“The Perils of Looking Different”
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott (art by Harmony Becker)
A Book Review by Pam Munter
By executive order of the President of the United States, all “enemy aliens” in one region of the country were rounded up and shipped to one of many “relocation centers,” miles away from home and held under armed guard for an indefinite period of time. Sound familiar? Sadly, it has happened before.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott (Top Shelf, 2019) portrays the Takei family’s imprisonment during World War II. Such an abhorrent event would be difficult enough in the abstract, but it becomes unavoidably distressing in this well-illustrated graphic memoir. We don’t have to imagine the setting, the family, and the oppressive national context. We can see it and we can’t turn away.
The book opens with the two young Takei boys being awakened by their father. The family has been given ten minutes to pack up and leave their house. The family is shuffled through a series of temporary camps over several years, first spending months in a recently-vacated stable at the Santa Anita race track in Southern California, followed by longer stays in Arkansas and Northern California. Takei is at his most compelling when he takes us to these enforced, fenced communities. Still, George seems to accept whatever comes and watches with admiration as his neighborly father rises to positions of leadership within the growing communities of imprisoned Japanese-Americans. Each time they are relocated, George mourns the loss of familiarity, impoverished as it is, because he has grown attached to the people and routines there.
Takei moves with fluidity from this unstable environment to his later TED talk about its horrors. Then, returning to an earlier timeline, he inserts his pre-war family history. His father was prohibited from applying for citizenship, although he had resided in the US for 25 years, because he was Asian. He traces the evolution from the angry, frightened culture of his native Los Angeles in the days following Pearl Harbor to the strident demands by prominent politicians to imprison all Japanese-Americans because “Japs are sneaky and inscrutable. You don’t know what they’re thinking.” Society demonized all who resembled the foreign enemy who had struck Hawaii that Sunday morning, convinced, as the Los Angeles Mayor said, “Blood will tell.”
Takei delicately straddles the line between the outrageous treatment remembered by his adult self, and his more benign childhood subjective experience. When transported from California to another camp in Arkansas, he relates his boredom of the days-long train ride, but also the pleasure he took in playing with the few toys his mother had packed for him. His father had reassured him they were going on vacation so George was puzzled when he saw so many around him crying. It’s clear from the start that the family is the hero of this book. Throughout, the primary focus for the parents was preserving the mental health and well-being of their three children. “It was my father who bore the pain and the anguish,” he writes, “and the torturous experiences.” Though his father had lost his business, his possessions, and his identity, he remained a staunch believer in democracy until the day he died.
At each camp, the internees quickly established solidarity through interdependence. In Arkansas, each barrack housed 250 people, eventually 8500 in all. The reader can witness the crowds and the minimal accommodations via the spare but evocative drawings of Harmony Becker.
When Takei drifts from his own experiences, the emotional volume drops, giving the reader perhaps an unwanted emotional break. Taking a step back, he reports the later radicalization at the camps, the government’s attempt to recruit Japanese-Americans to fight the war, the pressure to renounce their US citizenship and be deported. Attempting to chronicle the entire Japanese-American World War II experience is too ambitious for this slim graphic volume and occasionally detracts from its intensity.
When the war ends and the ACLU wins a legal battle against deportation, the Takeis return to Los Angeles where the only available housing is on Skid Row, “a terrible experience and for us kids traumatizing.” There were times, he writes, “we longed for those barbed wire fences.” But he acknowledges, “Children are amazingly adaptable and we would survive this experience, too.” It speaks to the efficacy of keeping families together under such bleak circumstances.
Flipping back and forth in time provides reassurance to the reader that a child can survive unimaginable adversity during critical years of development and successfully emerge as a healthy adult. His relationship with his father is the centerpiece of this book, a bond that allowed both to find meaning within the oppression and beyond. To his credit, Takei acknowledges this.
When they return to LA, the changes appear too quickly. The father gets a low-level job; they move into an East Los Angeles barrio; Takei experiences discrimination in grammar school. A few panels later, we observe the emerging teenager, now concerned with civil liberties, but inexplicably enters UCLA as a theater arts major. We long for more about his personal development; this is a memoir, after all. There’s nothing, for instance, about the discovery of his sexual orientation, widely publicized in recent years. And, with no context, there’s a brief section about his audition for his role as Sulu on the ground-breaking TV series, “Star Trek,” “the best opportunity I’ve ever had.” He adds, “Most importantly, my unexpected notoriety has allowed me a platform from which to address many social causes that need attention.” But he’s into shorthand now, a departure from the grim and engrossing details of the internment.
Toward the end of book, he touches on Korematsu v. The United States of America, the 1944 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the constitutionality of the internment camps. He mentions the $20,000 in reparations authorized by Ronald Reagan, paid out by George W. Bush. Then he closes with brief, critical comments about Trump’s attempt to ban Muslim immigration. The book was written before the recently-escalating uprising of prejudice against Hispanic immigrants and the inhumane conditions of their incarceration. Still, at the end, it’s all too messy – too much information in too short a graphic space. We “hear” his commentary, without feeling it. Perhaps there were too many authors and not enough editors.
Despite its shortcomings, the book works effectively as a graphic memoir and is a worthwhile, if heartbreaking, story for readers of all ages. It’s a reminder of what happens when fear and hate consume a nation, misdirected toward a specific minority. Takei referred to that era as “legalized racism,” an accusation he would likely reiterate today. They Called Us Enemy deserves a place on the shelf with other potent graphic nonfiction, such as Fun Home (Alison Bechdel), Maus (Art Spiegelman) and Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi).
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Recently, her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 130 publications. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published in 2018 by Adelaide Books. Her work can be found at http://www.pammunter.com.