by Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER – In 1942, the federal government expelled thousands of Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia from their homes, and sent them to internment camps, work camps, and farms in the prairies. Properties and possessions had been seized, in an exile spurred on by racism and a thinly veiled excuse of national security.
Hidden Memories, a new play written by human rights advocate Lillian Nakamura Maguire, is loosely based on the experiences of Nakamura Maguire’s own parents, Sadato and Aiko, as well as those of other Japanese Canadians. Presented by Gwaandak Theatre and directed by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre’s Donna Yamamoto, it was selected to be part of the Fringe Festival’s Advance Theatre: New Works by Diverse Women Readings.
After her mother’s death in 2005, Nakamura Maguire began going through family documents to put together a timeline of her parents’ lives. She was shocked at what she found. The discrimination they endured — forced to leave B.C. after arriving, newly married, from Japan in the late 1930s; her father sent to a work camp and, later, a sugar beet farm — was rarely, if at all, discussed when she was growing up in Regina. But there it was.
“Letters that were written on behalf of my father, expressing his dissatisfaction with the amount of money that was paid for his property and his belongings,” Nakamura Maguire describes over the telephone, from her home in Whitehorse. “His request for the money that was due to him, because his savings were running out and he wasn’t working at the time.”
Nakamura Maguire, though published in short story and essay, had never written a play. What became Hidden Memories first began as a single scene — a dialogue-building exercise from a creative writing course she took in 2015. Once she started, the story urgently flowed from her pen.
Margaret, the protagonist, slightly mirrors Nakamura Maguire — the daughter of Japanese immigrants who tries to fill in the gaps of understanding of her parents’ history and contemplates what she’ll pass on to her own child. To provide a deeper historical narrative, Nakamura Maguire researched the circumstances of other Japanese Canadians, referencing archives and interviewing women who spoke of what it was like growing up in the aftermath of that time.
“I think Hidden Memories is about the value in sharing our stories and the understanding about ourselves that can happen as a result of that,” Nakamura Maguire says. She has gained profound insight into her mother, who had been silent about her experiences until the National Association of Japanese Canadians received their apology from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. “And that was part of the reason for writing the play,” Nakamura Maguire adds. “I wanted to give voice to my mother’s story. I wanted to give voice to the way she felt and how hurtful it must have been for many women through this period.”
How does Nakamura Maguire feel about her own identity? “I feel proud that I’m a second generation Japanese Canadian. I’m proud that I’m a Canadian. And I’m glad that the government of Canada has recognized some of the things that they’ve done wrong in the past and they’ve apologized or they’ve reached settlements.” No group, she asserts, should go through that kind of discrimination, especially through government policy. Something, in today’s divisive political climate, that is exceedingly important to remember.
“The challenge for us is not to forget those lessons that, hopefully, people have learned,” Nakamura Maguire says. “We’ve got to learn from our history.”
Hidden Memories runs on September 13 at False Creek Gym.False Creek Gym, Vancouver Fringe Festival