Nelson author Diana Morita Cole spent the first year of her life in a Japanese internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho, but it would take decades for her to emotionally process her family’s experiences there. As a second-generation Nikkei émigré, she didn’t yet know about the extraordinary persecution that occurred worldwide during World War II. But as she set out to research and write her memoir Sideways: Memoirs of a Misfit, she was repeatedly staggered by the sheer scale of the hatred her people faced.
“It was a really mind-blowing experience to realize that this wasn’t just unique to my country and to my family, but it was happening throughout the Pacific Rim,” said Cole, who is preparing to share her newly released book with a pair of local launches and at the Kootenay Storytelling Festival.
“I would be misrepresenting myself if I said I’m not angry, but one has to channel that anger into something productive. I’m trying to achieve some form of transcendence, of self-understanding, but I also want to add to the literature that examines the displacement, imprisonment and resettlement of the Nikkei in the Americas.”
Having married Wayne Cole—Nelson's former chief librarian—she was living on the east coast and raising her son when she witnessed him being discriminated against for being biracial, and realized the dearth of historical education materials available in libraries and schools on the subject of Japanese internment.
"Much of the history in Canada is very provincial, and I've found the consciousness has not spread across the entire country. For instance, no one I knew in Nova Scotia had heard about the imprisonment of the Doukhobors or the enslavement of the Ukrainians. They didn't know much about the residential schools or the camps for Jewish refugees in Quebec City and in Minton, NB. When I finally moved to Nelson it was due to places like the Langham Cultural Centre in Kaslo and the Nikkei Memorial in New Denver that I become better more informed."
That started her on a multi-year project to channel her memories into a publishable form.
“This is something that has taken my whole life to do. I don’t think I became cognizant of the need to write my memoir until I got older. Then I became involved with a biracial couples group in London, Ontario I realized through our discussions the need for us to tell the stories of the discrimination we’d all faced.”
Cole admires Joy Kogawa, who wrote the novel Obasan in 1981 and opened the floodgates for others of Japanese descent to share their stories. “She was the pioneer who made us all aware in a poetic, touching way, of the suffering that occurred on the west coast of B.C.”
But the suffering was felt over many continents, she learned.
“If my grandfather had reached his final destination aboard the ship he left Japan on, I would be speaking Spanish today because he was heading to Mexico. And Mexico, I learned, also practiced an expulsion of the Nikkei from the Pacific coast and confiscated all their property. I wouldn’t have escaped anything there, and I wouldn’t be in Nelson skiing and having a good time. It’s funny, these quirks of fate.”
She also learned about the “extraordinary rendition” of the Japanese from South America, a topic covered in the documentary Hidden Internment: The Art Shibayama Story, which she will be screening for her launch audiences.
“There’s this schism between that time and who we are now, and I’m hoping that through my launches and our discussions we’ll have the opportunity as a society to discuss and ask these questions, and to formulate our own ideas about what that struggle in Canada and around the Pacific Rim has meant for multiple generations."
Cole explained that the Nikkei were considered a “model minority” because “we rarely break the law and tend to keep a low profile. I consider that stereotype a form of strait-jacketing or confinement because you have to present a certain face, and that idea of face is very important in Asian culture.”
She said many of those who suffered through internment camps and persecution haven’t been given the opportunity to share their struggles.
“In order to survive and re-establish ourselves after that horrendous experience of expulsion and economic persecution, many had to push that stuff into the background, because you have to make a living and restore the financial necessities."
“We don’t want to talk about how we’ve been hurt, or how we sometimes might kick a dog when we come home angry. It’s a form of displaced anger, and I want to allow others to peek behind the curtain in an effort to bring healing to ourselves and to society. We have to acknowledge what has been done in our past, not to dwell there but in order to move on.”
Cole said she feels a responsibility to share.
“As one grows older, you realize the passage of time is going to take away all the elders—as Aya Higashi has just recently died, the last remnant of the internment in Kaslo—and this is a responsibility I feel and take seriously.”
Cole’s book has received praise from Rita Takahashi of San Fransisco State University, who said the book “is the very portal through which we view the hidden aspects of three important cultural icons: William Hohri, who led a massive class action lawsuit against the United States, Iva Toguri, who was convicted of treason and subsequently pardoned, and Roy Miki, who was born in exile in Canada.”
The first chapter of the book was originally published in The New Orphic Review and was short-listed for the The Malahat Review’s non-fiction contest in 2013. It was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize anthology.
Cole is a Canadian citizen who has been living in Canada for over 40 years, and is the founder of a biracial couples’ association that has been implemented in a number of Ontario communities. She has also been involved in battling the spraying of Agent Orange in Nova Scotia forests and has spoken to Parliament on the topic.
Both the Columbia Basin Trust and the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance supported Cole’s project financially.
Cole will read at the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre on Saturday, Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. in New Denver. She will then read at the Langham Cultural Centre on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. and at the Koootenay Storytelling Festival from Sept. 25 to 27.
Kidnapped from Peru
Diana Cole’s brother-in-law Art Shibayama (right) is seen here with his wife Betty at a baseball game. He was kidnapped from Peru and imprisoned in Crystal City, Texas during World War II. Cole will be presenting her story about his life at the Kootenay Storytelling Festival and a small clip from the documentary about him at her book launch in New Denver on September 12 at 1 p.m. Admission is by donation.