Interview with Daniel James Brown, author of Facing the Mountain

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War by Daniel James Brown was published last month, and a commemorative stamp for these heroes has been issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

If you’re a stamp collector, like I am, this is one you’ll want to add to your collection.

If you love historical fiction and nonfiction about WWII, this is a book you don’t want to miss.

Here’s a little bit about the book before we get to the interview:

They came from across the continent and Hawaii. Their parents taught them to embrace both their Japanese heritage and the ways of America. They faced bigotry, yet they believed in their bright futures as American citizens. But within days of Pearl Harbor, the FBI was ransacking their houses and locking up their fathers. And within months many would themselves be living behind barbed wire.

Facing the Mountain is an unforgettable chronicle of war-time America and the battlefields of Europe. Based on Daniel James Brown’s extensive interviews with the families of the protagonists as well as deep archival research, it portrays the kaleidoscopic journey of four Japanese-American families and their sons, who volunteered for 442nd Regimental Combat Team and were deployed to France, Germany, and Italy, where they were asked to do the near impossible.

But this is more than a war story. Brown also tells the story of these soldiers’ parents, immigrants who were forced to shutter the businesses, surrender their homes, and submit to life in concentration camps on U.S. soil. Woven throughout is the chronicle of a brave young man, one of a cadre of patriotic resisters who stood up against their government in defense of their own rights. Whether fighting on battlefields or in courtrooms, these were Americans under unprecedented strain, doing what Americans do best–striving, resisting, pushing back, rising up, standing on principle, laying down their lives, and enduring.

Please give Daniel James Brown a warm welcome:

Facing the Mountain is about a topic that isn’t often written about, taught, and told in the U.S. What piqued your interest in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two?

The Japanese American experience during World War Two has, in many ways, been over-simplified in history books and in the popular imagination, reduced to a single, stark storyline centered on the forced removal of thousands of families from their homes and their incarceration in camps. That is, of course, a central part of what occurred, but there is much more to the story than that,and it’s something I have always wanted to know more about. My father worked in the flower business in the Bay Area when I was growing up, and many of his customers and colleagues were Japanese American nurserymen and florists. He was also an unusually soft-spoken and gentle man. I almost never saw him visibly angry at anyone. The one exception was whenever he talked about what had happened to his Japanese American customers and close friends during the war, a subject that would inevitably quickly reduce him to rage. So, I was naturally interested when Tom Ikeda started sharing some of his oral histories with me and I began to see the dimensions of a story that went far beyond what I had previously understood about the Japanese American experience during these years.

Facing the Mountain follows four Japanese American families and their sons—Gordon Hirabayashi, Rudy Tokiwa, Fred Shiosaki, and Kats Miho. How did you choose these four to write about when there are so many others? Were any of them alive for you to speak with? Did you talk with their families?

On the one hand, I wanted to tell the big, sweeping story of two generations of Japanese Americans, and yet at the same time, I wanted the book to be focused on the personal experiences of a relatively small cast of characters that readers could easily relate to. I wanted some geographical balance, so the story unfolded primarily in the Pacific Northwest, in California, and in Hawaii. I also needed to find individuals who had left behind plenty of documentation of their experiences and who had living family members interested in helping to unveil their stories. So, with a lot of help from Tom Ikeda and his team at Densho, I eventually settled on four young men (and their families) whose stories pretty much encompassed the range of experiences of both the Nisei and the Issei generations on the mainland and in Hawaii. At the time I started working on the project, only Fred Shiosaki was still alive, and I spent a lot of time talking to Fred, with the help of his son, Michael. The family members of most of the other people in the book—not just the four principal protagonists—were also very forthcoming and helpful in fleshing out the oral histories from which I was primarily working.

Three of the men you focused on joined the military,but Gordon was a resister. Why is it important to share his story?

Japanese Americans, like all Americans, are not now and were not then, a monolith, and their opinions and attitudes about their experiences during the war years varied widely. Individuals and families reacted in different ways to the mountain of problems that suddenly stood in their way beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Some felt obliged to submit quietly to the authorities and dutifully go off to live in the camps. Some bitterly resented their incarceration and the loss of their livelihoods. Some young men volunteered for military service as soon as they were allowed to do so, believing it would prove their loyalty to the United States.

Others vigorously opposed service so long as their families were incarcerated. Gordon Hirabayashi was a particularly thoughtful advocate for resisting both the incarcerations and military service, so I felt it was vitally important to balance the stories of military valor with his story of principled resistance. I also wanted to demonstrate that there are different dimensions to courage—that courage on the battlefield and courage in the courtroom may both be virtues worth celebrating, even when they may seem to be in conflict with one another.

Much like The Boys in the Boat, Facing the Mountain must have taken extensive research before writing. Can you speak to the research that went into this book and was there anything while researching that really surprised you?

Indeed. I spent about a year and a half researching various aspects of the story before writing a single word of the manuscript. I listened to countless hours of oral histories, traveled to meet family members, toured battlefields in Europe, read World War Two histories, and spent many, many hours in archives poring over old letters and microfilm of newspapers from the 1940s—all the usual stuff. But in the end,it was a very close study of the recorded oral histories left behind by my four protagonists and talking to those who knew them that was most important. There were many surprises along the way, but I think in the end the thing that really stunned me was just how courageous, earnest, and good hearted all four of my protagonists were, even as they differed enormously in many more superficial ways.

Thank you for bringing this part of history to the forefront.

About the Author:

Daniel James Brown is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Boys in the Boat, The Indifferent Stars Above, and Under a Flaming Sky. He has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford University. He lives outside Seattle. Visit DanielJamesBrown.com.

Foreword Author:

Tom Ikeda, who has written the foreword, is executive director of Densho, a Seattle-based non-profit dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing Japanese American history and promoting social justice and equity.