In “Breaking Silence,” Janice Mirikitani writes eloquently of the terrible experiences that her mother underwent during the Second World War, and of how her deafening silence over those experiences has made it difficult for her to come to terms with her own Japanese American identity.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II, Janice’s mother was herded into an internment camp in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Japanese-Americans were regarded by the authorities, without any evidence whatsoever, as potential traitors and fifth columnists who were ready to betray the United States to Imperial Japan.
As one can well imagine, such an appalling injustice has had a deeply traumatic effect on Janice’s mother, so much so that for almost forty years she was completely silent about her experiences. Silence was considered the only way to deal with the traumas of the past.
But once she broke the silence and publicly told the world what had happened to her, she was finally able to confront the past that has haunted her for so long. Her testimony before the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation didn’t just give Janice’s mother an opportunity to speak for herself, but also on behalf of those countless other Japanese Americans who themselves had kept silent for long or whose voices had been systematically ignored.
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.
This poem is by a Japanese-American poet, Janice Mirikitani. The poem is about three generations of women and the similarities and differences of their lives and their worlds. The speaker is the woman in the middle - a woman who has a daughter and a mother. The speaker begins with her daughter and indicates how the daughter does not understand her, because the daughter is living in her modern world. Then she describes her own world, and her mother's world. Each of the three worlds has different imagery - so you should go through the poem and identify the images that apply to the speaker, her daughter and her mother. This will help you understand the things that are different and the same in each of their lives.
Finally, what is the theme of the poem? Consider the lines"My daughter denies she is like me" (which appears twice) and the line "I deny I am like my mother" which appears once. The speaker admits that she denies she is like HER mother -- she "wants to break tradition" - but is this not the same thing that HER daughter is wanting to do? Think about it.
Good luck with the rest! You can figure it out.