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'The Diplomat's Daughter' Is A Story Of Love In An Internment Camp


Now, when you spend your childhood bouncing from city to city all over the world, it can be tough to say where home really is. Is it your birthplace? Where you sleep at night? In Karin Tanabe's new novel, "The Diplomat's Daughter," we meet Emiko - Emi for short. Her father's job with the Japanese government has her living in London, Berlin, Vienna and D.C. Now, the thing is this story is set right before the start of World War II. And for someone like Emi, where she lives and who she loves could mean the difference between life and death. Karin Tanabe, welcome.

KARIN TANABE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So Emi Kato - is that - did I say the name...

TANABE: Yes, that's perfect.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. She is the diplomat's daughter.

TANABE: She is.

MARTÍNEZ: She speaks several languages.


MARTÍNEZ: She's culturally and as intellectually woke as someone would be right here in 2017.

TANABE: Heck yes.

MARTÍNEZ: Tell us about her. Tell us about Emiko.

TANABE: So she is a diplomat solder. She's - I say in the book she's bounced around like a suitcase for her entire life. And, you know, Japanese women back then were certainly walking a few steps behind the men in their lives. And Emiko is not that kind of girl. She just is sort of a firecracker. She really wants to blaze her own trails. But the only thing that gets in the way is, you know, World War II.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, she's young. She's very young.

TANABE: She's young, yeah. She's about 21 when the book opens.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, one of the things about being young is falling in love. But for her, it's really complicated, especially with her first love. What happened there?

TANABE: Yes. So with her first love, she's living in Vienna. She's in high school at the time. And she meets a boy named Leo Hartmann who is Jewish. Now, the Japanese - they sort of lumped Jews together with all foreigners. You weren't Jewish or Christian. You were just foreign.

MARTÍNEZ: You were just not from here (laughter).

TANABE: You were just not Japanese. Right. So she - Jewish means nothing negative to her. She's very interested in his life and his background. But he is being severely bullied in his school. It's just, you know, the late '30s, and things are really, really starting to change for the worse in Austria.

MARTÍNEZ: People get bold, right? I mean, it's like people are not ashamed of saying all kinds of terrible things.

TANABE: Yeah, even young people. You know, the Hitler Youth was starting to spread into schools. And, basically, Emi is the only person who is nice to Leo in the end, who even wants to see him alive. So, you know, it's a friendship that turns into a lot more than a friendship.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, she eventually gets sent with her family to the United States...


MARTÍNEZ: ...And after a stop in D.C., eventually winds up in an internment camp in Texas. And that's where she meets the other man or boy in her life...

TANABE: The other boy, yes. Yes.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Christian Lange, American-born son of German parents. Now, one of the things - growing up in California, I always heard a lot about Japanese families...


MARTÍNEZ: ...And all the things that they've lost when they were put in these internment camps. I wasn't that aware that this happened to Germans.

TANABE: Yeah. So I wasn't aware at all. And being half Japanese myself, I feel like I know more about internment than your average Jane. But I didn't know about the German internment or the Italian internment. And it only happened when George Takei, the actor and activist, wrote his musical "Allegiance."

My husband, who is of almost pure German blood but American, asked me, you know, were the German-Americans interned, too? And I was like, you know, I have no idea. So I started looking into it. And they were, mostly at this camp Crystal City in Texas - not in the numbers the Japanese were. There were about 10,500 German-Americans interned as opposed to 120,000 Japanese-Americans - but still a pretty significant number that people don't know much about.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned how your husband is German-American.

TANABE: Yes, he's German-American from the Midwest.

MARTÍNEZ: Did you base Christian Lange...

TANABE: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Because Christian Lange is, like, an all-American, football-player type...

TANABE: You know, my husband...

MARTÍNEZ: ...Chris Evans, Captain America type.

TANABE: I will say my husband did play football for the University of Nebraska back when they were very good. But I didn't base him off of my husband. But a lot of the German-Americans came from Wisconsin. So I knew I wanted him to be sort of this corn-fed Wisconsin boy who, more than my other two characters, is very shocked by the state of the world. You know, Emi's a pretty worldly person. Leo grows up pretty affluent in Austria. Christian - you know, all's going well. He's playing football in his backyard. And then bam. They're like, sorry. Your dad's probably a spy Let's intern you.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's where he meets Emi.

TANABE: And that's where he meets Emi.

MARTÍNEZ: And they have a little fling.

TANABE: They do. They have a fling. They...

MARTÍNEZ: Was it because they're in a tense situation in this camp? I mean...

TANABE: You know, they have this conversation, saying, is it just because we're here, and there's nothing else to do and no one else to love? But...

MARTÍNEZ: They can't go anywhere. They can't...

TANABE: They certainly can't go anywhere.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Go into town and go to the movies or anything.

TANABE: They would shoot you on sight. But I think, honestly, they really connected in a way that - they're from such different backgrounds. You know, Emi's not even American. But they're both being hated for no reason in their youth - and for Christian, in his country - and Emi in a country she's been in a while. You know, I'm in Washington D.C. The Japanese Embassy is on Massachusetts Avenue. People were standing outside of it with hate signs, screaming when the diplomatic community left the embassy. So I think they really bonded on the fact that they were not wanted in their - in this country.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Christian's parents are about to be shipped back to Germany. What I didn't realize is that this is happening all over the world, people getting swapped...

TANABE: Oh, yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...For foreign nationals, for Americans living abroad. I mean, I didn't realize that was happening, either.

TANABE: Yeah. That was happening. Thousands of people were being swapped. And the really sad part is it was the American government deciding who was a worthy American and who wasn't.

MARTÍNEZ: Who was American enough?

TANABE: Yeah. Who was American enough? Who did we want in this country? Because a lot of the Japanese who were being swapped were Japanese-Americans. They were born here. They were American. And they decided - you know, FDR, et cetera decided that these missionaries or these prison of wars in Japan or Germany were more valuable. And they wanted to be switched.

And I didn't know very much about this when I started writing. But I found out later in my research that one of my family friends was one of the people sent over. And her mother and father were missionaries in Japan, and they were sent over. So I got to read all their memoirs and their diaries and really dig deep into this.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Karin, you were a reporter for Politico. When it comes to the dialogue around refugees, immigration and also nationalism, how much of what we're reading in "The Diplomat's Daughter" is still being used today by world governments?

TANABE: You know, a lot. I actually just came across a quote by Sean Spicer. And he was talking about the travel ban. He said this in January 2017. He said it's not a Muslim ban. It's not a travel ban. It's a vetting system to keep America safe.

And that language - to keep America safe - it's really the exact same language we were using in World War II for the Japanese-Americans - that there were spies among them - same with the German-Americans - that they couldn't be trusted, even though you know they had - many of them - 62 percent, in fact - had American nationality. But it's this rhetoric of fear that is what really scares me - that, you know, maybe it's just the beginning. Maybe things could escalate.

And I can't believe, honestly, that we're still talking like that so many years later. You know, my father is Japanese. I grew up with so many people whose parents or grandparents were interned or who were born in internment camps. And to think that maybe that could happen again on our soil is really scary.

MARTÍNEZ: Karin Tanabe's new novel is "The Diplomat's Daughter." Karin, thanks a lot.

TANABE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "BLACK SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.