Isamu Noguchi found it was easier to get himself into an internment camp than it was to get out.
Confined at home these past months due to the Coronavirus, I think often of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.
After five years of research and writing, I had recently completed a historical fiction novel based on the visionary artist Isamu Noguchi’s internment in Arizona when the news emerged of a deadly new disease in China. Oblivious to the import of the news and proud of my effort, I began querying agents.
As an East Coast resident, Noguchi was exempt from Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Nonetheless, he felt it his civic and patriotic duty to express solidarity with his fellow American-born Nisei and their immigrant Issei parents, voluntarily interning himself with the loftiest of intentions: to teach the latter how to love democracy and to instill pride in the former in Japan’s rich cultural legacy. However, he quickly discovered that he was in over his head, and almost as soon as he entered the camp, he sought to leave.
As someone who had always succeeded in living outside the strictures of his race, Noguchi did not face the same challenges or bear the burdens of his fellow internees. They had been forced to abandon homes, businesses, crops, pets, and their worldly possessions—to say nothing of their sense of belonging and identity—to be herded like so much livestock into flimsy wooden barracks hastily built in America’s most desolate hinterlands for an unknown period of time. Stripped of their basic human rights, they had no idea what the future held. To many, it must have seemed like their lives, and futures, had been stolen from them.
Though I had immersed myself for several years in the history, studies, and anecdotes of Noguchi’s internment camp, it is only now in lockdown that I think I understand the extent of their suffering, anxiety, and fear.
Comfortably sheltered in a suburban, three-bedroom house, with easy access to nature walks and gourmet take-out, I can’t compare my situation to theirs. And yet, some days I’m almost incapacitated by malaise. On the really bad days, that malaise putrefies into dread and horror that weigh upon me like a lead apron, mimicking the symptoms of the disease I’m so desperately trying to avoid: shortness of breath, hot flushes, headaches.
Meanwhile, outside my lockdown bubble, the nation is in accelerated meltdown. Facts, prudence, and common sense have been abandoned for fiction, wild speculation, and magical thinking. The person who is supposed to be leading us through the biggest national crisis in a generation muses on live television about injecting disinfectants into the body and steers lucrative contracts to his cronies. One moment he advises adhering to the precautionary measures of his public health experts, and the next he praises gun-toting white people who storm state capitols for their inalienable right to get a fashy haircut and a swastika tattoo. Grocery store clerks and gig workers are lauded as heroes as they reap poverty-level wages, while the stock market soared the same day that a record number filed for unemployment.
The anti-Axis hatred that flourished after Pearl Harbor was largely directed at the Japanese. Though Executive Order 9066 was directed at “any and all persons” as “the appropriate military commander may determine,” it was only the Japanese and their American descendants who were interned; immigrants from Germany and Italy faced no such curtailment of their civil rights. The particular physiognomy of the Japanese made them easy to spot and easy to persecute. (To escape the rampant prejudice, some Chinese Americans resorted to wearing buttons and signs proclaiming they were Chinese.) Newspapers, none more so than those owned by William Randolph Hearst, were instrumental in ratcheting up the anti-Japanese sentiment, while war posters and other propaganda, including cartoons by Dr. Seuss, portrayed the Japanese as slant-eyed, snub-nosed, bucktoothed hordes, or slavering, long-nailed monsters with blood dripping from their fangs.
Seeking to distract the public from their own egregious missteps, Trump and his lackeys insist on calling the novel Coronavirus 2019 the “China virus” and the “Kung flu.” Taking up Hearst’s racist mantle, Rupert Murdoch—who owns The New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, and Fox News—oversees a news empire that spreads specious and hateful anti-Asian rhetoric. Since March, incidents of harassment, bullying, and violence against Asians and Asian Americans have soared, including the stabbing of a Burmese man and his children, two and six years old, in Texas.
I am fortunate enough to live in one of the most diverse areas in the country, if not the planet, and despite my Asian heritage, I have not experienced any virus-related harassment, but the anecdotes from friends are heartbreaking. Almost 150 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asian Americans are still deemed to be menacing outsiders intent on destroying all that is good and true.
Noguchi wasn’t one to sit still, even while languishing in a concentration camp. He produced blueprints for landscape improvements, trekked into the desert to gather weather-carved knobs of ironwood and other bits and bobs of nature’s bounty, tried (unsuccessfully, due to objections by the War Relocation Authority) to arrange for academic lectures and lead workshops, schemed to get art commissions, and kept up copious correspondences. But he only produced one piece of art, a pink Georgia marble bust of Ginger Rogers, which now resides in the National Portrait Gallery, where I saw it on display along with a letter Noguchi had written to Rogers from internment, sparking the inspiration for my novel.
It’s not one of his best works, nor even one of his best busts (I am partial to those of George Gershwin and Buckminster Fuller, neither of which are in stone). No one would look at it and exclaim, “Ginger Rogers!” Her hair was styled in an unfortunate pompadour for a movie role, her neck is impossibly long. No matter, the face draws you in. Each angle reveals a different Ginger. Straight on, she’s not beautiful, but she’s strong, with a forthright, intelligent gaze, her full mouth curved ever so slightly into a knowing smile. In profile, she’s cool and aloof, unaware of her own charisma; at three-quarters, she’s ambitious and just a little high-strung. Truly, it is an act of genius to show the many different facets of a subject in just one work.
Before internment, Noguchi had been making his living carving busts for the rich and famous. After Ginger, he would never do such overtly representational work again. In the camp, Noguchi had been forced to face deep-seated questions of his identity and his purpose as an artist. He vowed to leave behind the political and the representational, transforming into an astonishingly versatile and prolific abstract expressionist who also designed everything from coffee tables and lamps to courtyards and landscapes.
I’d been querying agents at full throttle for a month before lockdown began. Publishing is a notoriously fickle business and I’ve already had two agents. When I was an as-yet-unpublished author, the response rate to my queries was encouraging. This time, the lack of interest was palpable, and I don’t know if it’s the subject of my novel, the fact that I’m considered washed up as a non-bestselling debut novelist, or a combination of the two. And when New York, the epicenter of publishing, became the epicenter of the Coronavirus in the US, my querying, like my life, came to a standstill.
Globally, the toll of Coronavirus is as yet incalculable. I tick through the countries where I have lived for a view on how the virus is being (mis)managed around the world.
- The country of my birth, South Korea, has successfully contained the spread and returned to a semblance of normal life. A small nation, it learned the lessons of previous respiratory illness outbreaks and was prepared with medical equipment, the laboratory capacity to produce enough tests for the population, and public health steps like rigorous contact tracing.
- Small, landlocked, and relatively prosperous Botswana is on lockdown. As of May 11, there were 24 confirmed cases, eleven recoveries, and one death. The government recently made face masks compulsory in public.
- Like many authoritarian states, Egypt is censoring news stories and engaging in political repression under the cover of the pandemic. Government statistics on the spread and toll are not reliable.
- With one of the highest death tolls in Europe, Spain has recently released citizens from an extremely strict seven-week lockdown.
- After initially bungling their response by suppressing reports and threatening doctors, China, where the virus originated, has managed to triumph over Coronavirus through draconian quarantine methods and cell phone tracking. Due to government censorship, many details about the virus’ spread, including the real death toll, remain unclear. Isolated flare-ups are still being reported across the country even as Disneyland re-opened in Shanghai.
- Under the repressive rule of Erdoğan, Turkey is claiming that the disease is being beaten by hydroxychloroquine, a favorite panacea of autocratic leaders. (After our own aspiring autocrat relentlessly flogged the drug as a miracle cure, the FDA was forced to release a statement cautioning against the use of the drug outside of a clinical setting.)
- Japan is struggling with a resurgence of the virus after prematurely lifting lockdown.
In less developed nations, prevention could be deadlier than the disease itself. Migrant workers, off whose backs the whole world prospers, are suddenly without work, and many are forced to return on foot to home villages far from where they earn a living. Crowded living conditions and lack of running water make social distancing and hand-washing impossible, and there is no government safety net available to them. So far, the world’s most impoverished nations seem to have avoided the brunt of Coronavirus, but the first wave has yet to crest.
There will be a second wave in the fall, we are told. It will be more deadly. Perhaps, if no vaccine has been developed, there will be a third wave in the winter, as there was with the 1918 flu pandemic.
For many of the Japanese and Japanese American internees during World War II, the world outside the camp was more dangerous than inside, despite the primitive housing, harsh conditions, and pitifully low-paying jobs. Like the interned, I yearn to return to normal, but know that there will be no normal to return to. And like them, I can’t tell if I’m at a crossroads or a cul-de-sac.
The US government realized very quickly that the internment camps were a mistake, and began to relocate as many of the interned as were eligible and willing to go: students who found colleges willing to take them, laborers recruited for factory and farm work, men finally allowed to join the armed forces. After six months of internment and a series of increasingly desperate appeals, Noguchi finally gained permission for temporary furlough. He hightailed it out of there, later saying in his autobiography, “So far as I know, I am still only temporarily at large.”