Alain Delon stars as Rocco.

Love in a Japanese internment camp

An exclusive Q-and-A with Kristina McMorris, author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Kristina McMorris, a prolific women’s fiction author, is an unfailingly nice person.

Not only did she pick me up from the MAX station with her two gregarious sons in tow; she served me some hot coffee and gave me a copy of her new book, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which is being released today by Kensington Books.

An exclusive Q-and-A with Kristina McMorris, author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves
Kristina McMorris will be speaking at Barnes & Noble in the Clackamas Town Center this Friday at 7 p.m.
Saria Dy / Vanguard Staff
Kristina McMorris will be speaking at Barnes & Noble in the Clackamas Town Center this Friday at 7 p.m.

Kristina McMorris, a prolific women’s fiction author, is an unfailingly nice person.

Not only did she pick me up from the MAX station with her two gregarious sons in tow; she served me some hot coffee and gave me a copy of her new book, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which is being released today by Kensington Books.

The novel is set in 1941, immediately after the Dec. 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The characters’ lives are torn asunder when the U.S. government begins interning Japanese Americans.

“The wrongful internment of Japanese Americans stemmed from the racist environment at the time, and this history must not be swept under the rug,” said Ken Ruoff, Portland State professor of history and director of the Center for Japanese Studies. “When it came to relations between the hegemonic white population and people of color, including individuals of Japanese ancestry, no area was more taboo than intermarriage.

“In this sense, Kristina McMorris, in her beautifully written novel that is also carefully researched, has zeroed in on one of the most volatile aspects of racist America compounded by a fearful wartime environment.”

McMorris will appear as part of a panel discussion for the book’s launch Friday, March 2, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in the Clackamas Town Center. The panel—which McMorris planned because Bridge of Scarlet Leaves “has such an educational reach”—will be hosted by Ken Ackerman, former host of KPTV’s Good Day Oregon, and will also feature a former resident of a relocation camp, a Japanese American World War II veteran who recently received a Congressional medal. The panel discussion will be followed by a signing and a meet-and-greet.

McMorris also has a novella, The Christmas Collector, that will be released in late October as part of a holiday-themed collection headlined by New York Times bestselling author Fern Michaels.

Two weeks before the release of her novel, and 70 years after the U.S.’s internment of thousands of Japanese Americans, I had an opportunity to chat with McMorris about her writing, her new book and the legacy of the internment.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanguard: I’m not really familiar with the term “women’s fiction.” What do you mean when you say that?

Kristina McMorris: Women’s fiction is typically what we think of as “book club books.” They’re primarily for female readers. Usually it’s a woman’s journey in some way. It’s usually very relationship-, family saga-involved and not necessarily a “happily ever after” at the end. Often there’s a romantic element, but romance isn’t the focus of the book. It’s pretty much what Nicholas Sparks writes, but because he’s a male author they call it “love story.” But “women’s fiction” and “love story” can sometimes be synonymous.

VG: You mentioned the research aspect. In writing such historical fiction, what’s your research process like?

KM: My second book, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, is a World War II love story set in 1941 in Los Angeles. It’s about a violinist named Maddie Kern who secretly elopes with her Japanese American boyfriend [Lane] the night before Pearl Harbor is bombed. And the very next day, their lives completely turn upside down. When his family is interned at a relocation camp, Maddie dares to follow and voluntarily lives in the camp with him. There were roughly 200 non-Japanese spouses that did that, and I think that’s a very obscure fact. Most people don’t know—even me, being half-Japanese second generation, I didn’t know. When I came across that nugget, I felt like that was a story that, to my knowledge, hadn’t been told yet in fiction, and it was something I felt that I could bring that was different to the fiction realm. I am half-Japanese, and I was raised between two worlds, trying to fit into both. I thought: That’s exactly the perspective that a lot of these characters have on both sides.

VG: I was wondering, as a Japanese American, what’s the legacy of the Japanese internment for you? When you think of the internment, how do you view that?

KM: I’ll put it this way: When I started doing research for the book, I had very little knowledge of the internment. I think most people in our country would say the same thing. It might be two paragraphs in a history book from high school. I don’t think people really understand the magnitude of what happened: The fact that nearly 120,000 people were evacuated from the West Coast, told to sell their belongings, often within 48 hours, and they would have to get rid of everything they owned, essentially.

But I think why a lot of it got lost—and I’m hoping where I’m contributing—is that the Japanese culture is so humble in general. My book focuses on honor and the difference how, in America, you think of honor as something you earn by standing out from the crowd. In Japan, you already have honor; it’s something you have until you lose it. It’s more of a burden in that you don’t stand out from a crowd. I think that when a lot of these people came out of the internment camps, especially the first generation citizens, they felt ashamed and didn’t want their children to be bitter toward America, and so the best thing to do was to pretend it did not happen. When you think back to women’s rights and civil rights, there’s a lot of history there that we are fortunately aware of. You don’t hear about that with Japanese Americans. And so, because of that, that history is getting lost.

VG: You mentioned “two paragraphs in a history book,” and I think that in histories of World War II, that’s true. Or, for example, Roosevelt is very lionized as such a champion of liberal causes, and that’s true in a lot of ways. But the internment is the big thing that nobody talks about because it’s so terrible that it’s almost unbelievable.

KM: One thing I’m really excited about with Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is that, with the internment, I felt like when you hear statistics, we understand the basics of it. But to me what makes it more powerful is to really comprehend what that is like for a family and, really, the whole West Coast—to make it personal. It’s the small moments that make it more important: The families that tried to leave voluntarily before the required, mandated evacuation and couldn’t get gas, and nobody would sell them gas so they had to turn around. Those moments, to me, are much more powerful.

VG: What was the research process like for Bridge of Scarlet Leaves? Did you talk to and interview internees? What was that process like?

KM: What I did for Bridge of Scarlet Leaves was take a pilgrimage down to Manzanar—they have an annual pilgrimage every summer, and I joined that—and on the way there I set up interviews. I always have research questions, and I contact every museum you can think of, whether its Army history or even railroad museums, because when you’re writing history for a generation where there are still people alive that lived through it, you just don’t want to be wrong, and I feel like it discredits the whole story by not paying attention to the small details. So when I went down to L.A., I interviewed seven different Japanese American vets. One of them had fought for the 442nd. They are typically more well-known because they were active combat, mostly in Europe, and they are to this day the number-one most decorated, for their size, for their unit, in U.S. Army history.

VG: And was that a specifically Japanese American battalion or unit?

KM: It was a segregated unit. It was the 442nd/100th battalion, and they were a segregated unit. They had more to prove than anybody else. They were the unit responsible for liberating one of the offshoots of the Dachau concentration camp, but they were never given credit for that. They were told to give credit to someone else. There are a lot of those stories. I interviewed the one gentleman [from the 442nd] there, and then the rest were military intelligence service, and that’s where the last element of the story ties in. Once Maddie and Lane are both in the internment camp—well, it’s technically not an internment camp, it’s a relocation camp; they’re interned in a relocation camp—Lane feels the need to prove his allegiance and where his loyalties really lie, so he joins the military intelligence service, which was a secret branch of the U.S. army responsible for code breaking and interrogating against Japan. Again, a lot of people don’t know what these guys did.

And imagine the irony that their families are unjustly incarcerated back in the U.S. while they are code breaking and interrogating against Japan and fighting for democracy! Sometimes they even had brothers serving for Japan while they were serving for the U.S. And when I interviewed those six guys, I asked one of them, “How come they’re just now finally talking to you about what you did?” One of the guys there said, “Well, we have a secrecy oath, and they told us not to talk about it. Then the war was over, and nobody ever showed up on our doorstep and said ‘Now you can talk about it.’ So we just kind of went on with our lives.” And, finally, now these guys are talking about it. I went from there to the pilgrimage in Manzanar, and the contrast between the two was fascinating. I was so spoiled spending two days with these vets who wanted to talk about it. I got to ask them any questions I wanted about everything. I went from there on a research high to Manzanar thinking I could ask these guys all my specific, journalistic questions.

I started trying to ask the older generation that were there—they were more like in their 80’s and would have been adults in the camps. What I found very quickly is that they didn’t want to talk about it. It was the younger ones, who are now in their 70s, who were kids in the camps who were much more eager to talk about it and had a lot of good memories about being in the camps. As one of them pointed out to me, a kid only knows how mistreated or poor or anything else they are if you tell them. He said, “When I was a kid, five or six, in the camp, I thought it was a lot of fun. We got to hang out with other kids. Everyone looked like us. We felt like we belonged. We had recreation and sports and school. We got to hang out with our friends all the time, and we got to sit and eat with them for every meal.” Of course, on the flip side, what they as kids weren’t seeing was that the family structure was completely breaking down. A lot of those traditions from the Japanese family structure completely broke down because of World War II.

VG: You mentioned relocation camps and also Internment camps. Is there a distinction to be made?

KM: I called them “internees” a little bit ago, but there is a technical difference. What’s tough is that anywhere you Google it or look in authoritative magazines, they call them “internment camps” and “internees” in general. There is a docent at the Japanese American National Museum who was kind enough to read my manuscript. One thing that the docent there pointed out is that it’s controversial what the terms are: There are some who feel that “internee” is not the right term, that “internees” specifically and “internment camps” specifically refer to the camps and the people who were detained by the FBI. The more specific camps that were for Issei, first-generation Japanese and the FBI holding them for suspicion.

What they say is that internment camps were much more limited, there were fewer of them, and in general the majority of them are considered relocation camps or relocation centers or evacuation centers. Now here’s where the controversy comes in: Some people feel that callingthem “incarceration centers,” “prisoners” and “internees” are the absolute correct terms because it was unjust. There are some people who feel that is the absolute correct term because it was unjust.

VG: “Relocation” is such a euphemism. They didn’t get “relocated.”

KM: And especially calling them “evacuees” in an “evacuation center.” That implies that [the government] was doing it for their own good.

VG: Like they were in danger.

KM: Yeah, like in danger of a hurricane or a tornado. But essentially they were being incarcerated.

VG: How did the internment aspect and that time period become your topic? How did it become what you wanted to write about?

KM: An old family friend had once, very briefly, shared with his family that he had fought for America while his brother had fought for Japan. You can be friends one day, and overnight there are invisible boundaries, and you’re on opposite sides fighting against one another. I was going to write a brothers’ story, and I started researching the Japanese American soldiers, and I came across one sentence—I’m not even sure how easy it would be to find again—that there were roughly 200 non-Japanese spouses who were voluntarily living in internment camps. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea about this. That’s the story. That’s it.”

VG: What do your sons make of your literary success?

KM: They’re genuinely really excited about it. They love being a part of everything. My eight year old looked at the magazine [that I had been featured in] and he stopped and said, “Mom, I’m so proud of you. You worked so hard for this.” That was one of the best moments of my career. That meant a lot to me.