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Belleville-born author tells story of Japanese internment camps

By Ashliegh Gehl

Belleville-born author Frances Itani is a writer of the old world.

She doesn’t have a laptop with a word processor to correct her errors. Every book is handwritten and self-researched. And the only reason she owns a cellphone is to please her daughter who urges she takes it along when it’s time to tour.

Itani read to more than 30 people at Greenley’s Bookstore on Thursday, promoting her latest novel Requiem – a fictional story based on Japanese internment camps of the 1940s.

When Japan entered World War II on December 7, 1941, more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians were removed and incarcerated, forced by military action to leave their homes for internment camps.

In the late 1960s, Itani started researching and in the 90s she interviewed the people.

“I was reading pamphlets on racism, reading histories, the internment of Japanese Canadians and whatever was available at the time,” she said in an interview. “Since then there has been a burgeoning number of books. So I have quite a good-sized library.”

After 40 years of research and four years invested in writing Requiem, Itani said it was one of those books that kept growing and growing.

“So that’s where I feel my job comes in, to tell the stories while people were still alive to be interviewed and were able to tell me their stories,” she said. “I just put that all together with my own research and created my own fictional story. I just feel it’s very important to be told.”

Itani said for a democratic country like Canada, internment camps were a breach of trust.

“It was a shameful episode in our countries history and in the United States’ history as well. I think it’s really important for us as a democracy to remember this episode, which lasted for many years. I don’t think we can let it lapse or fall out of memory.”

In September 1988, the Government of Canada gave an official apology in the House of Commons, offering compensation to those afflicted by the government’s actions.

“You have to realize, as well the lifting, the forcible removal of 21,000 people in Canada and 14,000 in the United States, that would now be considered a crime against humanity,” she said.

Itani’s work has a theme of remembrance, but it also has a theme of recovering balance.

“For sure, in my work I write about people recovering balance. That’s one of the things I like to probe. In this particular book there’s a great deal of music and lots of Beethoven. I was really writing about anger and redemption and hope.”

Itani is the author of 12 critically acclaimed novels. Her first book, Deafening, received worldwide recognition, has been optioned for film, sold and translated in 17 countries and won a Commonwealth Award.

She’s a member of the Order of Canada and currently lives in Ottawa.

Itani is bringing the setting of her next novel, Tell, back to her Belleville roots. She’s pulling four minor characters from Deafening and making them major characters.

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