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  • Writer's pictureTerrie

A graphic memoir about the Japanese internment camps, They Called Us Enemy is by actor George Takei

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei book cover image

They Called Us Enemy, George Takei

Genre: Memoir

Published 2019, 208 pages

Another first in my reading experience - my first 'graphic' anything. They Called Us Enemy is actually a graphic memoir. It's an autobiography, a history lesson, a heartbreaking story of a despicable time in American history, and yet it's a story of kids being kids and thinking they were on an adventure. It is George Takei's (rhymes with okay) story about his family's internment in the US Japanese camps.

He presents it in 2 perspectives - his view as a child and his memories of the camps and his view now, as an adult, thinking back to what it was like for his parents. It tracks his life from a young child to a curious, fledgling activist to a successful actor (though very little time is spent on his acting career).

"As a teenager, I became curious about the internment camps. I searched all my civics books and history books but there was nothing about the internment of Japanese Americans. As I studied civics and government in school, I came to see the internment as an assault not only upon an entire group of Americans but on the constitution itself. How its guarantees of due process and equal protection had been decimated by forces of fear and prejudice unleashed by unscrupulous politicians. I couldn't reconcile what I read in these books about the shining ideals of our democracy with what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment."

His family was forced to leave their home and business when George was 4; they were imprisoned for 4 years, changing camps several times. He tells of the efforts his parents made to create as much of a home atmosphere as possible in deplorable conditions. He tells of the commitment of his father to help others in camp whenever and however he could so he eventually became a camp manager, trying to help the community. He shares the despair his parent felt at the US bombing of Japan and the worry over their family still there. The portion of the book about life in the camps is mostly told from his child viewpoint......he went to school, made friends, lived his life - within a barbed wire fence - but it's what he knew as normal. Heartbreaking.

"Years later, the trauma of those experiences continued to haunt me. Most Japanese Americans from my parents' generation didn't like to talk about the internment with their children. As with many traumatic experiences, they were anguished by their memories and that wasn't their fault. Shame is a cruel thing. It should rest on the perpetrators but they don't carry it the way the victims do.”

Once I began the book I found I was compelled to keep reading and finish it....a quick read but it took more time to digest and internalize.

Although I've read novels about this time, this was my first memoir or nonfiction book about it. This format makes it more real, more impactful, somehow. While the illustrations (in black and white) are good (I don't have anything to compare it to since I haven't read other graphic novels), to me they were incidental to the dramatic story being told. I think this book is an important addition to the books about this time in America's history.

This book is coded for YA (young adult) at the library. It's filled with serious themes and a strong dose of history. I'm not sure about what the youngest recommended age to read it would be - it probably depends on the child. Read it first to determine if your child is ready or interested to absorb the story told. And then, talk to them about it.

I highly recommend you spend an afternoon and absorb this book.

Reading challenge: #ReadHarder20 #4: graphic memoir; (Thanks again to this challenge for leading me to this book!) #BooklistQueen20 #9: 2019 best seller and #Bookworm20 #20: a graphic novel (it's actually a memoir rather than a novel, but close enough for me).

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