- Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp: A Nisei Youth Behind a World War II Fence by Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey
It is difficult to compare Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey’s memoir with other Japanese American World War II incarceration memoirs because there have been so few. Of the over 110,000 Japanese Americans who personally experienced wartime imprisonment, only a handful have published autobiographical accounts. These include Noboru Shirai’s Tule Lake: An Issei Memoir (1981 in Japanese, 2001 in English), Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir Citizen 13660 (1946), Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar (1973), Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile (1982) and The Invisible Thread (1995), and Gene Oishi’s In Search of Hiroshi (1988). For this reason alone, Havey’s publication, which documents her teenage years spent in camps in Santa Anita, California, and Amache, Colorado, is an important addition to the archive of Issei and Nisei voices from the camps. But Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp is also significant because the author is primarily a visual artist. Havey describes the process of writing the memoir as having emerged from her painting. In preparing exhibitions of her watercolors, which mix camp landscapes and architecture with expressive figures in vivid and often surreal combinations, she was often asked to provide accompanying descriptions. She soon realized that a single paragraph was insufficient to explain the emotional and historical complexity behind her images, and the result is this memoir.
Nearly thirty beautifully reproduced watercolors are supplemented by family photographs of Havey’s parents in Japan, her childhood in Southern California, and eventually, the final months in camp. The fact that no cameras were allowed in the camps until 1945, and therefore no photographs exist of Havey between the ages of ten and thirteen, drives home the power of the visual and literary reenactments, despite their fragmented and expressionistic qualities.
Havey’s memoir includes frank discussion of sexuality, depression, and alcoholism as well as candid and sympathetic pictures of her parents as complex individuals dealing with the traumas of [End Page 181] incarceration. The writing is often vivid and compelling. Havey is able to evoke the emotional and physical details of camp life with simple strokes: a spaghetti dinner cooked by her father on a forbidden hotplate; a birthday cake made of layers of Ritz crackers, peanut butter, and jam; the itchy discomfort of hand-crocheted pink sanitary pad holders.
“Gasa Gasa,” which in Japanese refers to the rustling sound of leaves, can be loosely translated to mean restless or unable to keep still. The title evokes both the turbulence of adolescence as well as an artist who refuses to stay silent and in her place. Throughout the narrative, the incarceration experience is depicted as one of disruption, confusion, and lifelong trauma. At the same time, Havey emphasizes that her art, both her paintings and her memoir, have been cathartic and liberating. Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp represents an important addition to the Japanese American World War II voices from the camps and a significant artistic contribution in its own right. [End Page 182]