English students in Professor Brian Roberts’s senior course analyze literature written by Japanese Americans who experienced life in Topaz Internment camp.
Few realize that just a short hour and a half drive from BYU’s campus are the remnants of what was once Topaz, a Japanese American internment camp. One of ten main internment camps established by the US government during World War II, Topaz was in operation from September 1942—October 1945. With a prisoner population of over 8,000, Topaz is sometimes said to have been Utah’s fifth largest “city” during WWII. All 8,000 of Topaz’s prisoners lived within one square mile. The Japanese American internment, which unconstitutionally imprisoned tens of thousands of US citizens without due process, has been acknowledged as unjust by all three branches of the United States’ government.
Brian Roberts, professor of English and head of the American Studies program, first became interested in Topaz when he accepted a teaching position at BYU after receiving a PhD in English with emphases in American Studies and African American literature. Roberts states, “I believe studying and amplifying the voices of minority populations in the United States is something that is ethical and good.” He adds, “Listening to these stories has the power to change how people all over the United States act today.”
The commitment that Roberts feels to studying, amplifying, and acting on the stories told by writers and artists of the multiethnic United States is showcased in his newly released book Borderwaters: Amid the Archipelagic States of America, which discusses the United States as a nation of islands and oceans. Borderwaters features a chapter on the literature and arts of the prisoners at Topaz, as they worked through the trauma of their imprisonment by reflecting on Lake Bonneville (which covered much of Utah during the ice age) and the Cambrian ocean (which covered Utah about half a billion years ago).
Roberts approaches the study of Topaz’s literature with the same determination as he does when studying African American literature. He notes, “Similar ethical commitments came into play when I was figuring out the geography of Utah. I realized that there was the site of a former internment camp in Utah, and then I heard that there was a museum that had been established, and so we went on a family trip to the museum, and I was fascinated.”
After visiting the site multiple times, Roberts decided to incorporate research about Topaz into his book and to also develop a senior capstone course about the art and literature of the internment camp.
Every student in the English department must complete a senior capstone course in order to graduate with their degree. These courses are designed to help students delve into a particular topic or issue, become familiar with the current scholarship surrounding that issue, and then join that critical conversation with their own research and writing project.
Many of the senior seminars focus on unique literary topics, both current and historical. But not many courses focus so exclusively on the literature, history, and geography of our very own state.
“Topaz continues to be kind of a touchstone for me, and in Utah history and geography and in wider history and geography,” says Roberts, who has now taught his senior course on Topaz three times.
As an integral part of the course, Roberts has students meet at the site of Topaz to explore the landscape that inspired the literature. Roberts says, “In the English department, we're very acquainted with the benefit of going to a literary site. It just makes things seem so much more immediate.”
Michela Miller Dickson, one of the students who participated in the senior seminar during the Winter 2021 semester, remembered, “before I went down to visit [Topaz], it still felt pretty far away. Southern Utah is kind of a different animal from northern Utah—the landscapes are different, there's kind of cultural differences, too, and linguistic differences.”
Dickson, who served an 18-month LDS mission in Japan, talked about how the most exciting parts of the class were when she could connect what she knew about Japan with what she learned in class.
On their tour of Topaz, Dickson found a small shard of pottery and was reminded of when she and her father toured Hiroshima and found a similar piece of pottery in the wreckage there. “It's kind of interesting to see two places of devastation, in some respect, having shards of pottery left; it's a big part of their culture,” Dickson said.
By the end of the trip, it had begun snowing on the site. “I felt more kinship with the people because I had been standing out there in the cold,” said Dickson. “And I'm wishing I was somewhere else. But I have the freedom to leave at will and they didn't.”
She continued, “It was interesting seeing the snow falling and coating the dust in whiteness. It made it seem a little bit holier to me because the temple is very white. . . . The last thing that we saw was [a] Buddhist shrine area where they had rocks set up in formation. That was kind of a surreal moment to end on.”
The English department’s senior capstone courses focus on how to analyze and evaluate literature in an effort to understand the breadth and depth of human experience, whether that’s a focus on Japanese American writing in Topaz, African American literature in Harlem, or Romantic poetry in 1800s England.
Literature gives readers a glimpse into not only a different time and place but a different lived experience. It helps readers develop empathy and compassion for those whose experiences differ from their own.
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