Growing up, I had what I now think back on as a strange fascination with books from World War II. They were my favorite genre back in fourth and fifth grades. I especially loved the love stories.
I hadn’t picked up a WWII book in years and I accidently picked one up when I started The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. All of the books I have read previously have been from the point-of-view of white (American or German or Jewish) folks, not a person of color even mentioned in passing. It was a new experience reading a story centered around the war from the perspective of a person of color. It was a World War, after all and it affected more than just white people.
When the book became available after I had put it on hold (I couldn’t remember why I did so), the timing just so happened to be perfect for Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month and especially during all of this Anti-Chinese racism during COVID that is expanding to other Asian ethnicities—because extra racism.
Henry is Chinese and the story flashes back and forward to him in his adolescence and him and his 50s. This book takes an interesting look at race relations in America during the War, especially that of White people, Chinese people, and Japanese people. Henry grapples with his fiercely Chinese family, loyal to China, but striving to fit in as American. He has a button throughout his childhood forcing him to remember “I am Chinese”.
Then he finds Keiko, who is second generation Chinese American. It is dangerous to be Japanese during this time, but Keiko and her family see themselves as American. Keiko has never been to Japan or even speaks Japanese. Henry and Keiko’s friendship is forbidden because of China and American’s relationship with Japan; it doesn’t matter that Keiko and her family are American.
People always call Asian Americans (specifically East Asian like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) people the “model minority”, people of color who seem to excel and overcome racism. Do people not remember the Chinese Exclusion Act? And in the case of this book how Japanese people were put in freaking internment camps on American soil during the war???
Even today as we see so much violence against Asian Americans because of this virus. It goes to show that if you are a person of color, you are never quite seen as fully American. That is the power of White Supremacy.
I did have some feelings about the author being a white man writing as if he knows about the experiences of Asian people during this time. That goes to the general feelings I have about white people telling stories from the perspective of people of color, but that’s a whole other thing. And I call him a white man, because he presents as white in his pictures I’ve seen and has an Anglo-Saxon (probably not the right descriptor at all) sounding name. Studying the history extensively is one thing, but assuming the identity and voice for storytelling is way different.
Maybe my fascination with WWII books will come back now that I can easily find books about people of color. Do y’all have any recommendations for me to get started?