The author’s grandfather. Tashme, 1945
“The government prohibited Japanese Canadians from possessing and making maps.”
—Kirsten Emiko McAllister, Terrain of Memory
Like the layers of colour in an apartment repainted before each new tenant, places accumulate one atop the other, suggesting the mental strata on to which we map our personal, social, and historical claims. Sometimes the layers themselves become impossible to discern. Then and now, here and there. These categories are easily confused.
In an essay titled “Notes from a Native Daughter,” Joan Didion describes California as a place where
The mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
The first time I read Didion’s essay, I immediately drew parallels between the sense of marginality she captures and my own childhood in a suburb outside of Vancouver. Of course, British Columbia differs vastly from California, but the province’s name underscores its colonial history, a reminder of its location on the edge of a lingering imperial dream. It wasn’t until years later that I thought about Didion’s words in connection to my grandparents’ desire to remain in B.C. after the War, even though it was there that they had endured such trauma.
The walls in my own studio apartment are thick with layers of paint. It often flakes off and I can make out some of the various shades hidden beneath. One time, I caught a glimpse of bright red on one of the window ledges; intrigued, I peeled off a large chunk only to encounter the dull wood beneath. Where had the rest of the red gone? I chipped away a bit more, but couldn’t find it again.
My maternal grandparents are Japanese Canadian. They also grew up near Vancouver. Their families owned adjacent strawberry farms in a small town, until they were forced into an internment camp for the last four years of the Second World War—a fate shared by 22,000 other people of “Japanese racial origins” who were held in various camps across the province. Their property and possessions were auctioned off to pay for their own internment. Still, my grandparents’ love for this country remains greater than almost any other people I know.
I often wonder how that experience altered my grandparents’ sense of place, their sense of Canada—specifically the West Coast—as home. After the War, most of the Japanese Canadians had nothing to return to in Vancouver. The result was a diaspora, a fragmentation of the community. Some families elected to remain near where they had been interned, while many others moved east to Manitoba or Toronto. When they were allowed, my grandparents returned to the coast for reasons they’ve never made clear. Perhaps they thought things had better work there. After all, it was a place they had always known.
I am 10. I am driving with my grandparents and my parents along Highway 3, which winds east into the interior. I will later learn that this stretch of road between Hope and Princeton was originally built during the War by my grandparents’ fathers and many of the other Japanese Canadian men. They were forced to spend weekdays in small camps along the highway’s route, laying asphalt, shovelling, tamping, and levelling the designated path. They were only allowed back to see their families in the main internment camps on weekends. Since then, the highway has been repaved many times, perhaps even been shifted slightly to accommodate rockslides and erosion. Somewhere beneath it all lies their labour. Even this section’s initial name, “The Hope-Princeton Highway,” is usually omitted on modern maps, replaced simply by its numeric label.
But I don’t know any of this yet. It’s early in the morning and I can see mist budding on the windshield. “It was right here.” My grandfather leans forward between my parents and points to something outside the car. “Tashme.” “Tashme?” I ask. My father slows the car as we pass a billboard. It reads “Sunshine Valley: RV Resort and Cabins.” No one answers my question until we have passed. I think to myself that the word Tashme must be Japanese.
I’ll be moving out in a few months, leaving for another country. I will repaint the apartment before I go as a courtesy to the property manager. I’ve chosen an inoffensive shade of beige. I’ve already begun to imagine the apartment in its new colour. It will probably be painted beige many more times in the future. Probably white as well.
The author’s grandfather revisits the interment camps
Tashme. The word itself is not Japanese. In fact, I was surprised to learn that it was actually an acronym coined from the surnames of three of the provincial MLAs who were strong proponents of the internment: Taylor, Shearer, and Meighan. It was the largest camp with 2,600 people living in row upon row of small wooden shacks. It was also the most isolated and marginal camp, built just outside the “quarantine zone” that extended along the coast—not near any existing town, nor any of the other camps that were further east in the Kootenays.
What does it mean that I thought Tashme sounded Japanese? And did the legislators purposely attach their own names to the camp? As a signifier, the name’s referent has been detached by time, rewritten by commerce. I’m still undecided as to whether it remains only an imagined (and perhaps textual location) or also a physical one. Save for a few old buildings repurposed for storage, there is no trace of the thousands who spent four years there. It’s hard to argue with the immediate spatial heft of the rows of RVs and the well-maintained cottages. Every time I’ve tried to imagine the camp as it was, I can only conjure images that are cropped and sepia-tinted.
Asking them about the internment is never easy. Questions on top of answers on top of questions. Each memory they offer leads to something else they will not. Are their minds troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion?
The cans of paint have been sitting in the closet, waiting. I brought them home last week from Canadian Tire. I haven’t painted a room in a while. The last time I recall doing so was at my grandparents’ apartment almost a decade ago. I remember how satisfying it was to feel the roller against the wall, and then, in an instant, a thick streak of colour erasing the one beneath. We were painting because my grandparents were moving to somewhere cheaper, somewhere a little further away from the sea.
I am 14. We are in Japan. We are lost in Kyoto Station, an ultra-modern building with a tall, girded iron ceiling. We are debating if we should go to Kyushu, where both of my grandparents’ families are from. My grandparents are speaking to one of the young transit officials. He laughs and says something that ends in more laughter. They look surprised and grin. Afterwards, I ask them what happened. My grandmother takes a photo of the wave of people spilling from a packed train. “He had tough time understanding us. The Japanese we speak sounds dated to most people here—it was current generations ago when our parents moved to Canada.” She lowers the camera, looks at one of the screens flashing destinations and departures. “And apparently, we have funny accents.”
I am 24. I am about to go on a three week road trip with my grandfather. We will visit almost every internment camp site in B.C. Before we leave, I pack the GPS in case we get lost, even though the first half of the trip consists of places I have driven before.
Our first stop is Tashme. After talking with the RV Park manager, who points us towards one of the buildings that he claims dates back to the internment, we walk past the rows of RVs and follow a trail towards a cluster of cabins. It is hot out and soon we are both sweating. We pass two weathered cement silos, covered in graffiti, across from a large barn-like building. “I remember these,” he says, in front of the silos. I ask, “What were these used for?” He doesn’t know. We both turn towards the large wooden building. I go closer and then ask him from across the path if he remembers this as well. He looks small beneath the immense bleached sky. He crosses over to join me. “Yes. I didn’t recognize it at first: it was painted a different colour back then.”
Michael’s first chapbook, Swan Dive, was published by Frog Hollow Press in late 2014. His first full-length collection will be published by Véhicule Press’ Signal Editions in 2016.