Selected Works of
(Heyday)Toshio Mori lived through the sad days of WWII, when he and his family were shipped off to a relocation camp in Topaz, Utah along with 8,000 other Issei and Nisei. Unlike Germans and Italians, the Japanese were considered to be dangerous to the security of the nation and in 1942, under the direction of the California State Attorney-General Earl Warren, and by signature of Franklin D. Roosevelt, almost 100,000 Japanese were sent to ten different relocation camps in the far reaches of California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, and Montana.
Mori was born in Oakland, California in 1910, and worked in a flower nursery most of his life. He became interested in writing mostly through reading dime novels --- and later picked up on his own the many writers who were to influence his style: de Maupassant, Balzac, Chekov, Gorki, Gogol, Stephen Crane, William Saroyan. Overall, he claimed that Sherwood Anderson had the greatest effect on his short stories.
Mori's first novel, Yokohama, California was to have been published in 1942, but, because of the war, did not come out until 1949. His short stories appeared in various magazines, and his second novel, Women from Hiroshima appeared in print in 1975. The present collection, Unfinished Message, includes fourteen short stories, a novel (The Brothers Murata), an interview conducted shortly before his death, and an Introduction by Lawson Fusao Inada. There are also several photographs of Mori and his family.
Unfinished Message, tends towards the hagiographic, which may well be because Mori was one of the first Japanese-American writers to be recognized, and like so many of his generation, because he, although obviously innocent of being an agent of the enemy, spent so much time in a relocation camp. However, reading The Brothers Murata, one finds oneself less interested in the plot line --- there isn't much of one --- and more of the details of the camplife, in Topaz, where Mori spent four years.
If we are to believe the incidental facts that turn up here, the use of the phrase "concentration camp" in the Introduction ("The novel set in Topaz may well be the only such work to be written in an American concentration camp...") might be considered as a bit of an overstatement. We forget the passion of the time --- the Imperial Japanese had a fearful fighting machine, and since they had directly attacked an outpost of the United States at Pearl Harbor, we were understandably concerned about sabotage and fifth column activities.
Parchman Farm in Mississippi was and probably still is a concentration camp for southern blacks. Topaz would be better defined as a relocation camp. Internees were allowed to publish their own newspaper. Mori's description of the food they were served ("their plates filled with carrots, potatoes, and onions cooked in shoyu sauce. On each table was a plate of lettuce salad") doesn't sound like the fare at Belsen. The inmates were allowed to hold meetings --- in fact, one of the most dramatic passages has Hiro's mother addressing her fellow internees concerning their vicious attitude towards her son and other young men who had made the free choice to join the American military.
Inmates were allowed to take a leave from camp for a variety of reasons, and the relations with their "captors" sounds anything but brutal:
At the gatehouse they waited for the guard to inspect their identification card. They walked through the gate and out. "Where you going?" the soldier on duty asked in a friendly tone.
"We're going walking," Hiro said.
"Better be back by sundown," the soldier said, grinning.
We'll be back by lunchtime," he said. "We can't go very far without eating."
"You can go far when in love."
They laughed and walked away slowly.
To some of us, that sounds a far cry from what we think of when we hear the words "concentration camp."
The question is not whether Mori was a great and martyred Nisei writer --- but whether he was a great writer. From the selections here, I have my doubts. The novel is filled with a didactic back-
and- forth between Hiro and his militant pacifist brother --- so much so that we found ourselves hurrying through the dialogue hoping for a bit of action.
The short stories, he claimed, were heavily influenced by Sherwood Anderson --- but anyone who has spent any time with Winesburg, Ohio, knows that Anderson's style was one of a simple, terse writing with a heavy undercurrent of implied tension. His characters were imprisoned in "typical" mid-American life which threatened the soul, and forced them to act out their fantasies in very peculiar ways. There is little of this implied tension in Mori's short stories. His characters may be perfervid, but are hardly as startlingly eccentric as those of his putative master.
This is not to say there is no drama in his writing. Haruo, a nine-year-old in "Through Anger and Love" has been, perhaps for the first time, hurt deeply by his father. He runs away, undertakes to sell flowers on his own. The writing expertly conveys the inner turmoil of a boy first learning of the world. The description of the Takanoshin in "The Chauvinist" is not without originality, giving echoes of another of Tori's heroes, the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan (one of his first fans and benefactors):
He is deaf. His ears are out of order. He looks at the ceiling and smiles. Everything is out of order. The arrangement of his life for instance is out of order. The women are out of order, his family is out of order. The system of civilization is out of order. Ditto the people and the world.
And the story, "The Chessmen," is a prize, a heart-rending tale of an old nurseryman-gardener who is about to be put out to pasture.
Most writers go into story-telling because they, like all of us, suffer --- and they want the rest of the world to know how much they have suffered. Mori went though obvious pain for being "foreign" in a country that prided itself on its integrative prejudice. The key here though is not what Mori suffered during his life.
From everything that we read, we can easily give him high marks for surviving, with grace and dignity, a difficult life as a Japanese-American. However, we have to confess that we find him no more than a mildly interesting story teller --- one who has much to tell us about intercultural life from sixty years ago, but with little of the wild artistry of those he chose to be his masters.--- Akira Tofina