Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Cats of Mirikitani

I can’t stop thinking about The Cats of Mirikitani. Netflix sent me the film last weekend and it’s stuck in my head like a song from the ‘80s.

The filmmaker, Linda Hattendorf, met a homeless Jimmy Mirikitani drawing and talking about cats, Hiroshima in flames, and the Tule Lake Japanese American Internment Camp. He drew constantly, oblivious to the distractions of life on the streets of New York City.

When the filmmaker saw him coughing in the dust from of the collapse of the World Trade Center, she brought him inside to stay with her and slowly unraveled his story. Born in Sacramento in 1920, Jimmy Mirikitani was sent to Japan to be educated as a child. He returned to the US shortly before the Second World War and was caught in the anti-Japanese sentiment of the time and sent to the Tule Lake Camp in California. The last time he saw his sister, Kazuko, she had been sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho.

While Linda pieced together his past Jimmy drew, entertained her cat, and worried when Linda stayed out late. She discovered the stories of his US citizenship lost and restored, Social Security benefits not yet applied for, and his sister very much alive in Seattle. The filmmaker found Jimmy an apartment, which seemed to be larger than the one the two of them had shared. The walls were soon covered with art and a cat soon supervised the work.

When I was a child my mother told us about her friend, Patty, who had volunteered to teach at the Tule Lake Camp. As a Quaker, Patty had been drawn to teach the men who had refused to serve in the war. Since then I have visited the sites of camps in Arizona and here in Idaho and have been “adopted” by a Japanese American family (Christmas dinner is prime rib, potatoes, rice, and sashimi).

When I moved to Boise in 2003 from a Fulbright fellowship in Senegal, I was struck by how white everyone here was. But within a few years Boise began receiving refugees from Somalia, then the Congo, Thailand, Bhutan, Burundi, Uzbekistan and more. Boise is now a resettlement area for refugees from around the world.

In my professional life I find myself in the middle of disagreements between “old Idahoans” (ranchers) and “new” ones (mountain bikers, environmentalists, and people who think cattle should be banned from public land). Idaho is struggling to shift from an economy based on mining, logging, and ranching to one based on high tech, health care, and education.

We’re also morphing from a red state into a purple one, through the addition of blue drops to Boise and Sun Valley. Add to that all the other colors the refugees bring with them we’ve got some thinking and adjusting to do. The themes of helping, healing, loss, and discovery in the Cats of Mirikitani can help guide us through the changes ahead.

Since seeing the film I’ve found my mother’s friend Patty’s daughter, Hannah. Her father also taught in the internment camps and she is writing a book about her parents' experiences. And Hannah knows my friends Betty and Ken Rodgers, who are poets and teachers here in Boise. Much of my life seems to be converging around the Cats of Mirikitani.

Linda Hattendorf sorted out 85 years of Jimmy Mirikitani’s story in the film, but the story of the Cats of Mirikitani in Idaho is only just starting. I have emailed her about bringing the film and the artwork to Boise.

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