Anybody who has experienced a trauma like being incarcerated for a lengthy time for no reason other than ancestry will carry wounds for a long time, maybe for a lifetime. For Japanese Americans who did experience this trauma, the road to understanding and dealing with this trauma has often been long and painful given that their reentry back into American society that entailed a great deal of denial and silence. For survival’s sake, it was necessary to fit in and work hard to regain a foothold, to reestablish lives in the society that had thrown them out.
And so rethinking one’s life experiences comes slowly and haltingly.
Lily Nakai Havey who spent 4 years in the camps as a young girl, turned to art to express and understand her history. She found herself doing paintings that depicted fragments of those memories, like flying getas, those wooden clogs that were made by inmates to move through mud and dusty landscapes in the camps, and a little girl in a kimono up against a guard tower with soldiers carrying guns.
As she tried to explain her artwork, she found that she needed to explain more and more, and this resulted in her writing Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp: A Nisei Youth Behinda a World War II Fence. It is a memoir, full of stories that she remembered of her family and of her growing up under the bizarre circumstances of imprisonment in a desert. The title, Gasa Gasa Girl, describes her personality as a kid, gasa gasa indicating someone who moves nervously and quickly, as opposed to slow and deliberate. And indeed she was one who got into trouble because of her curiosity and her quick style. Trying to live a normal life under such abnormal circumstances became a constant struggle, with everyone crammed into flimsy 21 foot by 21 foot barrack rooms.
These are memories filtered through the mind of an adult, so she acknowledges that they may not be totally accurate, but what do we all have as adults but our own version of what and how things happened? Nakai Havey has retained these stories and memories as her own and with the artwork, which she says have been healing and cathartic, she comes to grips with her experiences and their meaning for her. In this way, her work, her personal journey, provide a window into the experiences of all camp inmates, particularly of women and young girls, of a period of her early adoIescence. In this way, Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp provides valuable insights and more light on the complexities of life in the camps.