What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps


What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps - Margaret Chula


By Marilyn Volger, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, Shelton, WA

Last Friday we launched Hypatia’s new website.  At the end of that very long day I was physically exhausted, mentally drained and a little over-emotional that the new site went live.  Elspeth, my host, was watching a movie and I joined her.  Here is my advice — Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly is not a good choice if you are running on physical, mental and emotional fumes.  As tired as I was, I did recognize that at least I was not as mentally ill as the main character, Karin.

The next morning I rose to the peaceful, restorative power of the woods.  I poured a cup of coffee and on my way to curl up on the sofa I grabbed a nearby book:  What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps

In this book I found a poet and a quilter working together to tell stories about family, memories, resourcefulness, trials of the spirit, sorrow, culture, strength, heorism and love, just to name a few.  The poet is Margaret Chula and the quilter is Cathy Erickson.  One crafting with words and the other with textiles.  The combination tells the stories in way that would be impossible with just words or just fibers.  I did not put the book down until I reached the last page.  Check it out for yourself. Here are two of the poems/quilts.

In the last few pages of the book Chula and Erickson talk about their experience working together to create this book – the individual inspirations and how each of their respective works inspired the other.

Masterful quilt and writing collaboration brings history to life in new book

Karen Braucher Tobin

Their book was just the right tonic to jumpstart the right side of my brain.  Chula and Erickson succeeded where Bergman failed.

Margaret Chula, an internationally known haiku and tanka poet based in Portland, Oregon, teamed up with master quilter Cathy Erickson in 2002 through a project linking poets with quilters so that they could collaborate for one year. Chula’s and Erickson’s artistic relationship grew into a deep exploration of the experiences of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps in the western United States during World War II. Despite this sad and shameful history, the visual poetry that Chula and Erickson have created in this long-awaited book is gorgeous, life-affirming, and evokes the full range of our emotions. Don’t miss this wonderful book.

Seven years after they began, after thousands of hours of research, writing, and quilt-making, these two artists have produced a visual and historical masterpiece – a book that is not only informative and beautifully designed but fascinating in its use of collaboration to bring history alive. A poem is associated with each quilt in the book, and each poem, all in different styles, is from the point of view of a different fictional character – children and adults in the camps. From a little boy playing with snakes to a woman obsessing over her smashed wedding plates before evacuation, we are drawn into the Japanese American internment experience in all its fear, longing, and even joy (one girl loves the jitterbug dance which was then the rage).

“What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps” is based on several exhibitions of the artists’ collaborative work (including one show at Portland’s Japanese Garden in 2005 and another at Portland’s Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in 2007). The book goes beyond these amazing shows by offering more comprehensive historical information, actual photos from the period, and a wonderful discussion of the artists’ creative process. Their sources of inspiration included Japanese fabric, interviews with Japanese Americans who spent time in the camps, photos and books, Chula’s extensive knowledge of Japanese culture after living in Kyoto for twelve years, and, of course, each other. At times, the poet is inspired by a quilt and at other times the quilter is inspired by a poem.

The first quilt “Radiance” is pictured below. It led to their long artistic collaboration and research project. To view other quilts and a few poems from the book, go to quilter Cathy Erickson’s website at www.cathyerickson.net.

Radiance, by Cathy Erickson

Anyone interested in textile art will love this book, which includes beautiful color plates of all the quilts, as well as some photos of close-up detail, and a discussion of how each was made. It is in the interplay of text and textile art that this book rises to a synergistic masterpiece. No words can do justice to this multi-media collaboration because reading “What Remains” and looking at its quilts and photos is like walking through a perfectly designed museum show. Anyone interested in Japanese culture, Japanese American history, or well-crafted poetry will also enjoy “What Remains.”

Both artists increased their mastery of their art form through this collaboration. Chula goes far beyond traditional haiku and tanka here and experiments with jazzy free verse, diary entries, a letter poem, narrative verse, and haibun (combination of prose and haiku). She has tried and succeeded in enlarging her writing repertoire to include experimental and playful verse and prose forms. It’s clear that Cathy Erickson also stretched her artistic abilities and designed quilts that she never would have if she’d only worked alone. Their notes on their creative process record their exhilaration as well as their difficulties pulling off this massive project. Also, both were willing to get constructive feedback from fellow writers and artists.

Photo above: Writer Margaret Chula and quilt artist Cathy Erickson with “Bunny Dreams,” 2003

The book ends with visual art by the writer and a haiku by the quilter, a perfect ending in which they pay homage to each other and the power of collaboration itself. As Oregon’s Poet Laureate Lawson Fusao Inada has written about this book, “This is truly a beautiful, remarkable achievement – two artists bringing history to life through visionary quilts and insightful writings. Thank you, Cathy and Margaret!”