BY JUDITH VAN PRAAG
Examiner Arts Writer
Many of us have a story within that begs to be told. We put it off, and off, telling ourselves, “One day, I’ll sit down and write it down.” Often we need a little push.
About 15 years ago, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald’s son and middle child said, “Mom, you have never told us about Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Yonei.”
Gruenewald (who was 65 at the time) figured that if her own three children and her brother Yoneichi’s four daughters (their father died in 1985) were interested in their family history, it was up to her to tell the story.
She started by listing the facts as she knew them.
In January of 1999, Gruenewald’s daughter-in-law told her about author and teacher Brenda Peterson, who was leading a writers group in Seattle. Until she joined the group, what Gruenewald wrote had been all-inclusive. Peterson suggested she ought to write a memoir, focusing on the war years and her camp experience. She advised Gruenewald to make a laundry list of everything she wanted to address.
With that complete, the writer penned years — starting with 1941 — on a stretch of butcher paper laid out on the floor. Next she added the items from the laundry list – content for scenes and chapters. In Peterson’s class she learned how to apply tools of fiction: adding character, dialogue and story line to her factual material.
In “Looking Like the Enemy: My story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps,” Gruenewald doesn’t just relate her own story in an engaging manner; her writing is a tribute to the mother whose wisdom she wishes to share with people who aren’t lucky enough to have had such a wise parent. Exposing her heart and soul on paper was not easy. Gruenewald remembers how Trip, a fellow writing student, said: “Mary, we came to class ready to read your words about Mama-san and you dismissed her in 200 words!”
Gruenewald then knew she had to go back to her desk and write with all the beautiful details she had learned to use, excavating the painful as well as dear memories. This proved to be double hard because: “Culturally it was not done to reveal.”
And yet writing has proven to be rewarding and gratifying to the now octogenarian author. Gruenewald says she’s not the same person she was before she started to write her memoir.
She had, for instance, been prejudiced against “no, no” people (those against Japanese young men fighting for the U.S. army). Gruenewald’s family belonged to the “yes, yes” sayers.
While working on the book, she came to understand that both sides were living according to their convictions. Both equally valuable, different but equally difficult. The “no, no” sayers had to withstand rejection; they were ostracized. Gruenewald remembers situations in the camp, where a father was pro Japan, and the son was not: “Families got torn apart that way,” she said.
Writing gave Gruenewald respect for those who thought differently. She learned to appreciate the value of democracy, where one has the right to dissent.
“During the 70s and 80s there was a movement to extract an apology from the U.S. Government. Less than 1 percent of the Japanese American population stood up,” she said.
That this movement did not bring people together pains Gruenewald till today. She states that both the soldiers of the 442nd and the “no-no” sayers need to be honored next to each other. She said, “We need both of them, the loyal as well as the critics.”
Gruenewald cried a lot while writing her war memoir, but it was cathartic. She recommends writing and getting that story down on paper to others. She says that people have been coming out of the woodwork since her book was published – people from her past, people she grew up with. She talks more now than ever; her heart is lighter and she’s been told that she smiles more.
A senior friend showed her his life story, 25 written pages. Remembering her own starting point, and knowing that each paragraph could be made into one whole chapter, she told her friend: “Have courage! Be brave!” For that’s what it takes to write in all honesty, delve deep into one’s own and family’s past.
Gruenewald’s advice for those who want to embark on a similar adventure is this: “Enroll in a writing group, write with people. You learn from each other. Come with pages to class. You get notes and a different perspective on your material, while you remain the authority.”
Reconciled with her past, the author of the beautifully crafted memoir plans to visit Japan this coming spring. Finally. No telling what the title of her next book will be.
A reading and book signing will take place at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE (206) 634-3400 on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m., and at Village Books in historic Fairhaven in Bellingham (360) 671-2626, on Oct. 15 (time to be arranged). At the Bainbridge Island Library, 1270 Madison Avenue N. (206) 842-4162, the author will back-up the Field’s End Writers’ Roundtable panel discussion: “Why Write,” on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m.; and she’ll read at the same location on Oct. 23 at 4 p.m..