Thursday, August 15, 2013

An interview with Vincent Yee, author of The Purple Heart

More than 70 years after Pearl Harbor, most Americans still don't know about the involuntary internment many Japanese Americans endured during World War II. Even fewer know about the incredible bravery of the Japanese American 100th infantry battalion and the 442nd infantry regiment. Vincent Yee, former National President of the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) decided to shine a light on this important part of American history for his debut novel, The Purple Heart.

Below is some of our conversation about history, the Japanese American experience and what, if anything, we've learned since World War II.

Vincent Yee

Why did you choose to write about the Japanese-American experience during World War II?

It all started out with a dream to write a book and when it came time to choose a topic, I knew that I wanted to write an Asian American story. I was inspired by the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” I asked myself what else happened in WWII and then I remembered the Japanese American internment. As I started to do research, it was the story of the 442nd that really inspired me. Despite their families, wives, girlfriends being imprisoned, when this country asked them to fight against the Nazis, more that 4,500 young Japanese American men volunteered to fight for our country. That story of patriotism is a lost story in American history that I wanted to tell but I needed a story concept. That’s when I had an epiphany to tell a story about love and courage. A girl-meets-boy story, then separated by the war. I had love, courage, patriotism and through the power of fiction, I knew I had a concept that could finally tell a story about the sense of hopelessness of the internment and the vindication of the 442nd.

But just as important, I knew that the Japanese American experience would be a lesson for the rest of the Asian American community. Because what happened to the Japanese American community could happen to any other Asian ethnicity in the U.S., whether that is Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and so on. One of the biggest challenges for Asian Americans is to not only be seen as American. That doesn’t mean White, but it does mean being seen as patriots, and there is no stronger story of patriotism than the story of the 442nd, the Japanese regiment that fought in WWII.

Your younger characters are surprised when they find out what happened to this community. Has it been your experience that people don’t know about this?

Yes, at the time of researching this story idea, there wasn’t that much information about the Japanese American experience on the Internet. I came across a number of personal websites, put together by a number of Yonsei, 4th generation Japanese Americans, who lamented that they only recently found out about their great and grandparent’s experience during WWII. There were a number of non-fiction books out there and the movies that touched on the internment simply didn’t do the justice that the Japanese American community deserved. This furthered my desire to write this story.

Some of the reasons that were given to me as to why these stories of the Issei and the Nisei, the first and second generation Japanese Americans, were lost was that they simply bore the shame and resolved to move on with life.

You didn’t just write about internment; you wrote about the “questioning”, the suspicion, the camps and also the 442nd. What kind of research did you have to do to in order to be able to cover all of that?

I spent about a year of research before writing this story. In that research, I gathered as much information as I could from historical accounts on Web sites but it was the personal websites with intimate stories that gave a personal perspective. I watched the limited number of movies that depicted internment life and the one movie that gave some kind of idea of what the 442nd went through. I read a number of non-fiction books and also the PBS documentaries that chronicled the Japanese American experience. Though The Purple Heart is historical fiction, I needed to get the most important historical facts correct for this fictional story. When I created the historical timeline, it spanned 4 years and right then and there, I knew my story project was going to be challenging. That’s when I chose to write a scene based story rather than a linear story account of the Japanese American experience. I paired up my most important story scenes against the actual historical timeline and that created my story’s outline. Once the outline was ready, I was almost ready to write but I needed something more than just a good story, I needed a hook that had the potential to be controversial. And that’s when I had the inspiration to add a bit of mystery into the book that centered on a hidden family secret surrounding the grandfather.

One of the bitterest ironies of this story is that the people we put into internment camps were fighting an enemy that was putting people into concentration camps. And those soldiers took incredible risks but weren’t acknowledged until decades later. How did those people close that psychological circle so they could not only live in their country but be genuinely patriotic?

From the conversations that I had with a few people who were interned and from a couple of 442nd veterans, the experience of the internment did have a strong effect on their community. I don’t want to speak for the Japanese American community but I’ll share a few thoughts. It created a sense of alienation and some questioned the value of their own Japanese ancestry. Many of the Japanese Americans went on to rebuild as best as they could, which was a testament to their will to move on with their lives. This speaks to our quiet Asian American resolve to move on with life but in this quiet resolve, those stories were never told and only recently, with people like George Takei, are stories of the Japanese American experience coming to light. However, the unfortunate thing is that the number of Nisei survivors, the 2nd generation, are quietly passing away at an alarming rate and their unique American story has not been told. The veterans of the 442nd know that what they did was patriotic, demonstrated by the blood they shed on the battlefield and remembered by the 9,486 Purple Hearts their regiment received. They were the most decorated U.S. army regiment of their size and no one knows this and their story deserves to be told.


After the war, many of the people who came out of the camps found they couldn’t return to homes that had been sold while they were gone. How did people rebuild their lives?

I think they unwillingly and unfairly accepted a lot. The trust that they thought they had in the White neighbors, whom they thought were their friends, was betrayed when those White neighbors who were supposed to watch over their property, turned around and sold off their property for profit. The egregious treatment of the Japanese American community wasn’t recognized by the U.S. government until decades later and the compensation that was given to the Japanese American survivors was so small that it had little value in my opinion. The heroism of the 442nd wasn’t fully acknowledged until early 2000 when the Congressional Medal of Honor was bestowed onto 21 other 442nd veterans. They were not properly recognized for their battlefield heroism due to simply a racist double standard at that time. One of the best compliments that I got for my book was from a 442nd veteran. Since he fought in the war, he could only see it from his side but after reading my book he said, he could finally see the entire scope of the internment and what his family went through and the experiences of the 442nd. That meant a lot to me. When he came back from the war, he quickly met his wife, took advantage of the G.I. Bill and got his education and went on to build an academic career and had four children. He is now a grandfather and enjoys life every single day afforded to him.

The Japanese Americans didn’t take this lying down. Gordon Hirabayashi brought the case to the Supreme Court- and lost. The decision is really appalling, and it’s never been overturned. What does that say about us?

In addition to this case, Fred Korematsu also brought this case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That ruling said that during a time of war, the U.S. had the right to “intern” a certain group of people based solely on their ethnicity was never overturned. The Japanese American internment was the biggest case of racial profiling. I always postulate that if the majority of U.S. population was Japanese American at the time, they would never had interned people who looked like them. What these rulings tell us is that minorities are subject to those people who are in power. As we still live in a White male dominated society, where power is centered, unfair laws or policies could be passed based on nothing more than fear and worst, racism. Another act that unfairly targeted a group of people was the Chinese Exclusion Act. We live in an America where equality is still a struggle and subject to those who wield legislative power.

Along the same lines, when people start rounding up undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants and put them into long-term ICE detention centers, or when people start attacking Muslim Americans in the streets, it’s terrifying. Didn’t we learn anything?

My simple thought on this is no. The powers that be have simply gotten smarter about how to target a certain group of people. But that is not to say that there aren’t people who are hell bent on causing harm to all Americans, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. Law enforcement definitely have the right to do what they can to protect Americans, but not at the expense of taking away an American’s right to due process under the law. I think one of the differences here is that in the U.S., yes, we do have a segment of the population that has created harm to Americans but during WWII, the Japanese Americans were guilty because they were simply Japanese and that was wrong.

Another tricky part in this thorny discussion is that some of the detained are not U.S. citizens and thus are not subject to our laws and I think that’s where my story is important. Of the 120,000 Japanese Americans that were detained, about 80,000 were born in the U.S. and thus American citizens. But during WWII, their constitutional rights were too easily suspended by people in power. It’s even more important now that more Asian Americans get into politics.

As an Asian American writer, what was it like to have to “go there” and write a story about people who like you (and me) being so victimized by prejudice?

The unfairness of it all, caused by the prejudice was a given. But rather than write about the prejudice, I wanted to write a story where the characters feel it emotional and through those powerful emotions, I wanted the reader to vicariously feel all those visceral emotions, everything from unfairness, hopelessness, shame, fear, redemption, strength, courage and patriotism. From what my readers have told me and the tears that they have shed, The Purple Heart has done that. I believe that only through the powerful emotions of the characters, only then will a reader experience the full emotional toll of the Japanese American experience.