Silver Like Dust: One Family’s Story of America’s Japanese Internment
2011. Pegasus Books. Hardcover. 325 pages.
In this memoir/biography, Kimi Cunningham Grant recounts her maternal grandmother’s story of internment during World War II. Grant’s grandmother, her Obaachan, was interned – along with her family – for being Japanese Americans in California (the entire West Coast was declared a war zone in March 1942). Obaachan’s story is framed by descriptions of Grant’s visits with her grandmother, who was at first reluctant to share her story, partly because this time of her life was shrouded with a sense of haji, or shame. As the visits progress, however, Obaachan seems to become more comfortable with sharing her experience.
I decided to read this book primarily because I went to the same college as the author. I don’t think we ever shared a class, as she was a couple of years ahead of me, but I knew who she was. When I heard she’d published this memoir, I decided to add it to my to-read list.
Part biography and part memoir about a grandmother/granddaughter relationship, past and present is not strongly demarcated in the narrative of Silver Like Dust. Sometimes the grandmother’s story is told in the form of a conversation between Kimi and Obaachan, and sometimes it is straightforward third person biographical narrative. Grant’s writing style revels in small details, which was sometimes lovely, but sometimes came off as a wee bit labored, especially in the beginning. However, by the time I finished the book, I was quite settled into her style.
Although I was aware of the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s, this was the first time I’d read a nonfiction story of someone who experienced internment. Obaachan was twenty years old when she was sent, along with her parents, to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Her married sister went to a different camp, in Arkansas, with her husband’s family. In jarring counterpoint to the family’s internment, Obaachan’s two brothers both served in the U.S. military during World War II.
The injustice of this chapter in U.S. history is understood through small details. Before the internment, the freedoms of Japanese people on the West Coast was gradually curtailed: curfew, and the confiscation of their guns, swords, and shortwave radios. Obaachan’s family did not have guns or swords, but they knew other Japanese families who had to surrender heirloom samurai swords. While temporary interned at the Pomona fairgrounds, the Japanese prisoners were switched from traditional Japanese food to more starchy, bland fare, which caused digestive problems for many. When they were moved to Wyoming, most of them – Californians – did not have the winter clothing necessary for the climate. The U.S. government eventually distributed peacoats to all of the prisoners.
But perhaps the saddest examples of injustice were the major life events that occurred in that camp. Obaachan met and eventually married another prisoner. Their trip to Cody for the marriage license was “chaperoned” by a military policeman and a camp administrator. Their first child was born in the camp and Obaachan’s mother died at Heart Mountain (this detail is not a spoiler, as these facts are revealed in the prologue).
I enjoyed reading about Kimi’s growing closeness to her grandmother. I happened to be reading this book while visiting my own ailing grandmother in Vermont, in what turned out to be the last week of her life. While there, I read a short informal autobiography my grandmother had written in the 1990’s. I also read some pages of my great-great grandmother’s diary. I identified with the way Kimi steeped herself in family history and also felt the gentle poignancy of her relationship with her grandmother.
Excerpts from other reviews:
7,000 Miles from Mt. Fuji – “The author’s language never bogs down the narrative; instead, her writing feels very natural almost like a conversation with a friend . . . brief explanations of the background behind the Japanese internment including laws and the cultural mindset at the time really help pull the narrative into perspective and were a nice touch.”
Asian American Literature Fans – “At times, I felt like I was reading a mystery of sorts. The pacing of the chapters lends itself to that feeling of suspense and revelation, of questions that resonate for pages until the grandmother finally reveals some previously hidden information.”
myliteraryleanings – “I really came to like both Obaachan and her granddaughter through this book. I think I see what makes them tick. I like the openness and honesty between them.”