Fifty Years Later: Just How Far Have We Come?


As I reflect on the meaning of today, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I can’t help but wonder just how far we’ve come.

Here’s a brief re-cap of that day.

Martin Marches

On March 7, 1965, the first of three marches that were to start in Selma and finish in the capital of Montgomery, took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marches were organized to bring attention to “the desire of black American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote.”

selma3This day later became known as Bloody Sunday when 600 unarmed marchers were attacked by state troopers using billy clubs and tear gas.

The sequel to The Red Kimono takes place from 1957-1963, and although that precludes the story of these marches, the backdrop to the book is the Civil Rights Movement.

In my research for the book, I’ve read about many historical events such as Bloody Sunday, and it has caused me to look at current events and wonder about how far we’ve really come.

I admit to being a naïve optimist. Before I started paying close attention, attempting to see current events in the eyes of others (as I try to write through the eyes of others) I thought:

“What are you complaining about? Look how far we’ve come.”

Then, a story like Ferguson comes out. The recent Justice Department findings were a real eye-opener for me–again, forgive my naïve optimism. One might be able to justify away the statistics reported by CNN by attributing it to the high percentage of African-Americans living in the area:

  • Ferguson is a town of 21,000 that is 67% African-American.
  • From 2012 to 2014, 85% of people subject to vehicle stops by Ferguson police were African-American, 90% of those who received citations were black, and 93% of people arrested were black.
  • In 88% of the cases in which Ferguson police officers reported using force, it was against African-Americans. From 2012-2014 black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, but 26% less likely to be found in possession of contraband.

But there is no way you can justify away the emails that were found as part of this investigation, and that’s where my eyes were opened. According to USA Today, here is a summary of just a couple of those emails, written by two police officers and a court clerk:

  • A November 2008 e-mail stated that President Obama would not be president for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
  • A May 2011 e-mail stated: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.'”

In reaction to these emails, a recent guest on CNN stated that the exchange of such emails on the city’s email server is proof of the city’s tolerance of such attitudes. In other words, those sending such emails had no concern that they’d be disciplined. Excellent point. Sickening point.

So, my conclusion is, yes, we have come a long way. We elected our first black president. Many wondered if it would ever happen. Though admittedly, I was one of those disappointed that my candidate didn’t win, I remember feeling a reverence for that day in history.

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But, there is no doubt we have a long way to go. There are still too many who are truly prejudiced, even racist, and there is a difference. When I see photos or watch video of the terrible violence against other human beings, solely because of the color of their skin, I’m horrified that we treated (and sometimes still treat) fellow Americans–fellow HUMAN BEINGS–that way.

Maybe someday, I’ll look at words such as those in the emails sited above and think, “I can’t believe we ever thought of fellow human beings that way.”

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First Snow


It’s snowing in Dallas and has been since about 9:00 this morning. People all over the country are likely tired of it, but snow in any appreciable amount is a rarity here, and I’m loving it.

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Although this wasn’t my grandson’s first experience with snow–he recently played in the Colorado snow with his cousins–today was the first time I’d get to experience it with him, so I carried him outside for just a minute to experience snow through Tommy’s eyes.
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As I watched tiny snowflakes land in his hair, as I felt him gasp tiny breaths when they landed on his skin, it reminded me of a scene I wrote in The Red Kimono about Sachi’s first snow. The scene takes place on the anniversary of the death of Sachi’s father. All day, she’s been trying to escape a voice inside that tells her it’s her fault Papa was killed. Then, snow begins to fall.

EXCERPT:

Everything was still and quiet, as if the cold air had frozen the world. She hated the quiet, especially today.
What if . . .
There it was again, ramming its way into her consciousness. Unease rippled inside, and she searched for a distraction, a place to hide. But the street was empty.
Quiet.
She started running, as if she could escape the thought. But it was too strong this time. There was nothing to drive it away. It burst into her mind, full force. She stopped. Breathless. Overcome.
If I hadn’t begged Papa to take me to the park, he might still be alive.
Tears burned her eyes. It was her fault.
She covered her face with her hands, hoping darkness would hide her from the bitter realization. Mama had warned them that it wasn’t a good idea to go to the park that day. Papa had probably agreed, but with Sachi begging day after day, he’d finally given in and ignored Mama’s warning.
It was her fault. If she hadn’t dragged Papa there, if she had left when Papa said it was time to go, those boys wouldn’t have found him. If Mama and Nobu blamed those boys, surely they blamed her, too.
I’m sorry, Papa.
Something cold tingled on the top of her head, trickled down her collar. Goose bumps? No. It was colder. It prickled on her hands, too. She opened her eyes and watched white flakes drift all around her. They landed on her eyelashes, her nose, her tongue.
She stared at the delicate flakes that landed on her jacket, lifted her arm to her eyes to see them better, the tiny, tiny crystals, shaped like the ones she cut from paper, each different from the others, but all clinging together.
Falling, falling.
Softly.
Gracefully.
Unbelievably quiet.
Snow! Her first snow.

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Q&A with Deborah Kalb


Thank you to Deborah Kalb for her interview about The Red Kimono. It comes at a perfect time to honor my mom as she enters the next chapter. Click HERE for the full interview.

Jan Morrill is the author of the novel The Red Kimono. Her other work includes the essay collection Doll in the Red Kimono and the haiku collection Life: Haiku by Haiku. She is based in Dallas.

Q: How did your family’s history inspire the writing of The Red Kimono?

A: Neither my mother nor her family spoke much about their internment, so for most of my childhood, I didn’t think about it.

But when my parents took us to visit Tule Lake, one of the camps where, as an eight-year old, my mother had been interned, I watched her stare at the desolate site with tears in her eyes. It was then that I began to wonder about the story of the internment of Japanese Americans.

However, as I wrote the book, and fell deeper into the story of my characters, I found I was as much interested in the Japanese culture, particularly the dichotomy of honor.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel focusing on these issues instead of a work of nonfiction?

A: When I first began writing the book, it was intended to be a biography of my mother’s life. However, I found this very difficult, considering my mother and several of her siblings are still living. I worried about how they’d feel about having their lives made public and it blocked my writing.

Also, many times, when I’d ask my mother about her personal internment stories, it would again bring tears to her eyes, and that made me hesitate to draw her into the process too deeply. So, I took the “seeds” of her story and created a historical fiction instead.

The “seeds” I took from my mother’s life are that she spent three years of her childhood in an internment camp; that her mother fought for my mother to retain her Japanese culture; and that my mother’s father was killed by an African-American teenager.

Everything else–the camps, the people in her family, the timing and cause of her father’s death–all were fictionalized.

Q: Racial understanding is one of the prominent themes of the book. Why did you decide to tell the story from the perspective of an African-American character as well as Japanese-American characters?

A: Every person has a different story to tell. One of the things that appeals to me most about multiple point of view stories is discovering how someone else sees an event.

Many of the problems in society today stem from our unwillingness to empathize. We don’t think about what another person’s story might be before we make a judgment.

It was important for me to not only show that every person has a story, but that we are all guilty of judgment, prejudice and sometimes even racism, and that’s often because we don’t take the time to understand.

Q: How did you research the novel?

A: I read several books on the internment, both fiction and non-fiction. One of the non-fiction books I found most useful was Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience.

I also did extensive research at libraries and online. The most useful resource to me overall was a website calleddensho.org, which is full of photographs, journals, newspapers and best of all, interviews with former internees.

Of course, I also spoke with several family members. I was amazed at the detailed memory of one of my uncles, and it was easier to talk to him because he was not as emotional in recollecting as my mother.

My mother did read my manuscript, however, which was a thrill for me, considering she isn’t much of a reader. Her insights were invaluable.

One of my favorite memories in the process of writing The Red Kimono came after she’d read a scene with Sachi and Jubie. In the original scene, Sachi was stacking rocks on top of one of the camp’s fence posts. Sachi is the same age my mother was in camp, so my mother read something that I didn’t catch while writing.

“Jan,” she said, “there’s no way Sachi could have reached the top of that fence post.”

I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that she’d placed herself so in my story that she caught a detail like that. And so, of course, I changed the story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of children’s books coming out in June and October of this year by Lee Press. These books (The Magical Red Kimono and Xs and Os) are based on the friendship of Sachi and Jubie–something very dear to my heart.

And, of course, I’m working on the sequel to The Red Kimono. The story of Sachi, Nobu and Terrence was originally intended for one book, however, it would have been too long. The sequel follows the same three lives from 1957-1963, though the point of view characters will be Sachi, Nobu, Jubie and Terrence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

The Red Kimono was selected as a 2013 Arkansas Gem by Arkansas Center for the Book and was selected as an Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society.

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Without My Mom


mom girl

It’s 3:00 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Today, a hospice nurse told us my mom could be with us a few more days, she could be with us a month. But the sparkle has left her eyes, and even if it’s a month, the nurse told us her sparkle probably won’t return.

My mother hasn’t been healthy for much of my life and has been especially sick with failing kidneys due to diabetes for several months now. So, I thought I was ready. And I haven’t lived in the same city as she lives for over ten years now. So I thought I’d gotten accustomed to not having her a part of my every day life.

My mom has never been one to call me regularly, but she always called me on my birthday, always sent Valentine’s cards and flowers, always filled a Christmas stocking for each and every one of us, no matter how sick she was. When I’d leave for my trip home, or any road trip, she’d have snacks for me to eat on the road and would always ask me to text her when I arrived.

Now, to be so close to that time when she simply won’t be here for all those little things I’ve taken for granted–will never be here again . . . the feeling of loss before she’s even gone comes as a surprise.

familyThose who know me best know that at times, my relationship with my mom has been one of ups and downs. As the oldest of five children all born within six years and with a father who was often away on trips with the Air Force, I had a childhood filled with what I sometimes thought was too much responsibility, and for much of my life, I resented it.

But in the last few days, I’ve come to appreciate the responsibility it taught me. It may have made me a mean big sister at times, but it also made me a better mom.

Here are a few memories that first come to mind when I think of my mom:

photo (2)1) My mom often sewed dresses for us so that we’d all be dressed alike. Then, she’d buy an outfit to match for my brother. One of my favorite dresses she made was a pink polka dot dress with a poofy skirt, even though the slip was itchy. I still remember wearing that skirt to a parent-teacher conference at school. When I walked down the hall between my mother and father, I don’t know what I was more proud of: my beautiful mother, my father in uniform, my good grades, or that pink-polka-dot-poofy-skirt dress that my mom made.

mom model2) My mother was a beautiful, talented woman, and I believe she was happiest when entertaining in some way, whether modeling, acting, singing or simply being the life of the party. Somehow, I knew this even as a child. When I’d watch her put her make-up on, spray on the perfume she always wore, I would be happy, too.

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3) Sometime in the last year, after spending a few days with my mom, I had to leave very early in the morning. My mom got out of bed, even though I’m sure she’d just fallen asleep, and with her walker, rolled into the kitchen and began to fix something for me to eat on the road. She walked me to the door, and when I turned to wave goodbye, it struck me how old and frail she looked. Maybe it’s no coincidence that at the same time I realized it could very well be the last time I saw her, I felt so loved by her.

4) But one of my favorite stories of my mom happened while I was writing The Red Kimono. For those of you who don’t know, my eight-year old character, Sachi, was based on my mother, who was an internee as a child. It was hard for me to consult my mom very much while writing this book, because memories of her internment still brought tears to her eyes, and that was hard for me to see.

Yet, when I finished the manuscript, she asked to read it. This in itself touched me, because in all honesty, I’ve never known her to read a book. So, I put the manuscript on her iPad, and every time I’d go into her room, her nose was buried in that iPad. She finished reading it in only two days, and when she was done, she suggested a couple of minor cultural changes.

smallIMG_0855 - Copy (2)But the one change I loved best was about the scene where Sachi is stacking rocks in the internment camp. In the original manuscript, I had her stacking the rocks on top of the fence posts of the barbed wire that surrounded the camp. But my mom corrected the scene, saying, “Jan, there’s no way Sachi would have been able to reach the top of those fence posts.”

My heart filled with both joy and sadness. Joy, that she’d fallen so much into my story that she was right there with Sachi. But that joy was “corrected” by the sadness that followed, when I remembered, no, she really had been there.

Without my mom, there would have been no Sachi. There would have been no me. I would not have my kids. I would not have my grandson.

I’ll read this to my mom today and hope she understands it. Because I want her to know more than just “I love you.” I want her to know that in all the ways I listed, I’ll never be without my mom.

Mom and Jan (2) mom and jan2

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Martin Luther King Day Mashup


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I couldn’t choose what to post in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day, so I thought I’d do a mashup:

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mash-up

[mash-uhp]
noun
Slang. a creative combination or mixing of content from different sources

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First, I’d like to share a Time Magazine article by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar titled, “Why I Have Mixed Feelings About MLK Day.”

Here are a few excerpts I found particularly interesting:

  • …we have to look at the civil rights movement like antibiotics: Just because some of the symptoms of racism are clearing up, you don’t stop taking the medicine or the malady returns even stronger than before.
  • One of the major debates this year has been whether or not racism exists anymore in America. Not surprisingly, polls indicate that most African Americans say yes it does exist while most white Americans say that it doesn’t. Blacks point to disproportionate prosecution and persecution of blacks by authorities, and whites point to President Obama and dozens of laws protecting and promoting minorities.
  • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Dr. Martin Luther King
  • He [Dr. King] would have also been disturbed by the violence and rioting that has occurred during these protests. We must remember that Dr. King’s cause was not just equality for all people, but achieving that equality through nonviolence. The ends do not justify the means; the means and the ends are the same. Violence insults his legacy.

I’ve posted several essays about my thoughts on prejudice/racism. Our differences and how we do or don’t communicate with each other about it, is the source of much of my writing, including the friendship between Sachi and Jubie in The Red Kimono, its sequel and two upcoming children’s books.

Here are some links to a few of those posts:

The Color of a Voice

Changing Colors

The Help: A Multicultural Perspective

Black and White Points of View

Prejudice vs. Racism

Sometimes I wonder if I’m too idealistic when I believe the solution to prejudice, racism, or cultural differences lies in open, respectful communication with each other. On the “giving end,” such communication requires that we be unafraid to ask questions or express our opinions. On the “receiving end,” it requires that we not be so ultra-sensitive.

Some people may say resolving the problem is not that easy, but truly, the kind of communication needed to continue to move in the direction Dr. King wanted us to move would not be so easy.

Finally, I thought I’d offer a little teaser to the sequel to The Red Kimono. The sequel takes place between 1957 and 1963. Sachi, Nobu and Terrence are now in their 20s. For those of you familiar with The Red Kimono, the point of view characters in the sequel are Sachi, Nobu, Jubie and Taro.

mlk3The story opens with a prologue. Here’s an excerpt from that prologue:

Prologue
Washington D.C.
August 28, 1963

The sun beat down on Sachi, and the heat of thousands of marchers pressed against her. Yet goose bumps sent chills along her arms and neck.

Each person in the crowd had drifted to this place on a separate tributary. Now, they flowed together in a current of humanity that meandered along the Washington Mall, pressing toward the Lincoln Memorial.

They sang in one voice. We shall overcome . . .

Sachi’s son, Michael, sidled between Jubie and Terrence, clutched their hands as he jumped up and down. Sachi wondered if it was because he couldn’t see, or if it was pure excitement—probably both. She smiled as she remembered the first time she’d met Jubie at the barbed wire fence of the internment camp in Rohwer, twenty years before. Nobody would have believed then that a Japanese girl and a black girl could become best friends, remain best friends as adults.

Even harder to believe was that Terrence Harris—the black man who nearly killed her father—had also become a friend.

Jubie tickled Michael. “We may not get to see Dr. King, but we sure gonna hear him. Maybe Mr. Terrence’ll put you up on his shoulders so you can see better.” She poked Terrence in the ribs.

“We’ll see about that,” Terrence replied. “How old are you now, Michael? Six?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “No! I’m almost nine.”

A wry grin, and Terrence’s hazel eyes flashed with mischief. “Kinda big to be sitting up on my shoulders, aren’t you?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Maybe you’re just too old to put a kid as big as me up on your shoulders.”

Terrence clutched his shirt over his heart. “Aw, man. You got me. Well, like I said, we’ll just see—”

A deep voice boomed over the loudspeakers. “At this time, I have the honor to present to you, the moral leader of our nation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The crowd hushed.

Sachi stood on her toes.

Everyone cheered and waved their hands, signs, hats—anything to draw attention.

Dr. King began to speak.

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