In January, Lodians had the opportunity to collectively read a book through the One Book-One Lodi project.
Some 500 residents took up that offer and began delving through the pages of "Farewell to Manzanar," a California woman's account of the Japanese internment camp experience in the remote east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
With the reading came discussion groups, related films and internment camp exhibits at the Lodi Library and Hutchins Street Square.
The reading project, sponsored by the Lodi Arts Commission, concluded Thursday when the authors, the husband-and-wife team of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, took the theater stage to discuss the book with some 350 attendees.
Wakatsuki Houston, who lived through the hardships of Manzanar, focused on her childhood memories while her husband, an accomplished writer of fiction and non-fiction, discussed the book's inception and the writing process. Both authors explored the critical Constitutional issues which World War II prison camps raised.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Soft-spoken yet direct, Wakatsuki Houston pointed out that the camps were not a Japanese-American issue, but indeed, an American one. She said that, for the first time, all three branches of the U.S. government breached the constitutional rights of American citizens by imprisoning 110,000 people based on their race alone.
"They were never charged with a crime other than having a Japanese heritage," she said.
James Houston, who called the book his wife's autobiography, said the internment camps, brought about by President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, were remote in time and geography.
"This is entirely a West Coast experience because of where the Japanese settled," he said.
As a result, the transgression had been "under-acknowledged" by most Americans as of 1971 when the Houstons began their Manzanar project.
The internment camps were an "embarrassing violation of democratic principles that most people have a hard time talking about," Houston said.
Even the Japanese-Americans were shy to discuss the topic after the fact.
"It was a forbidden topic," Wakatsuki Houston told the attentive audience.
She said internees, who had been imprisoned in 10 desolate camps in the U.S. from 1942 to 1945, blended quietly back into society after being released.
"We grew silent, never making waves," she said. "We didn't want attention drawn to us unless it was positive."
Wakatsuki Houston went on to college, earning a degree in journalism, which was followed by marriage and children in the calm environs of Santa Cruz. The horrors of her past were seemingly forgotten.
She said the taboo subject was shook to its foundation in 1971 when her college-aged nephew, Gary, earnestly pleaded for an explanation from his aunt.
"'I was born in Manzanar, Auntie, and I don't know anything about that place. Can you tell me about it?'" she recalled her nephew saying.
Then he inquired: "How do you feel being in a prison like that?" she said.
She told the audience the word "feel" triggered an abundance of repressed emotions. She cried uncontrollably which frightened her nephew into asking, "what did I do Auntie?"
What he did was wake a part of Wakatsuki Houston's memory which, in effect, led to the idea of writing a family memoir for her several siblings and 35 other nieces and nephews.
James Houston agreed the experience should be documented, but insisted it should be a book.
"Jim said, 'This should be read by every American,'" Wakatsuki Houston told the audience.
Houston's instincts proved right. The book, published in 1973 by a major book company, is in its 56th edition and was the basis for a television movie, which the Houstons also penned. The TV script earned the Houstons an Emmy nomination in 1976, and Wakatsuki Houston was bestowed the Humanitas Prize in the same year.
"Farewell to Manzanar" has become a standard work in schools and college campuses throughout the United States. In Lodi, 12 schools read the book and 600 students attended a discussion by the authors at Hutchins Street Square earlier in the day.
James Houston said that while the book has been well received, One Book-One Lodi marks the first time the duo's work has been embraced by an entire community.
"We're very pleased to be here with you to talk about the book," he said.
The project was the concept of a few commissioners of the Lodi Art Commission in early 2001. It was aggressively steered by Robin Knowlton, one of the 11 city council-appointed commissioners who managed to have the event underwritten by the California Council for the Humanities.
Knowlton said the idea was born from a National Public Radio story about citizens in Rochester, N.Y., who had hosted a book club project.
The commissioners decided to do it here in Lodi.
Knowlton, who was introduced Thursday night by Mayor Phil Pennino, said in each and every way, the project met her expectations.
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