This poem focuses on Janice Mirikitani's mother, who was taken to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. In this poem her mother testifies about her experiences in front of the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Japanese American Civilians.
Her testimony is given approximately 40 years after her experiences in the internment camp. Throughout those 40 years, she remained silent about her mistreatment. The poem incorporates small portions of Mirikitani's mother's words from her testimony. The poem's title, "Breaking Silence," references how her mother finally talks about her treacherous experiences, such as getting her property taken from her and being forced into an internment camp.
In the poem, Mirikitani discusses how her mother came to America believing it to be a place of freedom and opportunity:
We speak . . . of oceans bearing us toward imagined riches,
of burning humiliations and
crimes by the government.
She first came to America imagining that it was a land of equal opportunity for all people. When she arrived, she was humiliated and harmed by the American government. Her mother explains her feelings of injustice:
"Mr. Commissioner . . . it seems we were singled out
from others who were under suspicion.
Our neighbors were of German and
Italian descent, some of whom were
not citizens . . . It seems we were
singled out . . .
Her mother cannot understand why people from other countries that were fighting against the U.S. government were not imprisoned as the Japanese people were. She tells the Commissioner that she feels this imprisonment was unjust.
Earlier, she explains how she was forced to give the U.S. Army officers whatever they requested of her:
. . . All improvements
we had made before our incarceration
was stolen or destroyed . . .
I was coerced into signing documents
give you authority to take . . .
Overall, the poet speaks on the injustices that her mother experienced during World War II. She uses many of her mother's lines from her interview with the Commissioner, with some slight modifications. (At the end of the poem, the poet explains that "quoted excerpts [are] from my mother's testimony, modified with her permission.") The poet shows how the Japanese people grew progressively more proud of their heritage despite the shameful way the U.S. government treated them. The poem ends with the following lines:
We must recognize ourselves at last.
We are a rainforest of color
We hear everything.
We are unafraid.
Our language is beautiful.
The poet shows that the Japanese people are beautiful, despite the cruel treatment they received from the U.S. government. Mirikitani also shows that Japanese voices are worthy of being heard.