Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

What's Up With the Epigraph?

Epigraph 1

"It is sobering to recall that though the Japanese relocation program, carried through at such incalculable cost in misery and tragedy, was justified on the ground that the Japanese were potentially disloyal, the record does not disclose a single case of Japanese disloyalty or sabotage during the whole war…"
—Henry Steele Commager, Harper's Magazine, 1947

First of all, just so you know, Henry Steele Commager was a liberal historian and political activist who was dead set against Japanese-American internment among other things. So this epigraph, which comes from an essay he wrote titled "Who is loyal to America?", is all about emphasizing how unfair and unnecessary internment was.

As he points out, "the record does not disclose a single case of Japanese disloyalty or sabotage during the whole war"—not that discovering one case would have justified internment, but not a single one? Yikes.

That kind of makes us wonder how government officials sleep at night…

Epigraph 2

"Life has left her footprints on my forehead
But I have become a child again this morning
The smile, seen through leaves and flowers,
is back, to smooth
Away the wrinkles
As the rains wipe away the footprints
on the beach. Again a
Cycle of birth and death begins."
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Viet Nam Poems, 1967

Think: rebirth. That's what this excerpt from Hanh's poem "Message" is all about. We figure you know this since the last line pretty much lays it all out for us:

Cycle of birth and death begins.

Rebirth doesn't mean everything's a clean slate though. "Life has left her footprints" on the speaker's forehead after all, and we're betting "Life" has some pretty big feet.

"But I have become a child again this morning," the speaker states, which basically means the speaker's got the joy and optimism of a kid who's able to bounce back and help "smooth/Away the wrinkles."

Uplifting and inspiring? Of course. What else should we expect from a celebrated Zen Buddhist monk?

Epigraph 3

"Mountain snow loosens rivulets of tears.
Washed stones, forgotten clearing."
—J.W.H.

Okay, let's get this clear. "J.W.H." refers to one of the authors—Jeanne. Why doesn't she write her full name instead of just her initials? That's something only the author can answer, although here are some ideas we have:

  • The initials are a way of presenting another identity: Jeanne as poet, not just a camp survivor.
  • The initials allow her to be more anonymous, so her poem might be taken more seriously. After all, it's not a super humble move to quote your own poetry, even if it is in your own memoir. Initials might be a way of minimizing ego.

As for the poem itself, it's leaning toward being a haiku. Look what happens if we play around with the line breaks a bit and arrange the poem like this instead:

Mountain snow loosens
Rivulets of tears. Washed stones,
Forgotten clearing.

But though the syllables lend themselves to traditional haiku form, the poem isn't written in three lines—instead it's written in two lines, thereby potentially signifying a break from typical haiku form.

Why does this matter? Maybe Jeanne's being experimental, or maybe having it in two lines actually makes the poem more understandable. Note that the two lines end in periods—clean breaks to show a clear idea for each line. But also—maybe—this playing around with haiku is in place to clue the readers in to the cultural clashes to come in the book. Jeanne spends a good deal of time grappling with her Japanese American identity after all, and we just may get a hint of that here in this epigraph.