masses in need of grain. We need to persevere and make it to the other side and become forces ourselves.
Robin Lindley: And you have been a force for social justice and for democracy in your writing and in your activism and teaching.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I have tried.
Robin Lindley: I’ve read about your many accomplishments. You’re too humble. You’ve written now about atrocious incidents and the resulting trauma, but you have also shared triumphs of the human spirit. Where do you find hope today?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: When I was a kid, I read all the Greek mythology in the Beacon Hill Library at grade three. And that helped me. I think that mythology is something like history. I recall that Pandora opened a box and unleashed all these horrible things. But the thing that was left in the box was hope. There is still hope.
Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers?
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I'd like to speak to why the Japanese were incarcerated. Three presidents, Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton, said in the letters of apology. They said the causes were racial discrimination, wartime hysteria, and failed leadership. And I ask you to take a look at what we have now regarding racial discrimination. My hope is that things get better. For wartime hysteria, which was called propaganda then, and is now called fake news. I hope that the network that peddles fake news crashes and burns. And the last one, failed leadership. I hope that our failed leaders are repaired or replaced soon. So those are my three hopes.
Robin Lindley: Those are powerful thoughts to end on. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful comments Dr. Matsuda, and congratulations on your moving new novel, My Name is Not Viola. It’s been an honor to speak with you.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Real Change, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Lawrence Matsuda, a renowned Seattle writer and human rights activist, brings to life his mother’s travails, traumas, and triumphs in mid-20th century America in his debut historical novel My Name is Not Viola.
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- Before the Civil War, New Orleans Was the Center of the U.S. Slave Trade (Excerpt)
- ‘If We Don’t Adapt, We Will Wither Away’: Louis Menand on the University