Farewell to Manzanar

by: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Jeanne

As the narrator of Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne describes events in a very unemotional and observational way, as if looking on from a distance. This tone is effective because it helps her keep the factual accounts of the events she witnesses separate from her emotions at the time she witnesses them. She is careful about how she mixes her own analysis and reflection as a writer with the events she is telling as a narrator. The story tends to come in waves of information, and between waves Jeanne takes a step back and tells us what she thought of things as they were happening and how she thinks of them now. These moments of reflection combined with the way Jeanne freely jumps in time within chapters give the impression that she is writing and commenting on things at the same time that she is remembering them. This narrative style fits with the nature of the work, which focuses in part on coming to terms with one’s memories.

Jeanne’s observational tone derives partly from her age at the time of the internment. Throughout the memoir she emphasizes that she was young at the time and did not really understand the war or the real motives behind the camp. As a young girl she is unaware that U.S. fear of Japanese people is behind her family’s imprisonment. In fact, she does not see the camp as imprisonment at all, but rather as an adventure. As the story goes on and Jeanne gets older, however, her view of the world shifts drastically. The violent change in her father during the internment years and her later discovery of the unspoken prejudice of the world to which she returns reveals to her that the world is more complicated than she originally realized. Farewell to Manzanar is a coming-of-age story, and Wakatsuki begins by describing events simply and innocently, much as a child would see them. The discoveries she makes about herself during and after her time at Manzanar give the memoir its structure and allow us to chart Wakatsuki’s progress from girl to teenager to woman. The work is a way for Wakatsuki to come to terms with herself, and we must understand how unaware of her ethnicity she was as a child in order to appreciate the maturity she shows later in struggling with prejudice.

Jeanne’s experiences with prejudice in her school life after the war constitute the main content of her memoir and develop some of the work’s most important themes, such as the danger of racial stereotypes and the difficulty of self-discovery. These two themes converge in her story, for she can discover her true self only by overcoming prejudice and setting aside her own preconceptions about what it means to be either Japanese or American. Only at the carnival queen coronation ceremony at her high school in San Jose does she begin to understand that until she stops pretending to be what she is not, she will never be able to understand who she is.