MFK Fisher writing contest winner explores ‘Hunger’ in Japanese-American internment camps

Oakmont writer Marilyn Noah explores her family’s history in “Oranges,” the winner of the fourth annual M.F.K. Fisher Last House Writing Contest.|

Marilyn Noah’s family history in a Japanese American internment camp was rarely discussed in her childhood. But when she saw “Hunger” was the theme of a writing contest at Glen Ellen’s Bouverie Preserve, she put pen to paper with a fictionalized version based on extensive research of what her relatives experienced in 1942.

“I was intrigued by the theme of hunger in its many forms,” said Noah, a Santa Rosa resident. “I thought that a short story with characters in extreme circumstances of deprivation, who are helped by outsiders who wish to convey sympathy and support, would be impactful and dramatic within the 750-word limit set for the contest.

“Also, I felt I could tie the story into the readers’ knowledge of similar circumstances being experienced in the world today — for example, people huddled up in refugee camps, fleeing from war or drought.”

Noah’s piece, “Oranges,” won the $500 grand prize in the adult category in the fourth annual M.F.K. Fisher Last House Writing Contest. It is inspired the by acclaimed author and food writer, who lived in the Last House at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve for 21 years until she died in 1992.

Writers were prompted to focus on hunger in all its forms — including hunger for life, love, nature, pleasure and companionship — and how people satisfy, ignore or otherwise address this most basic and fundamental component of existence.

Noah’s father, grandfather, aunts and uncles were forced from their Bay Area homes and taken to an internment camp in Gila River, Arizona, in early 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Her father was a teenager at the time and soon afterward, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

She said the topic of internment only arose occasionally in her youth, often during the family’s New Year’s Day gatherings in the 1950s and 1960s. Some 70 to 80 people participated in these gatherings, held at her Uncle Jack’s home on a large farm in then-rural San Jose.

Noah’s story is about how a group of Southern Californians helped those behind the barbed wire by bringing them oranges. It is historical fiction, based on her research and the general living conditions in the camps.

At that time, many California homeowners had fruit trees — orange and lemon trees, in particular — in their yards.

“Picking oranges from their own yards, transporting them as a gift to the internees, would have been a significant emotional lift for people who were eating limited food they found distasteful while being homesick and imprisoned in a strange land,” she said.

She said that the bright color and distinctive flavor of oranges would have been welcomed as a piece of California to people detained in the Arizona desert.

“The gift of oranges from California gave us strength,” Noah wrote in “Oranges.” “We were not forgotten. Some day we would be released. Until then, we needed to feed as many hungers as we could.”

Noah did online research to learn details about how mess halls were set up, what food was available — or not — and the deterioration of family life in the camps.

“All of us in internment camps hungered for many things,” she wrote in her short story. “Most had been evacuated from homes in California. We gazed out through barbed wire at the bare rocks of Arizona, hungry for the sight of trees and grassy hills. In the hot, stuffy barracks at night, we hungered for the breezy fog near the coast. We hungered for our family life. There was no privacy in the barracks, no family talk over meals in the mess halls.

“We were on the edge of starvation. There was barely enough food, and no comfort in what food there was. We hungered for rice, fresh vegetables and fruit, chicken and fish. We got wieners, macaroni, maybe canned beans. Every day.”

Through her research, Noah learned that the Gila River internees, in particular, eventually were able to grow vegetables and improve the food stock available.

The short story enabled Noah to rekindle an old passion. As a young woman, she enjoyed writing, but stopped in her 20s because she felt that her writing “voice” lacked sufficient life experience to be credible, or even entertaining.

She continued to write, but mainly for PowerPoint presentations in her banking career in San Francisco before retirement. Noah views “Oranges” as a possible catalyst to a new writing phase as well as a connection to M.F.K. Fisher.

“While hopefully, this contest ‘win’ is part of a second act in writing as opposed to an encore, it is an honor to become a little piece of ‘Last House’ history,” she said.

Hunger was chosen as the topic for this year’s contest because it is prevalent in Fisher’s writings, which include “How to Cook a Wolf,” “With Bold Knife and Fork” and “The Art of Eating,” as well as many articles for the New Yorker.

At “Last House,” Fisher welcomed Julia Child, Maya Angelou and James Beard and other friends and acquaintances, engaged in lively discussions and lived at a slow pace, in harmony with the seasons. The house is one of two building on the 535-acre preserve that survived the 2017 Nuns fire.

Audubon Canyon Ranch has been restoring Last House to capture the spirit and flavor of Fisher’s life on the preserve and to honor her love of literature, food, wine and nature. The preserve offers on-site and online activities at the house, including monthly tours and a writing workshop.

Noah has toured the preserve and Audubon Canyon Ranch’s headquarters in Stinson Beach.

“They’re beautiful, wonderful places, with M.F.K. Fisher’s Last House a gem, visible from Highway 12,” she said. “It’s a bit mysterious, but always appealing.”

This year’s writing contest drew 84 entries — short stories and essays — from throughout the world, with prizes also being awarded in the youth and children’s categories.

The other winners were Luana Stathopoulos of Novato in the youth category and Pranav Rajesh of Irving in the children’s division. Judges consisted of a panel of professionals in the literary, food and agriculture fields, as well as Audubon Canyon Ranch employees.

Read the full story of “Oranges” in the document below.

Oranges by Marilyn Noah.pdf

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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