Robyn Williams: With Hiroshima Day next week and the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, so-called, just after, we are once again reminded of world wars. And our novels tried to show the human side of the conflict: Tom Kenneally’s, Richard Flanagan’s brilliant work (now long-listed for the Booker Prize 布克文学奖) and Christine Piper’s – she won this year’s Vogel Award. Christine has plenty of really disturbing science in her story too. The Japanese did some terrible things in laboratories during World War II. And she shows how pressure was put on the perpetrators to carry out orders and wonders at what point they could have refused. And you begin to wonder yourself what you’d have done during such terrible times. And then there’s the question of nationality. Well, here she is, Vogel Laureate Christine Piper:
Christine Piper: My novel, After Darkness, is about a Japanese doctor who’s arrested as an enemy alien while working at a hospital in Broome. He’s sent to Loveday internment camp in a remote part of South Australia—a barren and dusty place near the banks of the Murray River. It’s a far cry from tropical Broome, where he’d lived for four years in the predominantly Asian pearl diving community, and also worlds apart from his hometown in Tokyo.
I became interested in this topic because my mother is Japanese. In some ways, writing from a Japanese perspective was an effort to get to know the culture from within.
The novel opens with the narrator, Dr Tomokazu Ibaraki, on his way to the internment camp. Here he is on a train with more than a hundred other Japanese internees:
'We pulled into a train station, stopping with a jolt at the platform. ‘Murray Bridge’, the sign read. A woman and small girl were sitting on a bench on the platform facing our carriage. The girl was about three—my niece’s age when I’d last seen her—fair-skinned and chubby, with brown curls pulled into bunches on either side of her head. Seeing us, her eyes flashed. She tugged her mother’s arm and pointed at us. The woman stared straight ahead. We were at the station less than a minute when the whistle blew. As the train lurched forward, the woman grabbed her daughter’s hand and dragged her towards our carriage. She came so close I could see a mole above her lip. She spat. A glob landed on the window in front of my face.
"Bloody Japs!" she said, shaking her fist.
The train groaned as it moved away. The woman became smaller till she was no more than a pale slip, but I could still see her face. Eyes narrowed, mouth tight—her features twisted with hate.'
The narrator, Dr Ibaraki, is aloof and reticent by nature. But at camp, he must learn to live among a diverse group of men divided by culture and allegiance.
One of the many paradoxes that struck me while I was researching this novel was the fact that although the civilians were arrested and interned because they were all ‘enemy aliens’, as a group they were in fact extremely heterogeneous. Of the 4,300 Japanese civilians interned here, only a quarter had been living in Australia when war broke out with Japan; the rest had been working in Allied-controlled countries such as the Dutch East Indies and French New Caledonia, and sent to Australia to be interned. There were 600 Formosans from present-day Taiwan who’d been arrested as Japanese, as well as a small number of Koreans. 100 Australian-born Japanese were also interned. Although they were British subjects by birth and technically not enemy aliens, some were interned based on their perceived risk of becoming a spy, and also whether they were accepted by their local community. So the internment camps were truly multicultural, and there wasn’t even a common language. This led to a lot of tension, and that became the central conflict of my novel.
I spent a lot of time at the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial, researching thousands of military files related to the internment camps. As I read, I found that I was drawn to the experiences of the Australian-born Japanese and the part-Japanese internees. Perhaps because I am half-Japanese, I deeply empathised with them. They occupied a very conflicted position: caught between two cultures, they were welcomed by neither. Despite being proudly Australian and, in some cases, eager to risk their lives to fight for their country, they were arrested and interned on suspicion of their Japanese sympathies. At camp, they were further alienated by the nationalist outlook and propaganda espoused by the Japanese leaders.
So their struggle with identity and belonging really fascinated me. Although they saw themselves as Australians, the government and the wider public classed them as enemy aliens. This disjuncture made me wonder: What, actually, is identity? Is it how we see ourselves? Or is it the way others perceive us? Or is it both those things? If so, how does one define identity when the two sides are in conflict?
Several of the Australian-born characters were inspired by people I read about in the military files. The main antagonist in After Darkness is Johnny Chang, a half-Japanese, half-Chinese man born in Broome. Although Johnny and the doctor know each other from Broome, at camp they clash because of Johnny’s belligerent behaviour. He keenly resents his internment, and creates conflict by refusing to follow orders. The doctor is quick to condemn him. It’s only later, when the doctor finds himself on the outer at camp, that he understands Johnny’s torment at being locked up although he’d been a loyal Australian, and then his subjugation at camp because of that same Australian-ness.
In many ways, internment was hardest on the Australian-born Japanese and Formosan internees. They were bullied for not signing allegiance to the Emperor, and forced to do chores such as cleaning the toilets.
Some rebelled—for example, Johnny Chang. Others withdrew and became depressed. The character of Stan Suzuki in my novel was also inspired by someone I read about in the archives. Like many young Australian men at the time, he was devoted to his country, and joined the army when he was 18. To his horror, he was discharged when it was discovered he was half-Japanese, then arrested and interned. When he’s imprisoned with and bullied by the same people he’d wanted to fight, his spirits plummet.
Dr Ibaraki had initially dismissed Stan’s claims that he was being picked on at camp, but when Stan attempts to take his own life, he’s overcome with guilt. Much of After Darkness explores how the doctor’s perceptions change: his moral foundation crumbles and he begins to see things in a new light.
Here he is, visiting Stan in the infirmary for the first time since Stan’s suicide attempt. Some sheets have been hung to create a screen around Stan’s bed as he recovers in the ward.
'A light breeze entered the room, stirring the suspended sheets so that they gently swung back and forth, slightly off-kilter in their timing. As they moved, the triangle of empty space widened and narrowed, altering my view of the bed. It was as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope—one moment I could see a sheet that covered a leg, the next an arm and then a fleeting glimpse of a chin.
I stopped just before reaching the suspended sheets. They continued to flutter before me like noren on a summer’s day. The subtle movement seemed grand in that otherwise still space. There was something very soothing in their motion—ebbing upwards and outwards, never still—yet it also seemed false, a kind of trick, and I felt that if I allowed the sheets to touch me something would change, I would be drawn into that enclosure with its own rules of movement, breath and time.
The breeze died down, and in the lull that followed I was able to see Stan clearly for the first time. He was lying on his back with his head tilted away from me, angled in a manner that accentuated the sharp line of his jaw. In the absence of movement in the air, the kaleidoscopic illusion also disappeared. Framed within the now-still sheets, he appeared inanimate. A rectangle of light from a window fell diagonally across him, illuminating part of his torso and jaw as if he were a statue hewn from two different stones'.
As part of my research, I interviewed several former internees and their relatives, and I was surprised that most of the people I talked to had mainly positive memories of their internment. Only one woman, who was interned as a 15-year-old, dwelt on the hardships she suffered. She’d grown up in multicultural Darwin and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor she was arrested, along with her Japanese father, European mother and younger sister, and sent south by ship. She recalled her shock when she disembarked in Sydney and was confronted by a crowd yelling, ‘Kill them! Shoot the bastards!’ ‘That was the point that I realised my life would never be the same,’ she said. She felt betrayed by her country, and her misery was compounded when she clashed with the leaders of the camp by refusing to bow in the direction of the flag. Internment took an enduring mental toll on her family: her father had a nervous breakdown and her sister was so distraught she never talked about the experience, not even decades afterwards.
I found it difficult to explain the disparity: Why did some people have a mainly positive experience, while others had contemplated suicide? I realised that those who were surrounded by like-minded people at camp thrived, while those in the minority, such as the Australians, Formosans and Koreans, suffered the most. They were also the ones who were least willing or able to talk about their experience, creating a bias in the research I did.
Although my main character, Dr Ibaraki, secures an early release in 1942 through a prisoner exchange program with Japan, the majority of Japanese civilians were held at the camps until 1946 or 1947. In the end, nearly all were forcibly repatriated to Japan. Only those who had been born in Australia, or who’d married an Australian, were allowed to stay. This decision caused a lot of heartbreak: many of the New Caledonian Japanese had lived in the Pacific for decades and had families there. Yet they were all sent to Japan, and most never saw their families again.
I was surprised to learn how sad many of the internees felt on the day of their release. They’d shared a unique camaraderie, so their long wished-for freedom was bittersweet. This conflict of feeling, the paradox of their imprisonment and the struggle between duty and desire, is at the heart of my novel.
When it comes time for Dr Ibaraki to leave, he’s torn between his desire for freedom and his urge to preserve the friendships and experiences he’s had. Here he is, with his bags packed, leaving the camp:
'We dragged our luggage to the line of waiting trucks and loaded it inside. I stepped into the back and sat on the bench. The engine coughed into life. The truck jerked forward and a cry escaped from my throat. I craned my neck to watch the scenery shrinking away through the canvas opening at the back. The long stretch of barbed-wire fence, the squat buildings of the duty guard camp, the guard towers, shining silver in the bleak light. Clouds of dust billowed across the track. Then we turned a corner, and it was gone.'
Robyn Williams: Gone forever. Christine Piper with part of her novel After Darkness. It won the Australian Vogel Award this year. She lives in New York. Next week: Nuclear weapons and a talk to mark Hiroshima Day from Professor Fred Mendelsohn.