I am the granddaughter of World War II prison camp survivors. My grandfather and grandmother met in Buckingham Palace where my grandmother was presented at Court at one of Princess Elizabeth's garden parties. They met later, again, in Hong Kong where my grandfather held a medical office in Kowloon.
The attraction was undeniable. They married and enjoyed parties at Shing Moon, my grandmother wearing black burma silk evening gowns and hobnobbing with the British "dirty little foreigners" who enjoyed the high life of the Empire's global reach. She befriended the niece of Emperor Pu Yi and frequently joined her for tea within the labyrinthian compound of The Forbidden City. Theirs was a life of luxury.
Photo from Laura Hope-Gill, used with permission.
After the Japanese seized Nanking, my grandparents ignored the warnings and invitations to evacuate sent from the British Crown and moved north. My uncle was born in Swatow, my father in Tongshan. In Tianjin, miles from the unrest and terror of Nanking and Shanghai, they continued their privileged lives. As the violence neared, my grandfather stood with the Chinese and built makeshift clinics for those wounded in the relentless shellings. He planned his move to join the resistance in the 8th Division Army.
Hitler invaded Poland. Fellow passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway learned of disappearances of Jewish friends and loved ones from reports gleaned at stations where men sipped vodka that evaporated in the space between flask and lip. The war did not touch my family directly until one afternoon, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.
The Japanese commandante entered their home, pissed on the carpet and declared the family's home and everyone in it property of the Rising Sun. Three days later, they were marched 100 miles to a prison camp called The Courtyard of the Happy Way.
1,200 prisoners lived for three years in the small compound. They devised jobs, schooling, sports programs and food rations in order to maintain civility and normalcy. There were councils and black markets. A group of Trappist monks formed alliances through the barbed wire electric fences with local farmers who appeared to pray with them while rolling fresh eggs under the fences into the monk's woolen robes.
All aspects of "civilized life" continued even in the ever-present terror of captivity by bayonet and constant surveillance. For the women and the men, both married and un-married, other aspects of life continued, the private ones where love and desire found purchase in the quiet, unbayonetted spaces of the night. Of course people made love in the prison camp. It was solace. It was peace and comfort as well as hope that the human heart could transcend the nightmare of war.
My grandmother was near her death when she at last started to tell me the details of the internment. I sat with her for hours. Among the details she shared was the issue of contraception. She told me she used a gin bottle cap as a barrier method. Of all the stories of scorpions appearing on her children's arms and legs and how she'd stay up all night swatting the deadly creatures from their tender, jaundiced skin, of the stories of the guards lining the children up against a wall and aiming their weapons at them as ways of ensuring the adults would follow every rule, the imagined sensation of a metal circle pressing up against a cervix and possibly turning to injure the man during intercourse is a profound metaphor for what life in a prison camp reveals about how humans cope with restriction. I think of the power of love and its will to bring people together in sacred union, to heal us, and without proper methods, possibly injure us with toxicity and laceration.
My grandmother was Catholic. Being pregnant in a prison camp where healthcare was minimal was a deathly option. Bringing a baby into a confined and freezing world where electric barbed wire defined the perimeter and where rotten vegetables were the only food, and of this there was a criminally limited supply for the 1,200 prisoners: these realities made contraception a necessary "sin." But she would insert the gin bottle cap. It was the only method available. This is a measure many people adopted when they were cut off from the usual supply of birth control. They would try anything.
In even the most dire situations, women will maintain control of their reproductive destinies. It is not something even the longest arm of the law, or the commandante in charge of any prison camp, can command. If the conversation surrounding employers' provision of hormonal maintenance medication now must include notions of aspirin-between-the-knees concupiscence, then it must also contain the real-life stories of the ends lovers will go to under even the most terrifying circumstances to engage in love. Love is not lust. And love-making is not prostitution or vile. It is a force of life, and in the pursuit of happiness it is a healthy, beautiful and sacred means of having a full life.
I only know how to respond to the current paradox regarding employers' rights to disinclude birth control pills from insurance coverage with a story. Stories provide truths deeper than political rhetoric. They ground the high-pitched voices in real-life. In the story of women and men, there is no realer story than that of balancing life, love and when to bring children into the world. It is a story that belongs to both women who bear the child and to men who make love to women knowing that a child could possibly result from such union. It is a story, perhaps the only story, that at its very core belongs to both men and women, and a story through which lives change remarkably.
It is understandable that in a prison camp where my five-year-old uncle was court-martialed and made to sit in a bamboo cage in the hot sun for a day for missing role call and where primitive means of cooking and healing wounds replaced modern conveniences, women and men had to resort to metal found objects as barrier methods during sex. It is not understandable that alternatives to this would not be made readily available in a civilized country where electric barbed wire does not define our place in the world.
Laura Hope-Gill is a poet laureate of the Blue Ridge Parkway, founder of The Healing Seed Center for Geopoetics, creative marketing director Grateful Steps Publishing House and Bookshop, director of Asheville Wordfest. She is the author of The Soul Tree and Look Up Asheville, and blogs at blogspot where this post first appeared. You can follow her on Twitter at @laurahopegill.
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