Farewell to Manzanar is primarily about the experience of internment, but it’s also a coming-of-age memoir, spanning from Jeanne’s prewar childhood to her postwar graduation from high school. Although internment is a travesty, for Jeanne personally the experience fosters her natural curiosity and independence. As she describes camp life, she contrasts the growing complexity of her own character with Papa’s psychological decline. After internment ends, Jeanne both seeks independence from her parents and courts social acceptance by trying to become a quintessential American schoolgirl. However, just as she learns that her peers won’t let her inhabit this role due to her race, she also realizes that living out conventional tropes isn’t satisfying to her. By the end of the memoir, Jeanne abandons the quest to fit into molds proposed by either her parents or her friends in favor of embracing her own complex identity.
With its unstructured pattern, camp life helps Jeanne grow up even as it pushes Papa into an early old age. With Papa absent and Mama preoccupied, Jeanne has a lot of time to herself. Especially in the camp’s early days, school is haphazard, and in her free time Jeanne experiments with different activities in order to find her niche: she tries out and rejects Japanese deportment and ballet lessons before she’s drawn to catechism classes offered by two nuns. Jeanne becomes entranced by Catholicism because of the stories the nuns tell, in which female saints persevere and overcome injustice through their faith and bravery. Although Papa ultimately refuses to allow her to be baptized, Jeanne has already begun to cultivate her own independence by exploring different spiritualties and different modes of womanhood on her own.
Because camp life liberates Jeanne from the normal routines of childhood and gives her access to new ideas, she describes it as a “birthplace.” The complexity of Jeanne’s feelings toward Manzanar stem from her knowledge that, although it fractured her family and “ended” Papa’s life, it has positively shaped her own. When she finally revisits the camp in order to say “farewell,” her gentle salutation reflects both her desire to leave its detrimental effects behind and her recognition of its role in her own development.
After returning to school outside Manzanar, Jeanne continues to experiment with new identities, which she hopes will distance her from her family’s dysfunction and win acceptance at school. The family’s new poverty when they return to California, and Papa’s continuing alcoholism and depression, is more troubling to Jeanne than camp life. In response to these stresses—and to Papa’s insistence that she cultivate a demure and traditionally Japanese persona—she tries to become as conventionally successful as possible as a high school student.
Soon, Jeanne realizes that as a Japanese girl she’ll never gain the social acceptance she craves, but she can play on her sexuality to gain approval, if only from men and boys. She becomes a majorette at football games and Boy Scout rallies, baton-twirling in a short skirt; this both distances her further from Papa’s idea of how a girl should act, and purchases her a feeling of fitting in. Continuing in this pattern, in high school Jeanne gets elected “carnival queen” by campaigning in an “exotic” sarong, garnering “howls and whistles” from the boys. As the winner, she participates in a school-wide pageant that she imagines will be the high point of her high school life. However, on the night of the pageant, the other girls make fun of her dress and Jeanne feels disoriented and sick as she parades around the gym. She realizes that just as her position as “queen” walking across a “make-believe carpet” is fake, so is the stereotypically American identity she’s always craved.
This revelation is an enormous disappointment to Jeanne when she experiences it, yet it’s ultimately liberating. The woman she’s become by the end of the memoir—both an author and a mother, deeply rooted in America yet educating the world about Japanese culture and identity—is much richer and more complex than the cookie-cutter roles she tries to fulfill during high school. Jeanne’s childhood during internment and her education afterwards are rarely pleasant and at times traumatic. However, they both help her develop an independent and strong character, and figure out the role she wants to inhabit as an adult.
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Growing Up Quotes in Farewell to Manzanar
[Papa] didn’t die there, but things finished for him there, whereas for me it was like a birthplace. The camp was where our lifelines intersected.
He was not a great man. He wasn’t even a very successful man. He was a poser, a braggart, and a tyrant. But he had held onto his self-respect, he dreamed grand dreams, and he could work well at any task he turned his hand to …
I was proud of Kiyo and afraid for what would happen to him; but deeper than that, I felt the miserable sense of loss that comes when the center has collapsed and everything seems to be flying apart around you.
The fact that America had accused us, or excluded us, or imprisoned us, or whatever it might be called, did not change the kind of world we wanted. Most of us were born in this country; we had no other models. Those parks and gardens lent it an Asian character, but in most ways it was a totally equipped American small town …
By that time I was desperate to be “accepted,” and baton twirling was one trick I could perform that was thoroughly, unmistakably American—putting on the boots and a dress crisscrossed with braid, spinning the silver stick and tossing it high to the tune of a John Philip Sousa march.
It was all a mystery … and this woman was so old, even her dialect was foreign to me. She seemed an occult figure, more spirit than human. When she bowed to me from her knees at the end of the hour, I rushed out of there, back to more familiar surroundings.
The physical violence didn’t trouble me. Somehow I didn’t quite believe that, or didn’t want to believe such things could happen to us. It was the humiliation. That continuous, unnamed ache I had been living with was precise and definable now. Call it the foretaste of being hated … At ten I saw that coming, like a judge’s sentence, and I would have stayed inside the camp forever rather than step outside and face such a moment.
He was unforgivably a foreigner then, foreign to them, foreign to me, foreign to everyone but Mama, who sat next to him smiling with pleased modesty. Twelve years old at the time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to slide out of sight under the table and dissolve.
To this day I have a recurring dream, which fills me each time with a terrible sense of loss and desolation. I see a young, beautifully blond and blue-eyed high school girl moving through a room full of others her own age, much admired by everyone, men and women both, myself included, as I watch through a window.
I wanted the carnival to end so I could go somewhere private, climb out of my stuffy dress, and cool off. But all eyes were on me. It was too late now not to follow this make-believe carpet to its plywood finale, and I did not yet know of any truer destination.
These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep.