The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a talk on “the danger of a single story,” shares an early encounter with a college roommate who was shocked to learn that Adichie, an international student from Nigeria, knew how to use the stove. Adichie recounts that her roommate expected the totality of Africa to be “a single story of catastrophe” — one likely replete with images of AIDS, poverty, big game animals roaming wild, grass huts and crumbling cities, children with wide eyes
and swollen bellies and corrupt governments fostering bitter wars. The problem with stereotypes, Adichie eventually concludes, is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.
As the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti has written, it is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: One must simply neglect to speak of what happened first. “Start your story with ‘Secondly,’” he explains, “and the arrows of the Red Indians are the original criminals and the guns of the white men are entirely the victims.”
This logic is spectacularly commonplace. The single story — starting our telling in the book’s second chapter — allows the earnest use of phrases like “black on black crime” while carefully omitting the names of the patriots who designed the ghettos. It allows the praising of Israeli settlements and the condemnation of the slinging of rocks and rockets at the tanks that razed villages in the saga’s prologue.
This is the logic of a single story: extracting a thin thread of circumstance from the wider tapestry of a people’s history and holding the kernel up as gospel. Secondly, starving Africans. Secondly, the arrows of the Native Americans. Secondly, a Palestinian rabbi is crucified by Rome for spreading sedition and fostering terrorism. Secondly, those unpatriotic, disloyal wartime Nisei who didn’t volunteer as soldiers. Secondly, Black rage. “Secondly” permits the leapfrogging past a prologue of occupation, plunder, and concentration camps to divert attention to a red herring plucked from the ocean’s greater context.
Retelling the past in this way is inherently political: Divorce an instance of history from its wider landscape, and one is allowed to maintain a convenient masquerade. The revisionist is permitted to paint Nagasaki and Hiroshima as nothing more than ordinary, unavoidable machinations of war, not as the earth-shattering crimes against humanity they are. One is allowed to complain about the influx of refugees and undocumented immigration into a land that was seized and baptized into an empire by conquest and violence. Historical amnesiacs can genuinely reremember Confederate flags as emblems of courage and pride rather than as symbols representing heritages of white supremacy, treason and rape. Statues raised to slavers and secessionists are happily restored rather than retired as they rust with the passage of time.
This trickery is the essence of why a single story is profoundly dangerous. For Nikkei, not all members of the Japanese American community fit neatly into the concentration/loyalty/liberty model of history as we have grown used to telling it. We are the descendants of both draft resisters and go-for-brokers, Nisei and Japanese nationals. We are of multiracial and monoracial ancestry, and we inhabit a vast spectrum of genders and sexual orientations, all of which should encourage us to push back against our flattening into a single story.
“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become,” Adichie teaches us. We cheat ourselves when we censor or boycott the stories that do not fit nicely within the gatekeepers’ approved markers. We do not need to tone down or ignore the lives of faithful and persecuted draft resisters like Yosh Kuromiya. We do not need to hush the little-known story of Jiro Onuma, the gay Issei who disrupted convenient ideas of Asian family and male respectability by spending his time in camp collecting photographs highlighting the male physique. We certainly do not need to frantically sweep the Mike Masaoka and the Japanese American Citizens League as told by George Takei’s “Allegiance” under the cheerful rubric of Japanese American patriotism.
We must hold space for each of our unique perspectives rather than anxiously demanding that a single story of “the Japanese American legacy” be snapshotted, mummified and delicately retold in a crisp, acceptable way to each succeeding generation. We must insist upon greater airtime for our counter narratives — the hidden perspectives from which we often learn far more than from those stories we already know.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed during World War II for his part in plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, wrote from prison: “We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”
There are many in and outside our community who would start our tale with the word “Secondly,” insisting the official narrative is the only one, that we must stop attempting to see the great events of Nikkei history “from below.” There is a danger in this approach. Their logic is rooted in a great fear: a worry that if we depart from the established, popular ways we engage in storytelling our incarceration, then whatever “lessons” our history has to offer will lose their potency.
But the irony is that only bearing the awful plurality of all our stories together can we begin to approach what we call “the Japanese American experience.” Affirming the humanity of those who burn American flags does not somehow cancel out the bravery of those who waved them in battle for a country that incarcerated them. The atrocities committed by the Empire of Japan do not invalidate the war crimes committed by the United States or Germany —Bataan does not lessen Nagasaki does not lessen Dachau. We need to hear it all because it is, collectively, our world’s wartime story.
In critically examining how we talk about our own history, we speak back against the ways we are continually stereotyped, shoehorned, and otherwise stripped of our complexity. In affording the undertold perspectives a seat of privilege, we insist upon our full right to nothing other than our own bristling, contradictory humanity — that our lives defy simple categorization, and are always more than just a single story.
Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu is the JACL MDC Youth Representative.