For every blanket statement you can make, about how important it is that more voices be involved in the telling of history, the truth of it never hits harder than when you see what that looks like. George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, is a reminder of what is lost when a few paragraphs are allowed to be the final word on a subject that goes much deeper. Forced to leave his home with his family when he was four years old, Takei with co-writers Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, artist Harmony Becker, and letterer Gilberto Lazcano, use a Ted Talk he gave in 2014 to frame the story of the time he spent in Japanese internment camps as a child.
From “Silent Night,” to a radio announcer forecasting war, Takei and his family were decorating their Christmas tree when the news about Pearl Harbor first hit. As quickly as Becker can have the texture of the room change from fairy lights to an anxiety inducing swirl pattern, everything changes for the Takeis and Japanese American families like them. Pearl Harbor was the moment America entered WWII, but it was also the moment America decided overnight that they couldn’t trust its citizens, if they were of Japanese descent.
Later George watches some boys playing war – Japan versus America – and nobody wants to be Japanese. A startling example of internalized racism, America allowed prejudice and fear to dictate government policy and be used to justify the existence of unconstitutional internment camps. Japanese or American, you couldn’t be both. The very existence of Japanese Americans was denied.
After living in a horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack (both George and his baby sister, Nancy, got sick from the unsanitary conditions), the Takeis were sent to Camp Rohwer and then Tule Lake, before the camps were officially closed after Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Every part of Takei’s story is put in historical context. There’s also, for a man who could fill many memoirs on his work as an advocate for the LGBTQ community and his time as a series regular on the original Star Trek, an amazing focus to this graphic novel.
It’s also a book that knows what’s going on in the world right now, with the detention centers at the Mexican-US border and children being separated from their parents. Takei’s narration often reflects upon perspective and the difference between how he perceived things as a child versus what he realizes now, looking back. Made to start over with next to nothing, after the camps were disbanded, the Takeis had to live in some shady areas for a while. “Mama, let’s go back home…,” Nancy asks at one point. For her, the camps were the only home she ever knew.
It’s impossible to measure the role Takei’s parents played, in making the camps bearable for their children, whether it’s Mama and her magical bag of treats during the train ride to Rohwer or Daddy getting them permission to go on a Jeep ride outside the camp. Life goes on, even under the most horrific of circumstances, and I love the little romantic moments Becker captures, where Mama and Daddy share a glance or hold hands, their faces extremely expressive. They Called Us Enemy is a loving tribute to them and the resilience they showed during the most hateful of times.
They Called Us Enemy is available now from Top Shelf. Takei also has a part in the upcoming season of The Terror: Infamy, where he both acted and served as a consultant. This year the anthology series moves to the internment camps after spending season one in the Arctic.