So I began to wonder about what had existed before the strip malls: about what had been paved over. I learned all kinds of things. But the most striking, the thing that haunts me now more than ever, was that my hometown had hosted not one but two Japanese prison camps. More precisely, I learned that the Mexican restaurant I so often came back to when I returned home — the space whose tastes and smells I associated most with my return trips — was built on top of a concentration camp.
The disjunction was jarring, even perverse. I’d never heard of these camps, never talked about them, had no recollection of any detailed lessons about them in school. When I talked to her by phone last month, Gale Nakai, the director of the Central California Nikkei Foundation, a center for Japanese cultural heritage, reassured me that it was perfectly normal not to know much about internment in Fresno. “You shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing about it,” she said kindly, wanting to put me at ease. “Really, don’t. I’m a Sansei [third generation] Japanese American, and even I didn’t know about the camps until much later in my life.” This seemed easy to understand until I learned that Gale’s own parents had been incarcerated. Her mother had been a young girl in Gila River (Arizona), Gale thought; her father a teenager in Rohwer (Arkansas). “But I don’t really know for sure where they were,” she said, “or really any details about that time — we never talked about it.”
When we look at things, most of us simply register what they are: a crack in the ceiling, a person crossing the street. But truly seeing is not simply identifying the name of the object one sees; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It means taking the object in so completely that you forget what it is you’re looking at. For example, I keep a pen on my desk where I write. When I hold it up and rotate it in my fingers, I become lost in the way the light rolls over its polished black surface. For a brief moment, the object I am holding ceases to be a “pen” and becomes a collection of traits: the movement of light, the polished sheen, etc. I am released from the language that describes it and I become solely involved with the sensation of seeing it.
In her last novel, The Virgins, Pamela Erens created an unreliable narrator without rival, so it comes as no surprise that her latest offering, Eleven Hours, demonstrates similar audacity. Her subject is childbirth, an experience it’s near impossible to capture, but Erens rises admirably to the challenge, this slim novel pulsing with an urgent life force.