Review: “True Tales from Tule Lake”

"Song of Anger" book coverReview of SONG OF ANGER: Tales of Tule Lake by Barney Shallit
(Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton, 2001, 121 pages). First in the Michi Nishiura and Walter Weglyn Multicultural Publication Series.

by Frank Abe
Pacific Citizen Holiday Issue, December, 2001

The late Michi Weglyn devoted more than four chapters of her explosive 1976 history, Years of Infamy, to the misery that was Tule Lake. It was the only camp under martial law, ringed by six tanks. It was the only camp with a prison stockade. Yet even after her book had been out for nearly two decades, Michi lamented the lack of curiosity that Tuleans showed in their own story.

Even today, details are hard to come by. Mention of Tule Lake can cause an embarrassed pause in a conversation with a Nisei who was there. At reunions “Old Tuleans” make sure to distinguish themselves from the segregees who arrived later, the ones who, each for their own reasons, failed to answer “yes” to the government’s botched loyalty oath. The stigma that attaches to the name is still there.

That’s what makes this slim volume of 16 short short stories by the late Barney Shallit such a revelation. His stories feel authentic, with details that are verified by other sources. Shallit was a young social worker who arrived at Tule after the registration crisis. His job gave him access to the inner workings of camp; his sarcasm and sense of irony quickly put him on the side of his clients.

As a document this book fills in the distance between the WRA documents in Michi’s book and the interviews excerpted in the 1946 participant-observer study by Dorothy Thomas and Richard Nishimoto, The Spoilage. As memoir embroidered with some imaginative storytelling, the stories bring back to life the voices of real, vital people. These are the people who are still often remembered only with such dismissive and shallowly understood labels as “disloyals” and “no-no boys.” These are the people that the wartime JACL did not trust, the “agitators and troublemakers” that Mike Masaoka advised the WRA to segregate from the more compliant and patriotic Nisei.

Until now, truck driver James Okamoto was just a name in many books. Shallit appears to have learned something of him through a mutual friend, and “Cages” offers the first characterization I’ve seen of Okamoto, just before he was shot and killed by a racist sentry in what today would be classified a second-degree murder.

“That guard is a psycho. He’s trying to provoke you. Can’t let yourself get so damned upset.” Mas’s face brightened. “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you get a job right here in the center like me and Shiro? Then you wouldn’t have to go through that gate every day, and you wouldn’t have to see that bastard.”

“Can’t,” answered James. “I feel locked up here. I’m in a cage like an animal in the zoo. Oh, it’s a big cage. I can walk around, talk to other prisoners, take a crap without some lousy guard standing over me; sometimes I even feel free. But wherever I walk, I eventually end up at the fence. That fence looks at me and says James Okamoto, this is as far as you go.’ So you see, I’ve got to get out of this hole, even for a few hours. It makes me feel almost like a man again. Besides, I like my job and I’ve got a great crew.”

Mas persisted. “Why don’t you leave Tule? Go get yourself a job on the outside. You’re a good truck driver; it shouldn’t be hard.”

James shook his head. “No, I can’t do it. For Christ’s sake, Mas, didn’t you know I’m not free to relocate? I’m a disloyal, a no-no. Almost everybody is on an army list or a navy list, or a Department of Justice hold. Even if I could relocate, it wouldn’t work. People would look at me and say, Hey, man, you don’t belong out there. I’d still be in a cage. It’s my face; my fucking face is my cage.”

Just before the sentry was acquitted of manslaughter, still-unknown assailants cut the throat of the manager of the Tule Lake Cooperative, Takeo Noma. In the title piece, “The Song of Anger,” the Caucasian staff solemnly react to Noma’s murder by passing around a jug of wine and contemplating their own mortality. The title refers not to the outcry of the inmates, but to an off-color ditty sung by tipsy WRA employees.

In what was known as the Tule Lake Riot, more than 5,000 men, women and children surrounded the administration building for three hours, trapping WRA Director Dillon S. Myer inside until he heard their grievances. To Shallit it was little more than an “anemic, half-assed demonstration” to which “a frightened administration overreacted” with more fences and construction of a prison stockade. He sets two stories inside the Tule Lake Stockade. “Black Jelly Beans” depicts a dangerous friendship between prisoner and guard, while in “The Happiest Man in the Stockade” a defiant Kibei inmate delights in telling Shallit a story that … well, all I can say is that the punchline is, “Piss on the floor! Let the hakujin piss on the floor.”

Shallit writes of names familiar to students and scholars, in ways that are startling and unsparing. Anthropologist Rosalie Hankey was “a mountain of a woman… at least six foot two and built like a Sherman tank. She threw back her broad shoulders, her large breasts surveying the room menacingly.” Community analyst Marvin Opler buries himself in work and ignores his houseguests, “with his heavy red beard and his slow, deliberate movements, he looked more like a benign, giant panda.”

Shallit observes small moments and pieces them together with a writer’s urge to make sense of bigger events. Some moments are awkward or sentimental, but each story attempts to end with some kind of one-line twist, whether it’s the age of two “escapees” whose disappearance provokes a military alert, or how a neglected wife helps her JACL husband escape a gambling debt.

The book’s cover alone is worth the price of admission. The remains of the Tule Lake Stockade are captured in a panoramic photo collage, a technique developed by Professor Masumi Hayashi of Cleveland State University to deconstruct a 360 degree environment through many small snapshots and recreate it as a new reality on a flat page. The effect complements the multiple voices that we are allowed to hear once again through the gift of these stories.

Barney Shallit wrote these stories only recently, in the decade before he passed away in Oakland in 1993. His book appears now as the first in the new Michi Nishiura and Walter Weglyn Multicultural Publication Series, the result of an endowment the couple left to Professor Art Hansen and the Oral History Program at California State University, Fullerton. Michi championed books she felt revealed new information about the camp experience, sending copies to her friends and firmly insisting they read them. I think she would have been pleased to have her name on this one.

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