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I was listening to a lecture on video games as literature recently, and the presenter said that when you read about a historical event, you process it cerebrally, but it doesn't necessarily dredge up a lot of emotion. However, play that story in a video game, and you'll feel it in your body.
That describes my experience reading Naomi Hirohara's CLARK AND DIVISION, even though it's a mystery novel, not a video game. I felt it as I read it, and the emotional wringer it put me through drove home just how brutal and dehumanizing anti-Japanese sentiment was in the World-War-II-era United States, inside and outside the Japanese internment camps.
College student Aki Ito has a good life in sunny southern California. Her father immigrated to America to labor in the strawberry fields, but he worked his way up to a job as the produce manager of a large supermarket. The store pays him well enough for the family to have a nice house and a Model A car. And Aki is busy taking classes at a local community college.
None of that quite makes up for the rampant racism they regularly have to face, however. One of Aki's earliest memories is of being invited to the birthday party of a friend with a swimming pool, only to be sent home before she can take a dip in the new suit her sister Rose helped her buy. The reason—the mothers of the white children at the party don't want their darlings in the same water as a little Japanese girl.
When World War II breaks out, the Itos are forced to navigate daily indignities like Japanese-only curfews or hospitals refusing to treat Asian patients. Then, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and it doesn't take long before the US government comes to their door to confiscate their property, including Mr. Ito's beloved Model A Ford.
The family is sent to Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Manzanar was one of ten U.S. concentration camps that held collectively 110,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens during the war. While these camps don’t have the violent torture or inhumane working conditions of their Nazi counterparts in Europe, they slowly break the hearts of the inmates, whose only crime is that they are not white.
Aki watches her father "wither and turn inward" and her normally impeccably groomed mother sprout an ever-increasing number of gray hairs from the poor food, the lack of purpose, and the stress of having their movements monitored and restricted.
Aki has always looked up to her older sister Rose, forever trying and failing to emulate her natural elegance. Even in Manzanar, beautiful Rose seems set apart from the rest. In fact, Aki hears rumors that Rose is an "inu," an informant who "ratted out" those Japanese who allegedly held anti-American views, causing them to be sent to Department of Justice detention centers. Aki, however, knows that jealousy is likely behind the slander—Rose would never betray her fellow Japanese Americans.
After two years in Manzanar, the Itos receive word that the government is setting prisoners it deems "loyal" free—on the condition that they leave California for unfamiliar Midwestern or East Coast cities. Rose goes ahead of the rest to find the family an apartment in Chicago. After their arrival, Aki and her parents have their hearts broken again when they learn that Rose died only days before.
The police report says Rose jumped in front of a train and killed herself, but Aki can't accept that idea. Rose would never have committed suicide, especially with her family on their way to meet her.
With the authorities closing the book on Rose's case, Aki knows that only she can navigate the tight-knit Japanese American community to discover what really happened. She is convinced that her sister was murdered.
As she insinuates herself into the lives of the people who had contact with Rose in Chicago, Aki's list of potential suspects grows larger each day. When she hears that a Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) girl was attacked on the street, she wonders if all of her work is for naught. Was Rose killed by someone she knew? Or was she the random victim of a person whose anti-Japanese sentiment turned deadly?
Although CLARK AND DIVISION takes place eighty years in the past, it feels incredibly relevant today, given the sharp spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in recent years. Hate crimes overall increased by two percent last year, but a 2021 report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rose by 146 percent during the same period in America’s largest police jurisdictions. Stories like CLARK AND DIVISION help us remember where that kind of hate can lead, in its worst forms.
And yet, there's more to Hirohara's novel than an important history lesson. The lyrical writing, engrossing mystery, and emotion-driven scenes make CLARK AND DIVISION a deeply moving, unputdownable work.
Escape reading this is not. But it is a powerfully told story that you’ll feel in down to the bone.
§ Tracy Fernandez Rysavy teaches literature and writing for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and edits romance fiction for an indie publisher. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Green American magazine.
Reviewed by Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, July 2021
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