Graphic Prose Reflections of a Dark Chapter in America

By Ryan Woodward
Library & Education Associate

This past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed “the Secretary of War…to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” We more commonly know this as the action of removing Japanese-Americans and those with Japanese ancestry from their homes on the west coast of the United States and interning them in camps set up in isolated areas throughout the country.

Over the past few years, much attention has been brought to surveys conducted that attempt to gauge Americans’ understanding of the Holocaust and knowledge of history. Similarly, it is interesting and revealing to investigate what others know about the executive order and the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The encouraging news is that most are aware of the internment and understand it to be a wrong and shameful part of our history. That this is the general extent of knowledge about it, however, suggests there is room for improvement. 

Five years ago, while pursuing my Master of Library and Information Science degree at the University of Pittsburgh, I was selected for a year-long internship with Duquesne University’s Gumberg Library. Fortunately for me, the library had been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant to create reading groups and programming around Julie Otsuka’s 2002 historical fiction novel, When the Emperor Was Divine. In between learning catalog systems and getting acquainted with reference desk best practices, I spent a good deal of time updating research guides on Japanese-American internment, organizing public programs, and folding hundreds of origami cranes. Another standout project was researching and selecting photos, specifically those of Dorothea Lange documenting the internment experience, for a small exhibit in the library. What remains with me about organizing that exhibit is the effectiveness of multimodal approaches in education and programming.  

If the end goal is for more people to have a greater understanding of this history, we should consider what material is available to them and how that material is being delivered. I have become a fan of graphic novels in recent years and increasingly appreciate their value in education. As we head into Will Eisner Week and celebrate comic books and graphic novels, I wanted to highlight some of my favorite works on this topic. Graphic novels are not necessarily better than standard books, but may be the best option for some readers. This short list is certainly not exhaustive, not even for graphic memoirs, but features some works – old and new – that can help anyone get started in learning more about Japanese-American internment during World War II. 

Citizen 13660
by Miné Okubo (1946, revised 2014)
ISBN-13: 978-0295993546

At age 19, California artist Miné Okubo was forced from her home along with her brother, first to Tanforan Assembly Center and later to the Central Utah War Relocation Center, commonly known as Topaz. Though primarily a painter, Okubo documented life in these camps through drawings, most of which feature herself as a character looking on at every hardship and indignity taking place. She taught art classes while at Topaz and an illustration of hers, noticed by a publisher, led to her early release to begin work as an illustrator. Nearly 200 of her illustrations were used to create this book, first published in 1946, decades before graphic memoirs became a popular genre in publishing.   

They Called Us Enemy
by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (2019) 
ISBN: ‎ 978-1603094504

Much like Miné Okubo, the Takei family was first relocated to converted horse stables of Santa Anita Park in California before being sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center Arkansas. They Called Us Enemy documents the would-be television and social media star’s experiences as a child in these camps, as well the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, where the family last lived in internment. The history and personal experiences are matched with political overtones in the authors’ timeless discussions of democracy and what it means to be an American. Where Citizen 13660 reads like a book of photographs documenting daily scenes, They Called Us Enemy offers a more emotional perspective as those same scenes are viewed and processed through the lens of a young boy. 

by Kiku Hughes (2020)
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1250193537

Displacement is the story of Kiku, a girl in contemporary times who finds herself displaced to the  internment camps of Tanforan and Topaz (the same as Citizen 13660) in which her late grandmother lived during World War II. Kiku is able to see her grandmother as a young woman and learn more about the camps than she was ever taught in history classes. While the time travel element might appeal to some science fiction fans, the historical content is just as effective as is found in the other two books. The art in all three books is outstanding, but the full use of color in Displacement adds visual and emotional layers for the reader. Where They Called Us Enemy delves into some ethical questions about freedom and democracy, Displacement becomes more introspective, as Kiku – as well as the readers – can finally begin to understand complex family dynamics and interpersonal relationships based on what she has learned about the past.

While many Americans know these camps existed and would agree that they were immoral and harmful, isn’t there more to learn? The books mentioned here answer questions such as.’What was so harmful? How long did these camps exist? What did internees do all day? Who were the Nisei and who were the No-No Boys?’ and provide a great start for anyone wanting to research further. The recommended reading age for these works is typically 12-18 years (grade levels 7-12). This seems appropriate, although I think most adults would benefit from reading any or all of these titles. It should be restated, while on the topic, that not all graphic novels are suitable for children, and conversely, many children’s books can effectively serve as educational and enjoyable reading material for adults. 

For our Pittsburgh-area audience, all books profiled here are available through the Allegheny County Library Association’s e-iNetwork, of which all Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches are members. They Called Us Enemy and Displacement are additionally available in digital versions. Visit the link to see where these books are located or to place a hold and have them sent to your local branch.

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