On Writing "The Climate of the Country"
On April 13th some years ago, I discovered my father in the footnote of a history book. It was his birthday; he would have been seventy-nine if he hadn't died ten years before, but there he was on page seven of a book about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War Two.
I was in the midst of writing a novel about my parents' experience working and living in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp in Northern California, the same camp in which I was born and spent the first two years of my life. Thrilled to find direct reference to me father, I called the author immediately and he said, "Yes, Don Elberson appeared extensively in my research." He told me that I could find those references in the National Archives in Washington and at Bancroft Library at the University of California -- Berkeley.
One must understand something before going further; I adored my father. I idealized him. He was a man who had spent his life organizing farmers, the poor, the powerless, and yet he had never been rigid in his beliefs, had never stuck to a hard line other than, "you have to allow people their needs and encourage them to raise their voices, even when you disagree with what they say." But the man who emerged in the character of Denton Jordan/Don Elberson in my novel was a more difficult mixture of strong beliefs, self righteousness, extreme vulnerability and shaky morals.
With excitement and trepidation I took the train to Washington DC on the first step of the journey to find my father. I had called ahead to the National Archives, given them his name, and been told they would have the material for me on my arrival. As I sat waiting at the long wooden table under the high vaulted ceiling of the reading room, surrounded by the sound of fingers delicately tapping on laptop computers, I imagined that the librarians had found nothing, that my father may have been paramount to me, but to the world he wasn't worth the space of a file. Then a man came toward me pushing a three-tiered book cart filled with boxes. "You're waiting for the material on Don Elberson in Tule Lake Camp?" he asked matter-of-factly.
There were eighteen large boxes on that cart and they were jammed with my father's letters, memos, meeting minutes, and even everyday notes asking about health insurance and petty cash refunds. There before me was my father's signature on letter after letter dated 1942, 1943, 1944. I read documents written in my father's distinctive syntax requesting leave clearance for Japanese Americans and in those passionate narratives he spoke of racism, of the specific discrimination against Japanese Americans in this country, of the need to undo the egregious harm of incarceration. When tears blurred my vision, I reprimanded myself, You have work to do, stop crying, you'll have time for that later.
For months after this initial discovery I was blocked from working on the novel. I was humbled in the face of my father's accomplishment, saying to myself that the life he lived was far more heroic and profound than what I'd written, but when I tried to recreate the gallant man I'd found in the National Archives, the character emerged flat and boring, too good to be true. Gradually as the texture of those historical pieces of paper faded into the background of my consciousness and the man who was my father no longer invaded my being, I could return to the novel and to wrestling with my difficult all-too-human creation of the character of Denton Jordan. Still, with each sentence I felt I was betraying the real life model.
A year later, I had cause to be in Berkeley. Though fearful, I decided to see what the Bancroft files held. In the course of my research for the novel I had learned that certain Nisei intellectuals and sociologists interned in the camps had written secret daily journals at the request of a Berkeley anthropologist, documenting their personal experiences, their everyday social interchanges with family and friends, as well as the political goings-on within the camp. As I sat in the beautiful, airy Brancroft Library plowing through the vast inventory of available material, suddenly a listing of those recently de-classified journals jumped out at me. Three separate journals had been written by men in Tule Lake Camp. I requested one. A high stack of loose pages was set before me; overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, I opened at random. Two pages later I came upon this sentence written by a Nisei man, "Don Elberson is the one Caucasian in the camp that we can trust."
For one entire week, from the moment the doors of the library opened to the warning call for closing, I read on through page after page of third person narrative painting scenes in which my father was an active participant. He appeared in endless meetings of the camp co-operative which he was organizing and in which long stretches of verbatim dialogue were documented in private tete-a-tete's with Nisei, Issei and Kibei internees, candidly discussing administrative policies of the camp, giving critical assessments of the camp's autocratic project director; at internees' weddings where he and my mother were the sole Caucasians; and at dinners in our barracks where the journal writer described dinner conversations and the food my mother served. Even my birth is noted in these journals -- "the first Caucasian was born in camp today, little Margaret Grace Elberson -- as well as a toilet training episode one journal writer happened in on.
Again, my father emerged as a man to be lauded. In page after page we see him grappling with monumental issues of race, group dynamics, cross-cultural strife and intra-racial antagonisms. One day I realized with shock that he was only thirty years old when he was doing this complex and sensitive work. Whereas I had thought my father's knowledge had come with time and experience, I saw he always had it; it was like second nature to him.
Though delighted to find my hero heralded by others, I was increasingly troubled by the discrepancy between him and the character I'd created. I worried that I'd never be able to return to my novel. Then I came across a passage at a meeting, where my father is frustrated and angry at the lack of progress the co-op is making and furious at the in-fighting. The narrator says, "Elberson is shaking with emotion." My father stands and speaks, "You have to pass the resolution. Fumi Sakamoto and I have been working our butts off for months and months for this. Do it for us. Do it for me. I've worked so hard on this to the detriment of my family life." I turn back to the date of the meeting. August 12, 1942. I was born less than a week before. A little further along I read a chilling quote in my mother's familiar, mocking voice. At a party in our barracks, the Nisei writer relates, "Mrs. Elberson smiled sweetly and said, 'Baby plays with rattle while daddy plays with co-op.'" My mother's private fury, the rage I knew too well, had crept into her public expression. As the days and weeks of the journal proceed, more cracks show in the armor of my mother's facade as her anger unconsciously spills out and I am again the child in their home -- the girl who is to become the novelist telling tales out-of-house -- reliving the tragic tensions of their marriage.
At the end of my week, after I've closed the pages of the original journals and walk slowly across the Berkeley campus with Xeroxed copies of my family's life tucked under my arm, I am finally at peace. I've learned what every novelist must come to on her own: The family crucible is what informs my work; my perspective is the only truth I can tell no matter what the historical documentation may have to say about my mother, my father and me. I am free to proceed with my imperfect characters.