Verse Novel Review: Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai


Hardcover, 121 pages
Published March 1st 2014 by Albert Whitman & Company
Source: Library

 Dust of Eden focalizes on Mina Tagawa who, along with her family and other Japanese Americans, is uprooted from her home and everything familiar and sent to internment camps in America following the bombing of Pearl Harbour by Japan during World War 2.

We are not Americans, the eyes tell us.
We do not belong, the mouths curl up.

We are the enemy aliens, the Japs,
the ones who have bombed

Pearl Harbour, killing so many soldiers
who were enjoying their Sunday

morning in Hawaii, who were waking
up to their breakfasts of oatmeal and toast.

Even though it is not at all certain or apparent whether the interred Japanese Americans share anything other than race with the Japanese people, they are blamed for events they, in truth, had no control over or knowledge about. I find the treatment of Japanese Americans (and this story) to be so remarkably relevant at this point in time considering the hate and discrimination Muslim people face right now. Mina’s story resonates with me more deeply because of my position and experience as part of a minority group who is facing similar treatment though of course we are not being rounded up and sent into camps. I think the most poignant character in this story is Mina’s grandfather; he raises roses like they’re his own children and it physically hurts him to leave them behind.

Okami o okoraseruna – Don’t anger the government -,
Grandpa said slowly.
But we didn’t do anything wrong, Nick shouted.
We’re American, just like everyone else.
Grandpa shook his head,
Ware ware wa Nipponjin demo naishi
Americajin demo nai–we are neither
Japanese nor American…

Mina and her family are placed on a farm in stables where horses used to reside. They are surrounded by guards who strut around with rifles threatening to kill anyone who “disturbs the peace.”

Horses are gone.
We are the new cattle.

The verse has no frills to it; it does not ever romanticize the feelings of isolation, despair, and utter bewilderment that shape Mina’s days. Her father, who used to be a reporter, was taken in by the military for reasons they never find out, is returned as a shadow of the man he used to be. Her family, indeed the very community they have to create anew, perseveres and creates for themselves a new home even within the straitened conditions. Mina’s brother, Nick, is fiercely angry with the way he and his family are treated by the government and the fellow Americans and volunteers for the army to prove his “Americanness” once and for all. It is interesting to see his gradual growth and realization that the enemy is not a monster but could very well be your reflection in a mirror.

East of Eden is remarkable for the authenticity infused within the verses; the sincerity of the portrayal and the ability of the author to present a darker part of American history without explicitly vilifying anyone in particular. The book would be wonderful in a classroom and for teachers looking to teach history with sensitivity, and in a way the students will be able to have empathy. Having this “history”* recounted by a protagonist like Mina Tagawa ensures that the children reading the book have a figure to empathize with.

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