Stories of wartime, strife move WAC audience
Published 5:52 pm, Thursday, November 11, 2010
Theresa Yokois arrived in the United States in 1975 with her mother, two siblings and one of the family's nannies from Saigon. This was the second time that her family tried to escape from the Communist regime. Her Vietnamese father, owner of a large shipping company helping to import food and arms for the U.S. military forces, stayed behind to "tie up loose ends," she explained. Fortunately, he was airlifted out of Saigon the day before the port closed.
"We left Vietnam seeking political freedom, never thinking we'd be gone for good," Yokois said.
In "Away," a personal essay recounting the impact of the Vietnam War on her family, Yokois recounts her family's hurried migration to the United States and the emotional pain of leaving behind a beloved grandmother who refused to leave her native land. This was one of many heartfelt memoirs and poems read Thursday during "Out of War" at the Westport Arts Center. Spearheaded by Ina Chadwick, director of WAC's literary arts program and the Writers Artist Collaborative, "Out of War" was conceived when Chadwick realized that several entries to this fall's Memoir Writing Competition focused on wartime experiences.
"We wanted to make sure that while we have these collected memories of World War I, World II, the Korean War, Vietnam and snippets from the Middle East, that we pay tribute to them," Chadwick said.
More than 50 people listened to actors James Noble and Chilton Ryan join Chadwick in bringing local authors' intimate stories to life. Chadwick's husband, Dr. Richard Epstein, director of WAC's music series, provided musical accompaniment that enhanced the dramatic appeal of the readings.
Opening with a rendition of Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," a tune arranged by the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, Chadwick recited Anne Holmes' stark poem, "Because," in which a narrator dsicusses the need to make life matter since they did not have to wear a Yellow Star. In the poem "The White Cloud," Holmes describes the aftermath of Hiroshima. "Her poems send chills down my spine," Chadwick noted.
In addition to "Away," the following memoirs were read Thursday: "Christmas 1944" by Sumner Jules Glimcher, "The American Son: My Father and His Death, and J. Robert Oppenheimer," by Allen Swerdlowe, and "A Tradition Lost Forever" by Arnold Fassman.
Yokois said that when she first arrived in the United States, her family was sent to an Army base at Fort Chaffee, Ark. "This was one of the five army bases which eventually hosted about 150,000-plus Vietnamese refugees in the span of a couple of months back in 1975," Yokois said. "It was there at Fort Chaffee that we were processed for our naturalization and awaited to be sponsored out. An American family or organization or church had to help each and every individual out of camp. We could not leave otherwise." Yokois said that they appreciated the willingness of a Pennsylvania family to adopt the Vietnamese immigrants.
In her essay, she writes about being turned away in Singapore when her family first attempted to leave Vietnam. She wrote, "No one wanted to take us on. No one wanted another mouth to feed." And although it's been 35 years, neither she nor her parents have been back to their native country. "My parents have no desire to go back," Yokois said. "They feel it's still dangerous for them because of the nature of their business."
A mother of three, Yokois said that she will one day return so that she could show her husband and children "the land of my birth."
A young man's recollection of his father's presumed involvement in testing the atomic bomb is the subject of "An American Son: My Father, His Death and J. Robert Oppenheimer." Weston resident Swerdlowe wrote a chilling tale about attempting to unravel the truth about his Army-Air Force navigator father's true mission during World War II. On his deathbed in 1992, Swerdlowe describes receiving a cache of his father's secret papers. In the past 18 years he has tried to solve the mysteries of his father's early death and how it relates to his role in the war. Beginning as a project Swerdlowe wrote for the Discovery Channel, the story is now being developed into a film by Paramount Pictures.
WAC Executive Director Nancy Heller said she was pleased to host "Out of War" at the Westport Arts Center this year. "We don't often have time to reflect on what this day honors," she told those gathered in the gallery which has been filled for the past two months with the "Memory" exhibit.
Visual Arts Director Helen Klisser During, curator of "Memory," agreed. "We're reminded today of how lucky we are and we're reminded of the incredible sacrifices that people have made so that we could all be here today. A huge thank you to Ina and Chilton and Jim for putting the words to the feelings that many of us have."