On the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Japanese American internment camps, Eric L. Muller, editor of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, talks to UNC Press Publicity Director Gina Mahalek about his related podcast, Scapegoat Cities, launching on September 6, 2017. Read on for a chance to win a copy of Colors of Confinement!
Gina Mahalek: It’s been five years since the publication of your highly acclaimed book, Colors of Confinement (UNC Press, 2012), which features Bill Manbo’s color photographs of Japanese American incarceration in World War II, and 75 years since the opening of the internment camps in 1942. Why is this the right moment for the launch of your podcast, Scapegoat Cities?
Eric Muller: Two reasons. First, since the election of President Trump we are awash in discussions about policies that would (or do) single out people on the basis of religion or race or national origin. It’s easy for these policy debates to stay at an abstract and legalistic level. I think it’s crucial to remember that policies of these sorts are not abstract at all; they have real, often devastating, impacts on real people. The stories I tell in Scapegoat Cities are reminders of those human impacts.
Second, the permanent Japanese American camps opened in August and September of 1942, which is exactly 75 years ago. If this isn’t an appropriate moment for us to remember this historical episode and the people it affected, I don’t know what is.
GM: Tell us about the podcast and what listeners can expect to hear.
EM: The idea is simple: each episode tells a single true story of someone’s experience of being removed from his or her home and imprisoned. The stories are not of major earth-shattering events and they are not the experiences of prominent people. They are, rather, ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. But each of the vignettes, in its own quiet way, reveals something important about the nature of what people who are singled out because of their race had to endure.
GM: What does the podcast form allow you to do that’s different from a book or article?
EM: It allows me to adopt a tone more like that of historical fiction rather than the more academic tone I usually use in my writing. It’s not fiction; each story is true. But the tone is personal; I include dialogue and little details of people’s interactions and thoughts. In other words, it allows me to be a storyteller. It also allows me to create a musical backdrop that enhances the mood of the episode and makes the story more compelling to listen to.
EM: Injustice may be directed at groups, but it happens to individuals. Before we make the mistake of launching new programs that single people out on the theory that they are risky or dangerous or undesirable simply because they belong to a particular religious group or come from a particular place, we need to remind ourselves of the real harms that such programs cause in the lives of real people. Perhaps such stories might lead us to think twice before acting.
GM: The stories have never been told before. How did you come across them?
EM: I have been rummaging around in archives, reading the concentration camp newspapers, and interviewing former internees for twenty years. Sometimes a story comes across my line of vision that just touches me, that brings a tear to my eye or a feeling of anger. These are the sorts of stories I’m bringing to the fore in Scapegoat Cities.
GM: You tell the story of Mary Manbo, the wife of the photographer in Colors of Confinement. How do Bill Manbo’s photos of her and her story in her own words inform and amplify each other?
EM: Doing the research for Colors of Confinement, I naturally focused on Bill Manbo, the photographer, but felt like I came to know his wife Mary at least as well as Bill, if not better. Mary was much more verbally expressive than Bill in the forms she filled out and in the loyalty hearing she had—and of course Mary is also the visual subject of many of Bill’s photos, whereas Bill is rarely seen. So I really reveled in the chance to tell the story from Mary’s vantage point.
GM: What kinds of resources and other materials can be found at the podcast’s website, scapegoatcities.org?
EM: Each episode will have its own web page that will include at least one illustrative photograph and some introductory text. There will also be a page that lists and describes key books that I have found particularly useful for my own research that are written in an accessible way for the non-expert.
GM: You’re a professor of jurisprudence and ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and obviously well informed about the big legal issues regarding Japanese American imprisonment. In Scapegoat Cities, you go beneath the big ideas to present a handful of personal stories from the 115,000 Japanese Americans who lived behind barbed wire during this period. Why did you choose to take this approach?
EM: People are impressed by big issues and theories. They are moved by human stories. I have always tried to ground my scholarship in the human aspect of the historical episode, and not to get too carried away by theory. This podcast is a chance for me to do this more directly and simply than in my more traditional scholarly work. I want people today to be touched by what people endured 75 years ago— to remember and to commit to preventing similar injustices today and in the future. I hope that the stories in Scapegoat Cities will help in that effort.
GM: How can listeners to Scapegoat Cities help spread the word about the launch of the podcast on September 6th, when the first two full episodes will become available?
EM: People can rate and review the introductory podcast on iTunes (or wherever else they like to get podcasts) now. They can tweet about it and like its Facebook page. They can tell their family and their friends the old-fashioned way, over lunch or on the telephone. If they know history buffs or school teachers, they can mention the podcast as a resource.
# # #
For a limited time, all iTunes reviewers are eligible for a chance to win a copy of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II edited by Eric L. Muller with photographs by Bill Manbo. Leaving a review is easy: go to the podcast’s page on iTunes, click on the “Ratings and Reviews” tab, and then on the little “write a review” button.
Then send an email to email@example.com with the text of your posted iTunes review for a chance to win one of 6 copies that will be selected at random from all entries. One winner will be selected monthly through January 31, 2018. You have to send the email in order to have a chance at winning.