They Called Us Enemy
by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott
Illustrated by Harmony Becker
Publishing Details: Top Shelf Productions, July 2019
Back-of-the-Book Summary: George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s—and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future. In a stunning graphic memoir, Takei revisits his haunting childhood in American concentration camps, as one of over 100,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon—and America itself—in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.
When I first saw this book in a children’s museum gift shop, my thought process went exactly like this: “Oh a book about the Japanese concentration camps! Oh, it’s by George Takei?? Wait, it’s a graphic memoir???” I didn’t buy it that day, but I did immediately put it on hold at my local library, and luckily I was able to pick it up before social distancing started. I felt fairly certain that this book would be sad but also very, very good.
What I Liked:
I read this book in two sittings. I simply could not put it down, and that’s saying a lot because I have a notoriously short attention span. Already in the process of writing this review, I have stopped writing mid-sentence to check Twitter more than once. But I was completely engaged by this book, and I’d like to suss out why it held my attention so well.
First, I think the graphic element made it read a bit faster than it would in a traditional, writing-only format. Becker is an incredibly talented illustrator, and I definitely think the images made They Called Us Enemy an even more compelling, effective story. As Takei tells the story of his experience with Japanese concentration camps, he jumps around in time, and the images serve as a kind of shorthand to show the reader where we are in time.
Which leads me to my next idea of what makes this book so fantastic: the time jumps. Trauma does not abide by linear time, it reappears again and again throughout a person’s life in different ways, and we see that throughout They Called Us Enemy through the time jumps. One minute, we’re in the camps with Takei and his family, and the next we’re at the dinner table with Takei and his father, having an argument about how everything happened with the camps.
Finally, maybe the best part of this book is the distinct voice of George Takei coming through the whole thing. His candor, his wit, and most of all, his incredible sense of perspective. Talking about the Japanese concentration camps is hard for anyone, let alone someone who lived through the experience. But it’s so incredibly important to hear stories like Takei’s. When a country makes mistakes and fails to own up to those mistakes, they can get buried by denial and the passage of time, and that dooms us to repeat them. Takei addresses this toward the end of the book by bringing up the tragic camps at the US-Mexico border right now.
And yet, despite the inherently political content, They Called Us Enemy does not read like politics, all slimy and coercive with questionable “facts.” It is a true story about a political and human catastrophe from a specific perspective which allows for unique and important insights. And it’s an absolutely wonderful read.
What I Disliked:
I thoroughly loved this book. Honestly, I hesitate to say anything should be different, because I think it’s so important to listen to the voices of people of color about their experiences with oppression without expecting it to be what I want, as a white person who has never experienced prejudice based on my ethnicity. However, I do have one issue that I think has more to do with the narrative style than anything, and thus I hope it’s alright for me to comment on, briefly.
Throughout the book, Takei is narrating everything accompanied by dialogue and images. Personally, I feel that the book could have benefited from more sections where the dialogue controlled the narrative rather than present-day Takei as a narrator. I think the narration route feels more natural when discussing something traumatic because putting yourself fully back into that time is painful and sometimes simply impossible, but I also think it’s more compelling for a reader to be completely immersed in the experience through dialogue every now and again.
You Might Like This Book If…
- …you want to learn more about Japanese concentration camps in the US during WWII
- …you love George Takei
- …you love graphic novels/memoirs
- …you are looking for a quick, engrossing read
*** Disclaimer: I do not get paid for my reviews. If you’d like me to review your book, please feel free to contact me through my contact page! ***