The blog for MacMillan Children’s Publishing has a post of mine and the role of research in the creative process. Here’s the (link)
and it’s short enough that I’ll post it here too.
When the plot for “Take What You Can Carry” first came to me, specifically the idea of setting half the story in an internment camp, I was excited about exploring this little known chapter of America’s past. While I was familiar with some of the history of how more than 100,000 Japanese, many U.S. citizens, were relocated and held in makeshift camps during World War 2, I had always been interested in knowing more. As I expected, much of what I found directly influenced my story. I have often set my graphic novels in real places, or at least versions of them but this was the first time I’d set one in a place and time I’d never directly experienced.
As I suppose one would expect for a cartoonist, I started by researching what the camps looked like. I was surprised to find that two great American photographers, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams had both taken pictures of the camps and the often harsh and imposing landscapes they were built in. I had originally planned to set the story in a composite camp in order to have it reflect the wider experience of all the internees. But then I saw, in both Lange and Adams’ photos, the large mountain that overlooks the camp in Manzanar, California. Somehow, imagining what it would be like to be looking up at that huge mountain, after having had one’s life uprooted by indifferent and powerful forces of history, seemed to resonate with some of the emotions the internees must have felt. So from that moment on, my story would be set in Manzanar.
Because the plot of the book revolves around petty theft, one of the first things I needed to find out was if it had occurred in the camps. Had it not, I would have had to restructure the whole story to reflect the historical reality. I read several books and came across references to how many aspects of the camps, like group dining and the separation of fathers from the family had lead to a breakdown in traditional social restraints but nothing that referenced theft directly. I contacted a painting teacher I studied with in college who had lived in the camps as an infant and he was able to confirm that petty theft was a reality and pointed me towards a book that provided many details. I ended up using one of the specific incidents mentioned, where the boys steal fresh fruit that only the hospital staff had access to.
Without a doubt the most bountiful gift from the research was the discovery of what one scholar refers to as “the art of gaman.” “Gaman” is a Japanese term of Zen Buddhist origin which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Saddled with forced idleness and an industrious nature, many of the internees fashioned exquisite art objects out of scavenged materials like scrap lumber and burlap potato sacks. They made a wide variety of useful objects such as furniture, baskets, and teapots as well as purely artistic things like wall hangings and jewelry. Knowing the context for the creation of these objects infuses them with both an admirable nobility and a stoic sadness. Of all the objects, I found myself most drawn to the carved birds, which struck me as a hopeful symbol of escape through the transformative power of art.
Ultimately, nearly all the depictions of daily life in Take What You Can Carry come directly from historical sources. The hanging of blankets to provide privacy, the stuffing of paper in between floorboards to keep the silty sand out, people gathering at night to listen to records in the moonlight, all capture something unique about how the internees adapted to life in the camps. In several cases the research provided exactly what I needed. Knowing, for instance, that tools were among the contraband items periodically seized by the soldiers turned out to be just the piece to finish the puzzle of how the climatic final scene would fall together. But to know more about how that works, you’ll have to read the book!