Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fires on the Mountains, Fires in our Hearts

Margaret Chula reading at the Japanese American National Museum on 9/11/2010

 “When it snows, the San Gabriel Mountains look beautiful,” the Japanese woman at the front desk of the Miyako Hotel Los Angeles tells me. “But sometimes there are fires on the mountains.”

Exactly nine years ago on the morning of September 11, I awoke in Portland smelling smoke. I searched the house thoroughly. There was no fire, yet I felt uneasy. At that moment, on the east coast in New York, planes were crashing into the Twin Towers.

Now on September 11, 2010, quilt artist Cathy Erickson and I presenting our book What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps at the Japanese American National Museum. The room fills up early. Many of the audience were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. Others are second- or third-generation Japanese Americans who learned about the camps in school, not from their parents, who were too ashamed or emotionally scarred to tell them.

September 11 is a day to reflect on not only the loss of innocent lives, but also the dissolution of human rights. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and transported to ten concentration camps in desolate areas of the country. Seventy percent of them were American citizens. Fifty thousand were children. Not one was ever convicted of a disloyal act.

We begin our presentation with projected images of Cathy’s quilts. The audience oohs and ahhs at their beautiful colors, textures, and creative patterns. As I read my accompanying poems—in the voices of a young boy/a grandmother/a dancer/a carpenter/a teen-age girl—I hear women in the audience quietly weeping.

After the hour is over, I lean against the wall emotionally exhausted. The men and women quietly file out. Several of them come over to me, take my hand, and look me in the eyes. “Thank you for telling our story.”

Visit the JANM site at


  1. I'm so happy I was able to attend this very moving reading. The stories you told through your persona poems, so beautifully illustrated by Cathy's quilts, will remain with me for a long time.

  2. Thanks, Deb. And it was wonderful to see you in the audience sitting next to my sister who had driven up from Mexico.