Five questions for George Takei

He's gone to the stars and back via the starship Enterprise as Hikaru Sulu on the classic television show Star Trek. With an influential social media presence, he's a passionate advocate and activist for social justice and LGBTQ rights. He's the author of several books for adults. Now George Takei is adding YA author to his list of credentials with the publication of his exemplary graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy (co-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker; Top Shelf, 12 years and up), which relates five-year-old Takei and his family's internment in Japanese American "relocation centers" during World War II.

1. Why did you choose the comics format to tell your story? 

GT: Well, I've been speaking out about the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II for decades. I've made it my life's mission to ensure that this story is remembered. But to this day, when I mention my childhood imprisonment in barbed-wire camps to people that I consider educated and well-informed, they're often shocked to learn that such a thing happened in our own country, the United States. I became convinced that we had to do something to reach young people, at the time when they're absorbing information and building their ideas of the world, so this story would become a fundamental part of their understanding of America. I grew up on comic books, and I thought, what a wonderful way to dramatize the story and engage those young readers. Our hope is that when they become the next generation of voters and leaders, they will stand up for "liberty and justice for all," and make sure this never happens again.

2. This is your memoir, but it's so rich with detail and history — how did you do your research?

GT: This book is built on a foundation of my own memories as a young boy, five and six and seven years old. But at that age, I could only see a small part of the story. In the years after our imprisonment, I had many after-dinner conversations with my father about the camps, trying to understand what had happened to us. I was so fortunate to have him as a father. Many Japanese Americans of that generation didn't talk about the camps, because of trauma or an unfair burden of shame, but Daddy was willing to answer all of my questions, and he taught me so much about the camps and about our American democracy. And because he was elected block manager inside the camps, he had a very informed perspective on the community. Finally, as my co-creators — Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker — and I put this graphic memoir together, we expanded the story beyond my family to show the wider context: the prejudice and hysteria that led our government to force 120,000 of its own people into barbed-wire prison camps, and how those same forces are at work today.

3. In writing, how did you balance your happy, "normal" childhood events and experiences with the frightening and far-from-normal ones growing up in the camp?

GT: My own memories of the camps were often surprisingly warm. I was a five-year-old kid, and my parents did everything they could to protect me and my siblings from the harsh realities of our situation. Daddy said we were going on a long vacation to a place called Arkansas . . . and you know, to a young boy who has never left Los Angeles, the word "Arkansas" sounds just as magical as "Barcelona" or "Honolulu." I had never been inside a horse stable before, or seen a swamp where tree roots rose high out of the water, so for me it was often an exotic adventure. At night, when I would walk to the latrine and the guard towers would shine searchlights on me, I thought, how nice that they lit the way for me to pee. But as I grew older, I began to understand what a devastating and painful experience it was for my parents, how much danger and deprivation we were subjected to, and how these outrages made a mockery of our country's ideals of democracy and due process. So in the book, we show this experience through the eyes of adorable little five-year-old me — and Harmony does an amazing job of making me look cute as a button! — but we also pull back the curtain to show the more painful truths.

4. What's the biggest myth about internment you encounter?

GT: Many people have heard of the Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. United States, which approved President Roosevelt's unjust Executive Order 9066, concluding that our internment was constitutional. But many people do not know that this inhumane 1944 court decision, although it was vacated by lower courts several decades later, was never officially overruled by the Supreme Court until June 2018 — with a stray comment in the very same ruling that upheld Donald Trump's outrageous Muslim travel ban, Trump v. Hawaii. Have we learned nothing from the past? We must be better than this. We must demand better.

5. How do you think children today can be activists and allies? 

GT: My father taught me that our country is a people's democracy, that it is existentially dependent on us — all of us — to participate in the democratic process. He took me to the Adlai Stevenson for President campaign headquarters and showed me how I could get involved as a volunteer. I also began to use my voice to raise awareness of the issues that I cared about. Through performing, through protesting, through social media, or simply through conversations over the dinner table, we all must use our voices to help this nation live up to its bright, shining ideals.

From the August 2019 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.


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Gail Aldous

Thank you for writing this graphic novel about the Japanese Internment Camp. About eighteen years ago when my children were young, I read a picture book about this same imprisonment of our people who were of Japanese descent. I was shocked and horrified about it and thought someone needs to write a novel about this horror to let our children know how horrible our government was to it’s own children. Therefore, I’m looking forward to reading, They Called Us Enemy and hope some eighth grade teachers will read this book with their students when they cover American history.

Posted : Aug 15, 2019 01:59

Sallie Wolf

When I was about 12 years old I found a book in our little library on the Arts and Crafts created in Japanese internment centers. I was an artsy-crafty kid and I found the photos of rocks and bare wood and other found objects compelling. I was horrified to read about the circumstances that created the camps. And I have been surprised to realize that many of my adult friends were essentially ignorant about this episode in our history. Creating a graphic novel is brilliant--it will reach kids at a great age to understand this dark side of our history and will leave a lasting impact. I look forward to reading this graphic novel myself.

Posted : Aug 15, 2019 12:52


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