Before he was Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in “Star Trek,” George Takei was a curious Japanese-American boy who spent much of his early childhood in World War II internment camps.
“They Called Us Enemy,” a fresh addition to the New York Times bestsellers list this week, is Takei's memoir in the form of a graphic novel, co-written by Steven Scott and Justin Eisinger, with black-and-white illustrations by Harmony Becker.
Takei intertwines his time as an internee with his happiest childhood memories – which are often inseparable from each other – as he paints a vivid picture of what internment meant to a young boy and his family, who had lived and worked in America for many years. He also explores the questions about democracy that he was left with after his experience, which he has continued to voice into his adult life.
The story is told by Takei from a first-person perspective as he narrates his journey through internment. While the scenes illustrated in the book take place mostly in the past – with young Takei as the main character — there are also portions where the reader sees Takei speaking at a TedTalk conference and various presentations around the country in modern day.
Takei was born in in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. When Executive Order 9066 was passed by president Franklin Roosevelt, authorizing the relocation of all Japanese or Japanese-American people to internment camps, he was living in a small apartment with his parents and two younger siblings, Henry and Nancy.
He was 5 years old when authorities from the U.S. government forced his family to leave their home and possessions to travel to an Arkansas internment camp in the spring of 1942.
In his memoir, Takei recalls the journey to the Santa Anita racetrack, where he, his family and many other Japanese-Americans lived in horse stalls at the stadium for months. In the fall of the same year, his family was loaded onto a train bound for the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas. Two years later, the Takei family was again uprooted and transported to the Tule Lake camp in California, where they stayed before finally being liberated in 1945.
Takei said his memories of the trip from his California home to the barracks of Rohwer camp with are laced with excitement and wonder, stating that despite his confusion, everything on the journey was an adventure to him. He remembers the treats his mother smuggled for him and the promise of the enjoyable vacation his father told him was coming.
“I thought everyone took vacations on a train with armed sentries at both ends of each car,” Takei wrote about his younger self's impressions of internment.
“They Called us Enemy” deserves to carve out a space on the bestseller's list for weeks to come.
Takei's writing is intelligent and easy to understand, which makes the memoir a quick read. He writes with a thoughtful tone as he explains the hardships he faced alongside thousands of other families of Japanese origin.
A page-turner from the start, Takei's memoir is honest, moving and will resonate with a wide variety of audiences because of the approachable voice used throughout the book. Without placing modern politics under the spotlight, Takei managed to craft a timely narrative about race, family and what it means to be American — both in times of struggle and happiness — that will surely resonate with readers.
As a bonus, it never feels like Takei is demanding the reader glean a certain meaning from the book. Rather, he shows the reader what he means with a unique blend of historical fact and first-hand experiences. There is nothing convoluted about “They Called us Enemy,” which is refreshing for a book about a time in history that comes with many issues.
While Takei writes with a calm tone, he also infused the entire book with passion and care. Every time he speaks of his father's hardships as a “block leader” in their internment camps, or his mother's struggle to contact her extended family after the bombing of Hiroshima shortly before the Takei's family liberation, it is clear he remembers this time in his life with perfect clarity.
By the time the last page has been turned, readers will be able to picture Takei sitting down to pen the book, thoughtfully combing through his life's story to find the memories best able to truthfully portray a child's experience with internment.