Skip to main content

Turning Family History into Historical Fiction

Emily Inouye Huey talks about her novel "Beneath the Wide Silk Sky."

Japanese immigrant and Japanese American internment camp stories often get lost, forgotten, or swept under the rug. That’s why author Emily Inouye Huey wrote her YA novel Beneath the Wide Silk Sky. As the guest author for the March 24, 2023, installment of the English Reading Series (ERS), Huey shared her family’s story and the importance of her book.

Huey comes from a family of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans who spent time in US prison camps, as they are called now. Her grandparents met and were married in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, and her grandmother later gave birth to her father in the camp hospital.

Black and white photo from 1942 of tired Japanese man sitting on his his front steps
Image of Huey's great-grandfather on the eve of his "evacuation" to Wyoming, taken by Dorothea Lange.

Her family and others who “went to camp” were told not to talk about the camp after they were released because it would be their “best chance of fitting in again.” Today, Huey feels the opposite. “We need to reflect on it now to tell the story and that it was wrong.” Huey further explained, “it matters to them to have what happened to them acknowledged.”

In 1942, famous American photographer Dorothea Lange tried to tell the sad story when the War Relocation Authority (WRA) hired her to take pictures to highlight the situation at the internment camps. Her photos show the sorrow the Japanese felt as they were forced to leave their homes to live in harsh, crudely constructed barrack-like houses. But the WRA found her photos too gritty and not happy enough to tell the story it wanted Americans to know at the time. Instead of publishing her photos, the WRA fired her and impounded her photos for decades.

Inspired by these real-life events, Huey’s novel Beneath the Wide Silk Sky follows Japanese American teenage girl Sam Sakamoto and her family in the events leading up to their “evacuation” to the internment camps. And because of the role photography plays in the story of the internment camps, and the personal connection her family has to those photos, Huey wrote her protagonist as an aspiring photographer. In the novel, Sam analyses the art of photography, discovers the “need” to take photos to document what is happening to her family, and learns about the importance of photography in giving herself and those around her a voice.

Black and white image of corner store with a sign that says I am an American
Photo of sign posted by Japanese American store owner after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, taken by Dorothea Lange.

Sam documents a number of events, such as an arrest, a small protest, vandalism, and her own family’s grief, through the lens of her camera. At the end of the book the significance of what she did occurs to her, and she realizes, “Photography didn’t just give me a voice. It spoke for all of us. Taking pictures created proof of what was done to us—and of the strength with which we countered.”

Many of the experiences in Beneath the Wide Silk Sky are painful to read, especially considering that real people experienced abuse like what Sam and her community face in the book. Huey faced the challenge of writing terrible experiences in a novel geared toward a young audience. While she had to filter a few of the experiences, she told the audience that she wrote them because “it’s about being honest.” She felt a responsibility to those whom she was writing about.

Beneath the Wide Silk Sky received the 2023 Golden Kite Award. You can find the book and educational resources regarding photographs and the internment camps on Huey’s website. To hear from other authors like Huey at BYU, check out the ERS website for future readings.