George (Minoru) Omi’s memoir about growing up second-generation (Nisei) Japanese in 1930s and 40s America is an important story. Everyone should hear more about the tragedy of incarcerating American citizens of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor.
My mother-in-law was also Nisei. Her family lost everything like Omi’s did, although they came from different cities. She spent several years at the Heart Mountain incarceration camp in Wyoming. Omi was in the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. But the hardships were the same. The loss was the same, and the difficulty of restarting life after leaving the camps was the same.
Because of this, Omi’s stories weren’t especially new to me. But if you haven’t read about the series of events suffered by Japanese-Americans, you should. And this is a good introduction.
Omi’s book is self-published and the writing shows it. He does a lot of telling, not showing, and I often felt like he ascribed the adult version of memories to a young kid. Nevertheless, I cared about what happened to the Omi family—his parents, sister, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Omi presents his truth about how it felt to be Japanese and living on the West Coast in 1941 and beyond.
Long before Pearl Harbor, Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to become U.S. citizens or own homes. And the U.S. shut down Japanese immigration in 1924. So this particular racism and prejudice existed before World War II began. As a kid born in 1935 (same year as my mother-in-law), Omi lived with Hakujin (white man) prejudice his entire childhood and early adulthood.
Omi peppers the text with Japanese words and phrases, which helped me dive deeper into his somewhat flawed writing style. My husband’s parents didn’t teach him Japanese, but many of Omi’s words were familiar to me. As was Omi’s father’s syncopated combination of English and Japanese.
Here’s the one thing I just can’t get beyond. Why would a man who has obviously suffered greatly at the hands of racist fear mongers choose the title American Yellow? It seems to me that use of yellow just perpetuates the racist views of that time, and of ours. About life after incarceration, Omi says, “… we hadn’t been convicted of a crime; only of skin color, which we couldn’t free ourselves from.” Then why make this your book title? To me, it does a disservice to the important message within.
All in all, this is a 2.5 star book for me. I’ll round up to 3 because the story is so important to tell.
Note: The quote in the picture is part of a temporary exhibit about the incarceration and reparations at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. I highly recommend this free exhibit if you’re nearby. It won’t be there much longer!
Thanks to NetGalley, First Edition Design Publishing, and the author for the opportunity to read the digital ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.