By Maureen Tai, 20 March 2020
“People can do great things, George. They can come up with noble, shining ideals. But people are also fallible human beings. And we know they made a terrible mistake.” – Takekuma Norman Takei
It is in times of crises that the true nature of a person emerges. It is during those same times when individuals in positions of leadership or power can either save or savage. We are witnessing this play out in real time as the world grapples with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and we witnessed this over half a decade ago. At the end of 1941, the surprise attack by the Japanese army of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marked the USA’s entry into World War II. The lives of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were irrevocably altered by human decisions and actions based on fear, hate and at the heart of it all, racism. In They Called Us Enemy, a sobering graphic novel that is accessible to and appropriate for even slightly younger readers, we learn how one particular Japanese American family, the Takeis, lived through those challenging times.
Most of us know George Takei from his Hikaru Sulu days on Star Trek, the cult TV programme from the late 1960’s. His was one of a handful of Asian faces on the small screen. His chiselled chin and cheeks, piercing gaze and dark black hair was familiar and comforting to my childish eyes. Younger readers of this book will see a different version of actor. In his memoir, George’s five-year old face is round, his eyes are eager and his smile is wide and trusting. As he boards the train with his parents and two siblings, he thinks he is heading off on an exciting vacation. The steady stream of snacks and treats that his astute and selfless mother hands him during the arduous train ride support that joyful vision. The reality however, is that the government- sanctioned “containment” of Japanese Americans has begun. George’s family, like many other families of Japanese ancestry, have lost everything they own and are being forcibly evicted to internment camps all across the country. In October 1942, the Takeis find themselves at Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, branded as enemies of their own country, and facing an uncertain new future in the land of the free.
George narrates the story as his current self: reflective, thoughtful, wise with experience and age. We flit back and forth in time, seeing scenes through the young eyes of an inquisitive child as well as through the older eyes of an accomplished thespian and social activist. The Takeis are among over 8,000 Japanese Americans kept behind high walls and barbed wire at Camp Rohwer, housed in tightly packed and spartan wooden cabins. The sanitary conditions are dire, as are the meals served in the communal mess hall. George’s parents bear much of the physical and emotional burden of adjusting to their new circumstances, shielding George and his younger siblings from the hardships of camp life as much as they can. Still, the young boy is haunted by certain images. His mother’s tears as they are forced to abandon their home in LA. The gaunt face of an elderly African American man, glimpsed through a raised window shade. Armed soldiers stationed at watchtowers. A Japanese Santa Claus at Christmas time. Radicalised young men with hinomaru scarves wound around their heads, shouting “Banzai! Banzai!” with fists raised in the air. We see these as vividly as George in the skilfully wrought black and white illustrations, reminiscent of Japanese manga.
Through it all – the years during and after internment – Norman Takei is calm, stalwart and strong, answering all of his son’s questions with patience, openness, reason and compassion. By sharing his childhood memories and his many father-son conversations with us, George has helped us understand better those dark times of great injustice and human suffering. It is a stark reminder that political systems alone do not guarantee peace and prosperity. We, human beings, do.
For ages 9 and up.
P.S. Dash by Kirby Larson is a compelling middle-grade novel about a Japanese American girl who is separated from her beloved pet dog during WWII. Review to follow soon!