As a concept, history is often thought of as the past itself with little relation to the present, despite efforts by some historians to show their connection. Historical narratives often emphasize chronologies where the past is completed, rather than embracing a spatial organization where the past and present overlap.

This focus on history solely in the past obscures its on-going impacts in the present. Scholars of memory and oral history, Pamela Sugiman and Mona Oikawa, are acutely aware of how present conditions influence memories and understandings of the past in their work with Japanese-Canadian communities.

However, connections between the past and present are not limited oral traditions. Exploring how the past and present can co-exist in other spheres, work by Kirsten Emiko McAllister on physical sites of remembrance and Ann Rigney’s scholarship on digital narrative suggest there are other mediums of historical expression that can create non-linear histories.

Memory & the Impact of the Past on the Present

Image of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and NAJC President Art Miki signing documents, surrounded by people.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and NAJC President Art Miki signing the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, 1988. Image courtesy of Nikkei National Museum, Gordon King collection, 2010.32.135.

In Pamela Sugiman’s article, “’A Million Hearts from Here’: Japanese Canadian Mothers and Daughters and the Lessons of War,” she explores how her mother, herself, and her daughter remember the history of internment and how it is incorporated into their personal histories.[1] Her daughter, who grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories and exposed to Sugiman’s academic work, understands internment in a larger framework of social justice that surrounds her in the present. She actively combines her past with present values by writing fictional stories that incorporate her current historical consciousness alongside specific moments from the ‘official’ redress and communal history of Japanese Canadians.[2]

Building on her personal experiences with memories of internment, Sugiman has also written about how Japanese-Canadian survivors remember internment in oral interviews.[3] Sugiman suggests that storytellers reflect on their present to decide what memories to tell, often deliberately choosing a message that they want to share.[4] She explores this idea directly when attempting to understand why the ‘blessing-in-disguise’ narrative, an idea that says the internment had a positive effect on the Japanese-Canadian community, continues to circulate. Sugiman writes that

“the blessing-in-disguise metaphor is voiced by the very same individuals who passionately and critically describe the cruelty of the war years. It does not, then, reflect forgiveness and forgetting. Rather it constitutes an attempt to bridge the past and present in a way that conveys recovery and survival rather than victimization and defeat.”[5]

In both of Sugiman’s examples, narratives about internment are as much a product of the present as they are of the past as their storytellers move on with their lives.

In Oikawa’s book, Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory and the Subjects of the Internment, she challenges the forgetting of internment by also exploring how Japanese Canadians remember their experiences.[6] While most of her book focuses on naming the processes and experiences of internment, her last two chapters specifically address how internment continues to have an impact decades later. Her interviewees speak in depth about the lack of institutional education on internment and they understand school as a site of racism where they continued to be ‘othered’ and ostracized as often the only racialized, working-class children in the classroom.[7]

The interviewees also connected the on-going, gendered racism they experience in the present directly to the past racism of internment. While the form of racism has changed, it continues to build on positioning the women as outside of Canada.[8] Oikawa concludes that though redress has officially brought closure to the legacy of internment, the events and racism of the 1940s continues to exist today as part of making a Canadian multicultural, national narrative.[9]

“Re-membering the places of the Internment and the people who were forced into them can be used to contest a forgetting of the colonial, racial, and national violence used to map Canada, and to re-member it as a place where there are many people who have been and are in constant struggle against domination and who daily live its effects”[10]

Oikawa’s conclusions give immediacy to why understanding the past as part of the present is crucial. In her opinion, remembering is a powerful counter-balance to the forgetting that Oikawa outlines as necessary for creating a Canadian national narrative.[11]

Combining the Past and Present

Image of Japanese-Canadian men building a wall inside a room.
New Denver was of one of several internment camps in the BC interior. In this photo, Japanese-Canadian men build a camp hospital. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, C-024450, ca. 1943.

In addition to memories and oral histories, physical sites and digital narratives are also places of interaction between the past and present. McAllister’s book, Terrain of Memory: A Japanese Canadian Memorial Project, explores how the past and present are combined in the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre (NIMC) in New Denver.[12] The NIMC serves as a historical museum and a tourist site, but also as an important cultural venue for the local Japanese-Canadian community. McAllister explores the ‘time’ of the NIMC, the temporal dimension of space, and concludes that it attempts to preserve a ‘chronotope of the immemorial.’

The chronotope of the immemorial is an empty time that relegates the past to the past, presenting it as a static moment in time that never changes. However, to maintain this specific vision of the past, resources are needed in the present to preserve the space and ensure that it does not wear down.

This tension between the chronotope of the immemorial and the actual “material and social dynamics” of the memorial means that the present is needed to keep the past alive in its static form.[13] The historical collection at the NIMC could not exist without investment in the present and the dual use of the site as a modern cultural centre and museum ensures the survival of the history.

Building on similar connections between the past and present, Rigney’s work on digital narrative form suggests that the medium offers unprecedented possibilities for the past and present to exist simultaneously and cohesively in text.

In her article, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium: Historical Narrative in the Online Age,” she argues that narrative form is continually shifting with new developments in the mediums of display and the methods of historical production.[14] She argues that the ability of texts on the Internet to be cut up, copied, reworked, and reproduced creates a narrative fluidity similar to Sugiman and Oikawa’s oral histories.[15]

This narrative fluidity also offers flexibility in conceptions of time. Rigney conducted a brief survey of websites on Iwo Jima and found that their use of hypertext let viewers explore associative, rather than strictly chronological, connections. Instead of having to read things from past to present, readers can side step into different topics or time periods in a process that “work[s] against the idea that all events are part of the same ongoing narrative.” This creates what Rigney calls an “eternal present tense” where materials from across the ages end up side-by-side.[16] Instead of a fixed chronological path and narrative outcome, readers visit an “imaginary museum” that allows for a multitude of points of comparison and identification.[17]

“With material from different genres, different eras, and different provenances placed side by side without the authorial voice of a central narrative, the user enters an ‘imaginary museum,’ to recall André Malraux’s phrase, allowing for all sorts of points of identification or momentary amazement, rather than a narrative pathway that will lead to a clear outcome.”[18]

Rigney’s eternal present tense allows for a structure where events across time occupy the same place in the chronological hierarchy and narrative structure. Though the narrative produced is not directly influenced by the present to the same extent that oral histories are, the concept allows the past and present to exist simultaneously.

Conclusion

As Sugiman, Oikawa, and McAllister argue, the past actively plays a role in our present and our present is required to understand and maintain the past. Rigney’s suggestion of an eternal present on the web is a possible manifestation of those concepts in a textual, rather than oral or physical, environment. By experimenting with forms that blur the line between the past and present, we can work to overcome the forgetting that allows, as Oikawa suggests, for the creation of meta-narratives that reduce certain crucial events, like the internment of Japanese Canadians, to footnotes in history.

References

[1] Pamela Sugiman, “’A Million Hearts from Here’: Japanese Canadian Mothers and Daughters and the Lessons of War,” Journal of American Ethnic History 26, no. 4 (2007): 50-68, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/stable/40543199.

[2] Sugiman, “’A Million Hearts from Here’,” 60-65.

[3] Pamela Sugiman, “’Life is Sweet:’ Vulnerability and Composure in the Wartime Narratives of Japanese Canadians,” Journal of Canadian Studies 43, no. 1 (2009): 186-218.

[4] Sugiman, “’Life is Sweet’,” 191.

[5] Sugiman, “’Life is Sweet’,” 201.

[6] Mona Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

[7] Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence, 267-284.

[8] Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence, 287-295.

[9] Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence, 308-315.

[10] Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence, 319.

[11] Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence, 39-42.

[12] Kirsten Emiko McAllister, Terrain of Memory: A Japanese Canadian Memorial Project (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

[13] McAllister, Terrain of Memory, 97-102.

[14] Ann Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium: Historical Narrative in the Online Age,” History and Theory 49, no. 4 (2010): 100-117, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41300052.

[15] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 111.

[16] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 115.

[17] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 116.

[18] Rigney, “When the Monograph is No Longer the Medium,” 116.

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