Julie Otsuka on Her Family's Wartime Internment In Topaz, Utah

internment camp
The author’s family at the Tanforan Assembly Center, in a National Archives photograph taken by Dorothea Lange, April 29, 1942. Dorothea Lange / National Archives

There is a photograph in the National Archives of my mother, uncle, and grandmother taken by Dorothea Lange on April 29, 1942. The caption reads: "San Bruno, California. Family of Japanese ancestry arrives at assembly center at Tanforan Race Track." My mother, 10, is turned away from the camera and all you can see is a sliver of her cheek, one ear, and two black braids pinned to the top of her head. In the background is a large concrete structure with a balcony—the grandstands. My grandmother, 42, is wearing a nice wool coat and listening intently to the man beside her, who is pointing out something in the distance—most likely the newly built barracks in the middle of the racetrack, where she and the children would be sleeping that evening. My uncle, who is 8, is carrying his mother's purse for her beneath his left arm. Hanging from a canvas strap around his neck is a canteen, which is no doubt filled with water. Why? Because he is going to "camp."

Clearly, my uncle had a different kind of camp in mind—the kind of camp where you pitch tents and take hikes and get thirsty—and clearly, his mother has allowed him to think this. But he is only just now realizing his mistake, and the expression on his face is anxious and concerned. Tanforan was a temporary detention center for thousands of Bay Area "evacuees" on their way to Topaz, Utah, one of 10 internment camps in which 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

When I was a child, my mother would occasionally mention "camp" to me in passing. That rusty fork in the back of the silverware drawer? "We used it in camp," she would say. Her old friend, Mrs. Nakamura? "We lived in the same block in camp." There was also the story of the cook in the mess hall who mistakenly used Ajax instead of baking soda in the biscuits, the boy who fell through the roof of the women's bath house while spying on the bathers below, the scorpion that crawled out of my mother's shoe. Camp was, my mother told me, "an adventure."

What she did not tell me: that camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed guards; that the winter temperatures in Utah sometimes fell to 20° below; that the barracks were nothing more than pine boards covered with tar paper; that the reason her father was not in the photograph was because he had been arrested four months earlier by the FBI as a dangerous enemy alien and sent to Fort Missoula, Mont. All of this I learned many years later, while doing research for my first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, a novel about "camp." It was also around this time that my mother began to exhibit the first symptoms of frontotemporal dementia.

For a couple of years, however, her long-term memory remained largely intact, especially her memory for numbers. She could still tell you the address at which we had lived 30 years ago. She could tell you her social security number. She could tell you the number on the government-issued I.D. tag she had worn around her neck as she was boarding the train for Topaz—13611—as well as the date on which she and her family had returned to Berkeley when the war was over—Sept. 9, 1945. But she could not tell you what she had eaten for lunch 30 minutes ago.

The first group of Japanese-Americans arrive at Manzanar camp in California. Eliot Elisofon / Time & Life Pictures-Getty Images

As I continued to research my novel, my mother's memories of camp—and her behavior—grew increasingly erratic. And so I began to do my homework in earnest. I read every book I could find about camp. I kept countless notebooks filled with details about camp life: the food, the showers, the schools, the dust storms, how you got there (in a train with blacked-out windows), how you left (with a $25 check in your pocket). I learned about the flora (sagebrush, not cactus) and fauna (coyotes, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes) of the Sevier Desert, and the ancient salt lake under which Utah had once been submerged (somewhere in my parents' house is a pin from camp made out of tiny seashells). I read the letters that my grandfather, long dead, had written to my grandmother during the first year of the war: "I received your letter of Oct. 12th and also postcard with Mormon Temple picture." I learned everything I could learn about camp without actually going there, and then I wrote my book.

Shortly after it was published, in the fall of 2002, I received an unexpected invitation to fly out to Utah. Although I had long resisted making this trip—I wasn't sure that I wanted to see the place where my mother had spent the war—now that the book was finished, it felt like it was time.

A man waits in San Francisco to be interned as a “resident alien.” Library of Congress via Getty Images

Topaz is located at the end of a dusty gravel road on a desolate stretch of desert 125 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. When I arrived it was January and the landscape—barren and bleak, bleached white by the sun—looked oddly familiar, like a washed-out version of the place in which I had been living, every day, for the past six years, in my head. Aside from the barbed-wire fence, little remained of the original camp, but it was clear that at one time many people had lived here: you could still see the concrete foundations of the barracks and the ground was littered with rusty nails and shards of broken glass and crockery. My guide, Jane Beckwith, a high-school English teacher in the town of Delta 16 miles away, had been coming out to the site with her students since 1982. Her father, the former owner of the Delta newspaper, had printed the high-school yearbooks for the camp, and as a child she would leaf through their pages, wondering about the people with the strange-sounding Japanese names. It was her dream, she told me, to one day open a small museum dedicated to the history of Topaz. As we walked across the sand, she pointed out a formation of stones—remnants of a rock garden built by an anonymous former resident. Every block, she said, had its own character. Eight was one of her favorites. My mother had lived in Block 28, but there wasn't much of it left to see.

Before we drove back into town she took me over to the side of the road to look at the new Topaz memorial marker, a replacement for the old one, which had become unreadable after vandals had adopted it as a target for shooting practice. The new memorial appeared virtually indestructible—a plaque and several photographic etchings embedded in a long low slab of concrete. Because it was not as tall as the old one—it literally had a "lower profile"—it was less likely to end up as a target. "Noticeable but not too noticeable," as the local paper put it. I wondered, though, if the old marker—its words riddled with bullet holes—shouldn't have been left standing. For it, too, was part of the story. In fact, maybe it was the story.

When I got home I called my mother, who was now repeating herself at ever shorter intervals but was still, in many ways, quite lucid. "So what did you think?" she asked me. And then, before I could answer, she said, "It was pretty depressing." And then she changed the subject. At the end of our conversation she said goodbye the way she always had: "The FBI will check up on you again soon!" Click.

That winter she began telling—repeatedly, obsessively—the story of her "last day" at school. Again, it was April of 1942, the day before Dorothea Lange had taken her photograph. My mother's teacher had asked her to stand up and then announced that Haruko—my mother's Japanese name—would be leaving the next day. "The whole class had to say goodbye to me," my mother said. "I was so embarrassed. I was the only Japanese girl in that class." She told this story several times a day for many months and then, one day, she did not tell it anymore. Perhaps she had finally gotten it out of her system. Or maybe she had just forgotten it.

My mother is now 81 and lives in a nursing home in Torrance, Calif. She has not spoken a word in more than two years. Her hair, though still dark, is streaked with gray. Her hands are wrinkled. Her memory is gone. The last time I visited her I wrote down my name on a Post-it note and wore it on my shirt—just in case she could still read, just in case she was still in there. But her gaze was focused on something far off in the distance, and she didn't seem to know who I was.

Topaz was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007. Last spring the Topaz Museum Board, led by President Jane Beckwith, received a $714,000 grant from the National Park Service to build a new Topaz Museum and Education Center in Delta, Utah. Groundbreaking took place on Aug 4, 2012. The museum is expected to cost $2.3 million and additional funding is still needed. For more information and to make a donation please go to topazmuseum.org