By YOKO MORISHITA FEDORENKO
Our plans are always met incredulously — “Arkansas?! Why on Earth?!” Then I explain to my well-meaning friends that my grandma and her family were imprisoned there during World War II, and we will be visiting the site of the camp.
Their surprise melts into sheepish proclamations of my family’s resolve, my grandmother’s spunk, my community’s strength, et cetera. People don’t really know how to react when you tell them you’re traveling so far to visit a place like that.
The Jerome/Rohwer Pilgrimage, put on by Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, took place May 3 through 6 in Little Rock and McGehee, Ark. I had the privilege of attending with my mom, sister, cousin, and grandma. My grandma, Lois Morishita, is a Rohwer survivor. She was taken there at ten years old from her home in L.A. and had never been back to the site until the pilgrimage.
I used to describe the place where my family was incarcerated as “the middle of nowhere.” It’s a bizarre, kind of existential phrase when you think about it, and completely inadequate. I guess it’s easy for us to see the sites of the camps in a vacuum because that’s how our families experienced them: most of the stories I’d heard about Arkansas didn’t go beyond Rohwer’s barbed-wire fence. But in reality, of course, each camp had its own context.
Jerome and Rowher were the easternmost of the ten main camps and the only ones in the American South. Ignorantly, I didn’t think about this fact at all before the trip and was struck by the constant, visceral reminders of our newfound setting, like the split-second of surprise when a familiar word sounds different with a soft Southern drawl.
During the pilgrimage, we were oriented to the rich history and culture of the place we had only ever heard about. We learned about Black and Indigenous Americans of the area, whose experiences are connected to but so different from our own, and about the poverty that existed at the time to the point that some locals were jealous of the living conditions inside the camps.
Our story, once situated among the many layers of struggle ingrained in the ground we stood on, somehow made more sense.
So many moments from our time in Arkansas stand out to me: the joyful evening youth gatherings, seeing George Takei speak in McGehee, visiting the Rohwer cemetery, the long bus ride that brought us there, getting to hear from lots of incredible authors and academics. But my favorite part of the pilgrimage was definitely, without question, the elder panel.
The hour-long panel in the Little Rock library auditorium covered a lot of ground, from Rinko’s camp diary, to Hach’s family’s contraband camera, to George’s postwar shenanigans and so much more. I made a mental note of the simple beauty of the scene — the five elders on stage giving so much of themselves and the next generation, hanging on to every word.
At the elder panel, when asked how she feels today about what was done to our family, my grandma didn’t hesitate before answering: “It’s infuriating.”
I’m really lucky to have my grandma. She’s honest, tough, funny and smart. At 91, she is not shy about the fact that her time in camp was mostly awful. Her mother died in Rohwer, and she had to deal with being a girl coming of age without a mom and without the respect, privacy, and autonomy she deserved. My heart aches for that grieving little girl.
A few days ago on a FaceTime call, my grandma told us that she thinks the pilgrimage was healing for her. That made me so happy.
Now, when I describe the place where my family was incarcerated, I won’t say it was the middle of nowhere. I’ll think of the buses full of bleary eyes, the Southern hospitality and muggy air, the flat land riddled with reminders of human suffering.
The place my great-grandmother never got to leave, with abandoned railroad tracks and trees growing out of swamps. The place my grandma found healing.
Yoko Morishita Fedorenko is a Yonsei born and raised in Seattle.