Emotional but Ineffective: A Brief Review of They Called Us Enemy

They Called Us Enemy is a graphic novel memoir by George Takei, co-written by Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, and illustrated by Harmony Becker.

Published in July of 2019, the memoir is centered largely around Mr Takei’s childhood years in the Camp Rohwer and Tule Lake internment camps and the different ways that trauma impacted him, both at the time and in the years following. It’s a personal, heart-wrenching story about a family illegally imprisoned by a government that viewed their humanity as an acceptable sacrifice.

And I do not like it.

That’s not to say I think it’s bad. The art is decent, and while the narration can feel awkward at times the writing is, as a whole, fairly strong. It’s a very emotional story, that utilizes its juxtapositions to great effect: there’s something uniquely heart-breaking about the relative normalcy of Mr Takei’s childhood in Camp Rohwer, about how for all the injustice of Tule Lake there was still a sense of safety behind its fence. The fact that anyone can go through that and come out the other side still believing that the US is a country worth defending, a democracy worth trying to uphold – particularly with the state it was in the year of its release – is admirable.

The big issue, for me, is that the graphic novel doesn’t truly seem willing to engage with the political side of the circumstances. One might argue that’s because it’s a memoir, and not a political statement, which would be a fair point if the existence of internment camps wasn’t a damning political statement of its own. It sort of acknowledges that there are flaws with a system that would allow even the idea of internment camps any serious consideration, but is quick to reassure readers that America’s democracy is still Very Good, even if we make a few goofs here and there.

There is something disingenuous about insisting upon the greatness of American democracy while failing to honestly address the failings that lead to its greatest crimes. The internment camps of World War 2 were a violation of every ideal America claims to hold, a violation that has been built into the very foundations of our country, that lives on not only in the camps along our southern border but in our system of policing and the prisons we guard so jealously. American democracy is built on a legacy of oppression targeted at the most vulnerable among us; it’s not enough to remind us of our crimes. If we fail to openly and honestly acknowledge the truth of them, we deny our country’s obligation to do better, and ultimately end up failing to protect those who need it most.

hard for something to come back when it’s never been gone

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