Menu Close

“Memories Are Powerful Things”: Exploring Post-Incarceration Trauma Through Young Adult Comics

By Yi Wang

1.     Introduction

They Called Us Enemy (2019) is a black-and-white comic book jointly created by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker. It is the winner of the Eisner Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature, and a New York Times Bestseller. As a graphic memoir, this book documents Takei’s memories of his family’s forced relocation into an incarceration camp in the 1940s and reflects on the unspeakable past by relating his childhood memories with the status quo. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, resentment towards all Japanese Americans soon bred and permeated the United States, leading President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066. Consequently, all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Western United States were forced to abandon their property and move to “incarceration camps,”1 which had often been adapted from stables and reeked of manure. They Called Us Enemy focuses on the Takei family’s experiences in two incarceration camps: the Camp Rowher camp and the Tule Lake camp. It portrays how his parents manage to provide for their three children’s life despite the obstacles and dehumanising living conditions. Told in chronological order and concerning the more recent anti-immigration sentiment, this book reveals the buried trauma of the incarceration camp, challenges the definition of loyalty and citizenship, and questions the value of and faith in American democracy.

Kiku Hughes’s Displacement (2020) touches upon the unspeakable trauma of Japanese American incarceration camps through a mixture of fact and fiction, history and memory. The focaliser, Kiku Hughes, travels through time to witness her grandmother’s life during World War II in the Tanforan, Topaz, and Tule Lake incarceration camps. Kiku, a mixed-blood teen who is half Japanese, develops a deeper understanding of her heritage culture and the lasting influence of community trauma through seeing and remembering. Throughout her displacements, she becomes increasingly aware of losing her ancestral identity: she knows little of the history of Japanese American incarceration camps, cannot read or speak Japanese, and does not celebrate Japanese traditions. Yet, as her journey continues, she re-establishes the connection with her ancestral heritage and the Japanese American community. A more nuanced understanding of the trauma arising from the generational differences also emerges: the silent and passive Issei community – the first generation to emigrate from Japan in modern times – and the more politically active and radical Nisei community – the first generation born in the USA – fight each other over ideological conflicts, but also come together because of their shared cultural roots. Though melancholic in tone, this book still glimmers with messages of power and hope: it recounts not only passive submission on the part of the internees but also the bloom of resistance. It mourns the loss of ancestral language, culture, and traditions but also sheds light on the power of remembering and telling.

Through a combination of narratology and trauma studies, this article dissects how the two comics visualise the reconstruction of the two protagonists’ identities. Although the two books explore the same historical past, they produce messages that overlap and differ in their narrative techniques and artistic styles. They both call for active political participation and community building through reference to the political status quo but present different types of trauma and ways of healing, reconciliation, and remembering. They Called Us Enemy constructs a new coherent political identity by working through memories and trauma and identifying with American democracy. In Displacement, the integrated bicultural identity that replaces the trauma of racial dissociation is created through reconnection to ethnic history and remembrance of the community trauma. The two books visualise the trauma and the healing process through the temporal or spatial switch, the interplay between the narrator’s voice and the focaliser, the characterisation and mental representation techniques such as black-and-white or multiple colour palettes, and the closure that gives rise to a multiplicity of meanings.

The article also briefly reviews comics’ educative potential and connects such discussion with the textual analysis of They Called Us Enemy and Displacement. In the past few years, education practitioners and researchers have promoted comics teaching to cultivate students’ critical visual literacy and raise socio-political issues in the classroom (Cromer and Clark; Chun; Serafini; Burger). Research into the comics reading experience also reveals that comics help fandoms shape their own identities, encourage social engagement, and promote personal development (Brown; Serantes). It is probably due to these appeals that comic books are making their way into both classrooms and curricula. For example, American-born Chinese (Yang 2006) has been taught in high schools to promote racial and critical literacy (Schieble) and even proves helpful in Special Education English classes (Gomes and Carter). Many school curriculums for English language arts instruction include Maus (Spiegelman 2003), while the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority also incorporates it in the reading list to promote multimodal literacy. However, few studies on They Called Us Enemy and Displacement discuss the educational potential of the two books despite a rich analysis of their multimodal features. Based on an analysis of multimodal narrative devices, this article also aims to encourage comics reading by illuminating the educational implications of these works.

 

2. Literature Review

The proliferation of comics exploring the lingering trauma of wars during the 1940s necessitates the application of trauma theories in combination with comics studies. Notably, Earle’s work Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War systematically rewinds trauma studies and provides an interdisciplinary framework to understand visual representations of trauma. Drawing upon trauma studies, comics studies, and literary theory, she opens a dialogue between the three fields to study the racial representation of ethnic communities recently traumatised by war, such as Jews and Vietnamese Americans.

Her framework is innovative in that she questions the universalism of the victims’ racial identity construction through “working through” and “acting out” trauma, the key concepts of the classic models. In his study on the manifestation of trauma, Freud (1961) comments on the compulsion to repeat memories, which he terms “traumatic neurosis”: the compulsive returns to traumatic memories that are incomprehensible and unutterable to the individual. He also notices the features of the repetition compulsion: the memories do not re-emerge as a whole piece but in fragments. From his perspective, such compulsion hints at the resistance of the unconscious. To elucidate the healing of psychic trauma, Freud (1979) proposes “working through,” the process during which the individual repeats the memories and articulates them by distinguishing between past and present and realising that they live with a connection to their past and future. LaCapra returns to Freud’s ideas and further categorises the representations of trauma into two kinds: “acting out” – reliving the traumatic scene that impedes identity formation – and “working through.” While exploring post-war trauma in German identity, Adorno builds on Freud’s idea of “working through” traumatic memories and elucidates that such a healing process implies neither a complete closure nor removal of the memories but an understanding of the causes of the events. After revisiting these classic models, Earle argues that to be fully restored to mental health, “one must engage with the process of ‘working through’ in order to recall and reunify memory” (40), an assumption that ignores individual differences. I side with Earle in this regard: the recovery of trauma is not exclusively and necessarily completed through the universal way of repetition of memories and “working through,” but also through other more individualistic ways such as reconnection to history and communal building.

Based on the survivor-focused model that “favors a sociocultural, non-universal view” (42), Earle further synthesises an innovative framework to analyse the representation of post-war or post-conflict trauma in racial identity construction in comics. She starts with the unique advantages of comics over other narrative forms as they convey “intensely personal narratives that are deeply involved in individual stories and experiences” (18). As she argues, comics can mimic “the feelings and experience of trauma” through “[creating] affects within the reader than can assist in comprehension of the events and experiences discussed” (43). This feature propels her to explore how comics narrative techniques such as “transition across the gutter, page bleeds, and the bubble” (46) invoke certain affects in readers and walk them through an individualistic way of combating trauma to reconstruct a more coherent racial and national identity.

Despite burgeoning research into the representation of identity issues and trauma in comics, scholars have not reached a consensus on the specific aspects to scrutinise. For example, Hattori dissects how closure, sequencing, and layering unravel the internalised racism in American Born Chinese. Yamamoto explores the visual metaphors that symbolise the establishment of friendship in response to racial discrimination. In her monograph, Earle focuses on the narrative effects of the gutter, page permeation, and bubbles that imitate the experiences of trauma. These approaches draw readers’ attention to the unique language of comics by introducing and analysing selected techniques without providing a more consistent and holistic framework that applies to heterogeneous settings.

This is where the narratological approach comes into play. Mikkonen’s work on narratology in comics powerfully states the mission of this approach: it not only helps scholars think through the features specific to the medium but also “contributes to our understanding of comics’ narrative devices, conventions, and strategies” (2), which give rise to a more holistic way of uncovering embedded messages. I would like to point out another advantage. This approach establishes a more tangible and coherent framework to refer to while scholars grapple with convoluted topics such as trauma and intersectional identity. This approach is sometimes attacked because it risks failing to interact with the ideological context by being form-centred (Fludernik 2009). This weakness, however, can be balanced with other content-focused theories, such as psychoanalysis and feminism (Nikolajeva). My study synthesises a more pluralistic and coherent model to study the representation of identity construction of traumatised communities in comics by combining form-centred narratology with content-specific trauma studies. In this way, I aim to balance the form-centred approach and the content analysis and shed light on a more pluralistic and coherent way of understanding the lingering pain of trauma.

To make sure the analysis is coherent and focused, I will look specifically into four narrative devices in the text: the temporal-spatial switch, the interplay between the narrator’s voice and the focaliser, the complementary artistic techniques that contribute to the characterisation or mental representation of the characters, and the closure. Based on the specific sociohistorical context of each text, the analysis of the effects of these narrative devices is combined with trauma studies to reveal how these devices represent and visualise the tensions and conflicts in the character’s identity construction. Considering that the selected texts fall under the young adult comics category and that “narrative theory facilitates an investigation of strategies that enable children’s writers to circumvent the inevitable cognitive gap” (Nikoklajeva 166), this study also takes “the hidden adult” – a term proposed by Perry Nodelman to discuss the influence of adult ideology that is often disguised as the narrator’s voice – into account and reveals how the comic creators deal with “the hidden adult” to convey messages.

Despite the rising recognition of comics’ value, academics have not agreed on the term to describe the genre. Besides “comics,” many other words help refine the category. For longer pieces of comics, “comic strips,” “graphic novel,” and “graphic fiction” are also employed. “Graphic memoir” and “graphic non-fiction” are often seen when the work is autobiographical. For example, Charles Hatfield and many other scholars define Maus as a “graphic novel,” the term for any “book-length comics narrative” (4). American Born Chinese is also more often referred to as a “graphic novel” rather than “comics” (Stratman; Sarigianides; Pinti; Smith; Wang; Boatright). In their articles on March, Stein uses “graphic nonfiction,” whereas Schmid adopts the term “graphic memoir.” Gwen Athene Tarbox notices the blended use of terms in comics scholarship and argues that “comics” emphasise the medium per se while others emphasise the “novel” or the “narrative” (15). To place emphasis on the medium and make the argument more consistent, I will be using the term “comics” for the most part. Still, I will also adopt other terms such as “graphic novel,” “graphic memoir,” “graphic fiction,” and “graphic nonfiction” when necessary.

 

3. Wrestling with Tensions in Identity: Memories, Trauma, and Racial Dissociation

The trauma in Takei’s and Kiku’s identities is visualised through the switch between different temporal levels and other narrative devices to reveal the unique pain of each individual. In They Called Us Enemy, the temporal switch is conflated with the multiple narrative perspectives to reveal the unreliability of memories. The thread of Takei’s life from early childhood to adulthood stitches flashbacks of the real-world TedxKyoto speech delivered by George Takei in June 2014. Entitled “Why I Love a Country that Once Betrayed Me,” these flashbacks connect to the chronological narrative of Takei’s growth in the 1940s thematically. Another level of the temporal structure is Takei’s interview in 2017 at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, which was held on the Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans. Similar to the Ted Talk, the interview also connects to the main storyline – Takei’s childhood memories – in a thematic rather than chronological way.

Through the interplay of the three temporal levels, an authoritative adult voice that provides retrospective reflections supplements the experiences in the incarceration camp.  Though making weighty messages more explicit and complex, this voice destabilises the narrative perspective by contradicting the young focaliser’s cognitive level. For example, the panels about the journey to the concentration camp, though focalised through the young Takei’s perspective, produce conflicting messages through the unstable narrative voice. A panel of Takei’s TedxKyoto speech appears between the scenes of the family lining up to board the train and silently seated on the train. Through this panel, the narrator’s voice transits to the 77-year-old Takei on stage, who recounts how the stationed guards treated them “as if [they were] criminals” (Takei 37), with the caption “TedxKyoto” in the background (see fig. 1). The next panel, however, shows that the young Takei keeps his mouth wide open with stars in his eyes, putting on an exciting look as his father tells him that they are going on vacation. In the last scene on the train, the narrator’s voice switches back to the young Takei, with the caption that “I thought everyone took vacation on a train with armed sentries at both ends of each car” (39) situated at the bottom (see fig. 2). Through switching between different temporal levels, the narrator’s voice wavers between the mature, authoritative adult voice and the innocent childish perspective. The inconsistency between the narrator’s voice and the young focaliser reveals the unreliability of childhood memories, indicating the conflicts and ambivalence that Takei feels from within, which foreshadows the representation of the escalating conflicts in his political identity.

Old Takei on stage.
Figure 1. Old Takei on stage.
The young Takei.
Figure 2. The young Takei.

The conflicts in his political identity are further revealed through the conflicts between the mental representation of the focaliser and the image. The narrator’s explanation and his facial expressions demonstrate Takei’s psyche. His mental representation, however, contradicts the disheartening nature of the events with the cheerful and innocent child’s perspective. Most of his childhood memories seem warm as the narrator’s voice always describes how interesting events are: the exciting snowball fight in the incarceration camp, the Christmas gathering with Santa Claus and gifts, and the games with his friends on the playground. Despite the warmth, trauma is still embedded into young Takei’s mind, the representation of which emerges through the closing reading of the image. For example, while playing “war” with older boys, they fight over who can pretend to be American rather than Japanese and only celebrate America’s victory (82), which shows that they have already developed an antipathy towards their Japanese ancestry and identify with Americans more (see fig. 3). As Takei grows older, racial discrimination continues to fester the wound and reminds him of the unspeakable past: in elementary school, his fourth-grade teacher always finds fault with him and even calls him “that little Jap boy” (171) behind his back. In response to the derogatory epithet, Takei feels that “that painful word [tears] open a wound filled with shame” (171) and believes that it “[has] something to do with our time in camp” (172). However, in the next few panels, Takei sings the American national anthem against the fluttering American national flag in the background, pledging his allegiance to American ideals with a determined and laser-focused look. The narrative voice that reveals his inner shame and trauma conflicts with this image and translates the ambivalence of his political identity onto the page.

Children playing “war” at the incarceration camp.
Figure 3. Children playing “war” at the incarceration camp.

The conflicts in Takei’s political identity peak near the end of the chronological narrative through the young adult perspective when he revisits and reinterprets his unreliable childhood memories. In the first few chapters, the sociopolitical context of the incarceration camp permeates into their family’s story, which sets the scene for the following plot. The Takei family is forced to move to the Tule Lake camp after they both become “No-Nos.”  The Tule Lake camp was a heavily militarised facility with 18,000 internees, half children. “No-Nos” is a label for those who answered “no” to the two questions in the loyalty questionnaires.2

The loyalty questionnaire is distributed in the incarceration camps to adults to determine their loyalty, and the false assumptions underlying these questions are further explained through the adult narrative voice. Below the narrative caption is a group of people frowning behind the barbed-wire fences, with a flag of the Imperial Japanese Army in the background to show their fear and concern for the dilemma. Whatever their answer might be, wrongful imprisonment is justified, as the questions presume that all internees have racial loyalty to the emperor of a country that some of them might have never set foot in and acquiesce that the government has the right to call them enemies and lock them up in the Tule Lake camp (see fig. 4). Rendered through the adult narrator’s voice, the severe and authoritative adult voice is beyond the cognitive level of the young focaliser who is only five years old at that time. Still, the “No-Nos” on his parents’ questionnaires leave indelible marks in his mind and become a part of his memory that he keeps rewinding and interpreting after growing up.

The “No-Nos”
Figure 4. The “No-Nos”

The repetition of his traumatic memories represents what Freud calls “traumatic neurosis,” which makes simple healing seem impossible, as the flashbacks often cause a rupture between past and present. In They Called Us Enemy, the repetition compulsion is manifested as Takei keeps remembering flashbacks of the childhood experiences of racial discrimination in his teenage years. For example, when confronting the lack of historical accounts about the incarceration of Japanese Americans as a teenager, Takei is reminded of the anti-Japanese protests and propaganda banners with words such as “JAPS KEEP MOVING THIS IS A WHITE MAN’S NEIGHBOURHOOD” and “SLAP THAT JAP” (173). These scenes appear in the background of the panel; in the foreground is Takei’s face, frowning and stern (see fig. 5). When aligned with his mental representation in this panel, the meaning moves beyond simple repetition and rupture. The captions illuminate his psyche: “As I studied civics and government in school, I came to see the incarceration 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” (173). While reflecting on the hatred of the fourth-grade teacher towards him, Takei also repeats the scene with altered captions: “as I got older, I stopped to think: what made Mrs. Rugen hate me so? Maybe she’d had a husband in the pacific theater or a son…and I looked like the people who fought her family member. Despite the fact that we were Americans, we were still seen as the enemy” (174). Takei’s repetition of the memory is paired with understanding and reconciliation not only as an individual but also on an institutional and group level. In this sense, the conflicts in his political identity escalate and are eventually resolved through evolving his interpretations of the repeated traumatic memories. The second section reveals that reconciliation denotes not simple healing but a turn towards the external communal building to reinvent his identity.

Takei’s memory of the anti-Japanese protests.
Figure 5. Takei’s memory of the anti-Japanese protests.

The colour scheme also complements the trauma and tone done the racial narrative. The black-and-white colour palette evokes a sense of melancholia and bleakness, which supplements the tone of the verbal narrative and imitates the feelings of trauma. Through this approach, the differences between races are also marginalised: neither the Japanese nor the white American faces are coloured, and readers can only identify their race through the distinct facial features and the narrator’s descriptions. The causes of the conflicts in Takei’s identity are thus less directed toward the racial discourse and more toward the weaknesses and dysfunction of the political system and government. Despite these merits, the colour scheme may give rise to confusion as the multiple temporal switches are drawn in an indiscriminate art style. As Elizabeth Bush argues in her book review, “bland black and white artwork unfortunately does little to tie together the story’s many worthwhile fragments” (190). This criticism, however, undervalues the effects that such colour palettes may invoke in the readers. Through the deliberate choice of colour palette, readers must adopt more sophisticated reading strategies such as the close reading of the interplay between verbal narrative, image, and the art style to decipher the message in the book and empathise with the ambivalence and unspeakable pain and that Takei feels from within.

By contrast, the temporal switch in Displacement works with the spatial switch to reveal the trauma in Kiku’s identity. The time travel is visualised through Kiku’s transportation between different spaces, which echoes the transgenerational trauma that leads to racial dissociation in her identity. Four displacements take place throughout the book. The first one transports her from a mall in San Francisco – where her grandparents used to live – to a theatre where her grandma Ernestina, who was still a teenager then, plays the violin on stage. The second one takes her to a queue in a dislocation camp, where she falls over and is wounded. The third one is the longest, lasting about six months, during which she is moved from the Tanforan incarceration camps to the Topaz and Tule Lake incarceration camps. In the last displacement, she travels back in time with her mother and reviews her grandmother’s life journey to reconnect with her family history. Interposed with the four displacements are her dialogues with her mother, which demonstrate how they explore their inner melancholia incurred by racial dissociation and turn to political activism in response to the trauma. The displacement storyline displays the past, whereas the dialogues demonstrate the lasting impact of the loss of the past on the present. Through Kiku’s engagement with multiple places, the representation of the self and understanding of her identity are also enriched and gradually deepened.

When transported between different places, the trauma of racial dissociation is further accentuated through characterisation techniques such as the character’s relation to the location and other characters. In their research on the social and psychological lives of Asian American young adults, David Eng and Shinhee Han identify two distinct psychic mechanisms that these students undergo because of loss and grief: “racial melancholia” and “racial dissociation” (1). “Racial melancholia” refers to individuals’ impulse to objectify themselves purely through social meanings without acknowledging their agency, whereas “racial dissociation” refers to racial loss, the obscuring and erasure of social origins and racial memories. Through defining her relation to different places and other characters, Kiku reveals her racial dissociation from her Japanese ancestry, a transgenerational trauma inherited from her mother. For example, while visiting Japantown in San Francisco, Kiku and her mother fail to read the addresses in Japanese. In the background are many shop signs written in Japanese, with Kiku’s bewildered face foregrounded in the centre, echoed by the caption, “I felt out of place here, tailing behind Mom as we looked for evidence of any real connection to the neighborhood” (Hughes 8). The consistency between the verbal and visual narratives accentuates Kiku’s loss of connection to her Japanese ancestry and the confusion she feels from within. After being transported to the displacement camps, she again realises how disconnected from her ancestral history she is: she knows nothing about the place and cannot predict the ensuing events as a person from the future who “is supposed to know what’s going to happen” (88). Her failure to recognise her grandmother also reaffirms her dissociation from her family history and heritage culture: in the first displacement, she only recognises her grandmother after hearing her name and does not even know that her grandmother had been a violinist; in the next two displacements, she makes friends with other teenagers but stays alienated from her grandmother, even though they are neighbours. It is only in the fourth displacement that she comes to understand her: feelings of shame impel her grandmother to conceal her incarceration history from her children and avoid speaking Japanese at home. It is the lingering fear of appearing too Japanese that discourages the passing on of the Japanese language and culture. By establishing connections to multiple places and her grandmother, Kiku explores the root of her racial dissociation and reconnects to the past to invent her new identity.

Unlike They Called Us Enemy, Displacement employs a diverse colour scheme that contributes to the mental representation of the focaliser. Kiku’s conversations with her mother feature vibrant and warm background colours, such as light blue, beige, light green, and light yellow, to set a tranquil and peaceful tone that conveys the healing power of reconnecting to the family history and unuttered past. The first three displacements, however, appear in dark colour palettes: the first displacement is presented against a blackish-green background, with only close-ups of her grandmother’s violin performance against the red curtains (see fig. 6); the second displacement is presented against a dark khaki background, which reflects the dismay and hopelessness of the crowd; the third displacement is presented against a khaki, dark brown, and dark purple background, which not only mirrors the frustration and desperation of the characters but also resonates the temporal development, as the dark purple often sets the tone for events happening at night. Unlike the three displacements, the last one is presented against warm background colours like the dialogue storyline (see fig. 7), implying the healing and recuperating power of connecting to history. The colour palette, in general, elucidates the story structure and complements the psychic representations of the characters.

The dark colour palette of <em>Displacement</em>.
Figure 6. The dark colour palette of Displacement.
Warm colours at the end of <em>Displacement</em>.
Figure 7. Warm colours at the end of Displacement.

In conclusion, They Called Us Enemy and Displacement both explore the lingering pain of the incarceration history through the interplay between the temporal-spatial switch, the narrator’s voice and the focaliser, and characterisation and mental techniques to unravel different types of trauma manifested in their identity. By combining the temporal switch with the narrative voice and using the black-and-white colour palette, They Called Us Enemy presents Takei’s traumatic memories and reveals his mixed feelings towards his political allegiance and American democracy. Displacement reflects on the confusion and melancholia invoked by racial dissociation – the lingering pain of community trauma – through the temporal-spatial switch and representation of the focaliser’s relation to the location and her grandmother, assisted by the transition of colour schemes in different storylines. Despite these differences, they both share a similar resolution pattern concerning the reinvention of their identity: the turn towards the reconstruction of memories, political activism, and communal building. Their path towards the resolution, however, distinguishes due to different types of trauma.

 

4. Reinventing the Identity: Reconstruction of Memories, Political Activism, and Communal Building

Though both culminate with a closure that overcomes the trauma in identity, They Called Us Enemy and Displacement follow different paths towards their denouements. For Takei, a Nisei who personally experiences the incarceration history and identifies with American democracy, the resolution reaches through the working-through and reunification of memories. As discussed above, the adult narrator’s voice often articulates, explains, and provides reflections on past events with reference to the political status quo. The recurring adult narrator’s voice attests to Takei’s efforts to work through: he tries to distinguish and make connections between past and present through the unification of memories, thus forming a more coherent political identity, which helps him locate himself when participating in politics.

For Kiku, the path features the discovery of, connection with, and remembering of the erased history. Despite not having witnessed the traumatic events herself, she still feels the rupture and confusion in her identity incurred by the lingering effects of community trauma. Therefore, her healing process is not about the repetition of memories but about creation and discovery. The creation and discovery of the concealed history come together through the interplay between dialogues with her mother and the four displacements. Her reconnection to her family history and the community is represented through visual metaphors such as trinkets (see fig. 8). For example, during the third displacement, Kiku receives a carving with her name etched on it from her neighbour Mr. Matsuzawa, whom she never speaks to during the incarceration. It reminds her of her grandmother’s violin figure, with her grandmother’s name on it, tucked away in her family’s living room. As she makes this connection, Mr. Matsuzawa heads towards her grandma’s house, revealing him as the giver of the long-cherished violin figure. In the panel where she gazes at her carving, the caption clearly states her feelings of reconnection: “I felt an intense connection to my grandmother at that moment. We were linked through this community, and I held the proof in my hand” (Hughes 128). The reconnection also makes her increasingly aware of the power of remembering in healing the community trauma. In the panels where the internees face the barbed-wire fences with stern, disappointed, and confused looks, and with white American soldiers standing behind them, the captions in the text box attest to what she feels from within: “but when a community comes together to demand more, when we do not let trauma stay obscured but bring it up to the surface and remember it together – we can make sure it is not repeated” (202). The monologue, therefore, reveals her determination to remember the obscured racial history.

The Carvings.
Figure 8. The Carvings.

As stated above, the resolution patterns of identity problems for Takei and Kiku overlap with a similar structure: the closure that manifests the turn towards political activism and communal building. Putting together Takei’s personal exhibitions, TV shows, Broadway play, and Twitter profile page that articulate the Japanese American incarceration history, the real-life effects emerge: internally, Takei restores his faith in American participatory democracy to address social causes and become a social activist. Externally, he maximises his influence, supports the proposal for a restitution payment by President Regan with the Nikkei community, and promotes the building of a more inclusive society. By refusing to linger on the past and becoming actively involved in protesting Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim countries, Takei pledges his allegiance to the “shining ideals” of American democracy and calls for a more diverse and inclusive community. Yet, the optimism is not blind but imbued with an admonition: at the end of the book is a full-page panel that displays a majestic monument in memory of the deceased in the incarceration camp (see fig. 9). In the previous panel, Takei stands in front of the monument with his friends, with a text box of President Barack Obama’s quotes hanging above them.3 Through its interplay with the last full-page panel without words, a takeaway message is accentuated: history should be remembered through articulation and active participation in the present, at the individual and societal levels, woefully but also looking up towards a more unifying future.

The Monument in the Closure of <em>They Called Us Enemy</em>.
Figure 9. The Monument in the Closure of They Called Us Enemy.

Similarly, Displacement also closes with Kiku’s active participation in politics. Through making a connection to the covered history of incarceration, Kiku strengthens her faith in American democracy and begins to understand the status quo: she reads about Japanese American activists who devoted their lives to speaking for the traumatised community, realises that she “[has] the privilege of being able to protest without fear for [her] life” (272), and feels that she, therefore, has a duty to do so. While reflecting on Trump’s immigration policies, she decides to show her support for the Latinx and Muslim communities with her mother through protests. Near the end of the book, captions explaining the resolution of her identity problems through political activism and reconnection to and remembering of history appear between the panels where she stands among the crowd, protesting with a protest board in her hand, surrounded by fog (see fig. 10).

Scene of the protest, with the ending caption “Memories are powerful things.”
Figure 10. Scene of the protest, with the ending caption “Memories are powerful things.”

Here, the mental representation techniques, such as the visual metaphor – the fog – echo the ambivalence that Kiku feels from within. The dissipation of the fog in the background, however, foreshadows the resolution in the closure. The closure employs characterisation techniques such as the collage of personal materials. Appended to the ending are three real photos of her grandmother Ernestina, who always holds a violin in her hand. On the last page, a picture of the author Kiku and her mother is presented in the centre: they stand in front of the Topaz Museum, which was built in memory of the Japanese American incarceration history (see fig. 11). An American national flag protrudes from the porch near the entrance, with Kiku and her mother standing beneath it with a smile. Through the collage of real-life materials, the takeaway message is revealed: only through connecting to and understanding the past can one truly comprehend the present and what it means to be a community member. Memories only become powerful when people remember them and actively participate in the present.

The photo of Kiku and her mother.
Figure 11. The photo of Kiku and her mother.

 

 5. Conclusion

By combining the narratological approach in comics with trauma studies, this study unravels how the books present the reinvention of identity under the lingering pain of incarceration trauma in different ways. Takei and Kiku, despite their common identity as Japanese Americans and their similar turn towards political activism and communal building, follow different paths towards reconciliation: for Takei, a Nisei who has personal experience of the incarceration history, the path entails recuperation from the trauma through working through the memories; for Kiku, a third-generation Japanese American, also half-Japanese, this path means the discovery of the buried history and connection with the past through remembering. These findings echo Nikolajeva’s call for combining narratology with other theories to “disclose the mutual dependence of form and content” and reaffirm her assumption that by using this approach as a springboard, “we can proceed to ask how exactly narrative features work as bearers of psychological elements, social values, and ideology” (176).

This study also reveals how narratology helps dissect how comic creators deal with the tensions between the adult voice and the child perspective. Through the interplay of multiple narrative perspectives, They Called Us Enemy destabilises the narrative to convey the ambivalence the character feels from within and invites the reader to co-construct multiple meanings by interpreting the conflicts between the narrator’s voice and the focaliser. The narrator of Displacement, however, consistently corresponds to the focaliser’s cognitive level, which enhances the narrative. Through different narrative devices, the two books produce effects that either reinforce and clarify the idea they try to convey or give rise to multiple meanings. In this way, readers are plunged into the characters’ intricate inner worlds and invited to understand the convoluted psyche of the community.

The analysis also supports Gwen Tarbox’s argument that “the comics medium is an aesthetically and pedagogically valid form of expression” (9). By rendering the narrative through multiple narrative forms, comics invite readers to decipher and interpret the meanings in a way that text-only narratives fail to achieve. Comics can bypass written and spoken language entirely to present the character’s psyche through colour, line style, facial expressions, and visual metaphor, which helps conceal and counterbalance the voice of “the hidden adult,” often characterised by over-didacticism. Still, comics share many things with text-based narratives, particularly verbal techniques such as direct speech and multiple tenses. These merits contribute to comics’ power to “break through the wall which separates all artists from their audience” (McCloud 196) and enhance the educational potential of comics.

Comics such as They Called Us Enemy and Displacement also help encourage students’ emotional engagement with the fictive characters and illuminate the path towards engagement with the real world. Like any other narrative form, comics require readers to engage mentally and emotionally to comprehend their message. With visual techniques such as visual metaphor, colours, visual monologues, and line styles, these comics represent the characters’ emotions and psyche, thus facilitating mind-reading and inviting the reader’s emotional responses, such as empathy and other forms of affective engagement. The visual effects of these techniques affirm comics’ power as a form of multimedia text to “offer excellent opportunities for mind-reading skills to readers without accomplished verbal literacy, but certainly also contribute to the development of empathy in any reader” (Nikolajeva 289). Yet, successful mind-reading in comics does not come naturally and requires educators to promote multimodal literacy among their students. As a communication medium, comics can only be understood when readers “understand the forms that communication can take” (McCloud 198). As Cohn suggests, the smooth decoding of the visual language requires exposure to and practice with relevant cultural codes and the graphic system. Educators can use the narratological approach as a starting point to initiate discussion and combine it with thematic and content analysis to help students understand the form and social-political context, as exemplified in the analysis.

With understanding comes participation in the real world. Research on comics reading suggests that the reading process is “latently social on a number of different levels,” and that fans “often use the texts as a bridge to social contact” (Brown 128); this, in turn, empowers groups to create collectivities to challenge traditions. Routhbauer questions the metaphor of reading as merely an escape and argues that readers can also read “less for escape from than for engagement with the worlds in which they live” (65). This attests to comics’ power in encouraging readers to “increase social participation in larger communities” (Serantes 4), as well as contributing to their identity development by helping them “find in it insights related to themselves, their lives, and their problems” (Howard 53). Reflecting on comics readers’ participation in the political agenda, Tilly reveals the participatory culture originating from comics reading that supports civic engagement. In this sense, comics not only support readers on the individual level of identity development but also on a societal level that helps them build communities and become involved in civic activities. When aligning such potential with a detailed examination of the two books, their educational and pedagogical implications become evident. They encourage readers to delve deep into the traumatised community’s lived experiences, understand their psyche and the difficulties and challenges they have gone through, and call for a more unified future through communal building and civic participation.

Together let us imagine a better version of humanity.

 

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Critical Models: Intervention and Catchwords. Translated by Henry Pickford, Columbia University Press, 1998.

Boatright, Michael. “Graphic Journeys: Graphic Novels’ Representations of Immigrant Experiences.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 53, no. 6, 2010, pp. 468-476.

Brown, Jeffrey. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Burger, Alissa, Editor. Teaching Graphic Novels in the English Classroom: Pedagogical Possibilities of Multimodal Literacy Engagement. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Bush, Elizabeth. “They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (review).” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, vol. 73, no. 4, 2019, pp. 190.

Chun, Christian. “Critical Literacies and Graphic Novels for English-Language Learners: Teaching Maus.” Maus. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 53, no. 2, 2009, pp. 144-53.

Cohn, Neil. Who Understands Comics?: Questioning the Universality of Visual Language Comprehension. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Cromer, Michael, and Penney Clark. “Getting Graphic with the Past: Graphic Novels and the Teaching of History.” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 35, no. 4, 2007, pp. 574-91.

Earle, Harriet E. H. Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

Eng, David L., and Shinhee Han. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. Duke University Press, 2019.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey, W. W. Norton & Company, 1961.

Freud, Sigmund. On Psychopathology: Inhibition, Symptoms and Anxiety, and Other Works. Translated by James Strachey, Harmondsworth, 1979.

Gomes, Cheryl, and James Bucky Carter. “Navigating Through Social Norms, Negotiating Place: How American Born Chinese Motivates Struggling Learners.” English Journal, vol. 100, no. 2, 2010, pp. 68-76.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Hattori, Tomo. “The Monkey and the Colonoscopy Machine: On the Destruction of Racism and Stereotype in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Level Up.” Growing Up Asian American in Young Adult Fiction, edited by Ymitri Mathison, University Press of Mississippi, 2018, pp. 23-40.

Howard, Vivian. “The Importance of Pleasure Reading in the Lives of Young Teens: Self-Identification, Self-Construction and Self-Awareness.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, vol. 43, no. 1, 2011, pp. 46-55.

Hughes, Kiku. Displacement. First Second, 2020.

LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. John Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Mikkonen, Kai. The Narratology of Comic Art. Routledge, 2017.

Monika Fludernik. An Introduction to Narratology. Routledge, 2009.

Nikolajeva, Maria. “Narrative Theory and Children’s Literature.” International Companion Encyclopedia of Children Literature, edited by Peter Hunt, Routledge, 2004, pp. 166-78.

Nodelman, Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Pinti, Daniel. “Theology and Identity in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.” Literature & Theology, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 233-47.

Power of Words Handbook: A Guide to Language About Japanese Americans in World War Ⅱ. Japanese American Citizens League, 2010, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e8e0d3e848b7a506128dddf/t/5ffc861741448928cd131066/1610384921163/POW-Handbook-Rev2020-V4.pdf.

Routhbauer, Paulette. Finding and Creating Possibility: Reading in the Lives of Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Young Women. 2004. University of Western Ontario, PhD dissertation. http://works.bepress.com/paulette_rothbauer/17/

Sarigianides, Sophia Tatiana. “Coerced Loss and Ambivalent Preservation: Racial Melancholia in American Born Chinese.” Educational Theory, vol. 67, no. 1, 2017, pp. 37-49.

Schieble, Melissa. “Reading Images in American Born Chinese Through Critical Visual Literacy.” English Journal, vol. 103, no. 5, 2014, pp. 47-52.

Schmid, Johannes C. P. “Graphic Nonviolence: Framing ‘Good Trouble’ in John Lewis’ March.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 2018, pp. 1-18.

Serafini, Frank. Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy. Teachers College Press, 2014.

Serantes, Lucia Cedeira. Young People, Comics and Reading: Exploring a Complex Reading Experience. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Smith, Philip. “Postmodern Chinoiserie in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.” Literature Compass, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-14.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: The Complete Tales. Penguin Books, 2003.

Stein, Daniel. “Lessons in Graphic Nonfiction: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March Trilogy and Civil Rights Pedagogy.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 55, no. 3, 2021, pp. 620-56.

Stratman, Jacod. “‘How Good It Is to Be a Monkey’: Conversion and Spiritual Formation in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.” Christianity & Literature, vol. 65, no. 4, 2016, pp. 490-507.

Takei, George, et al. They Called Us Enemy. Top Shelf Publishing, 2019.

Tarbox, Gwen. Children’s and Young Adult Comics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Tilley, Carol L. “Comics: A Once-Missed Opportunity.” Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, vol. 4, 2014, https://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2014/05/comics-a-once-missed-opportunity/ Accessed 28 August 2022.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. First Second, 2006.

 

Footnotes

  1. Other terms, including “relocation centre” and “assembly centre,” are also often adopted to describe the incarceration camps. However, these euphemistic terms obscure the crude living conditions and sufferings experienced by the victims. The terms recommended by Densho and the Japanese American Citizens League are “American concentration camp, ” “incarceration camp, ” or “illegal detention centre” (11). The term “incarceration camps” is adopted throughout the passage to clarify the seriousness of this event.[]
  2. The two questions are: “No. 27. Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?; No. 28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any foreign government, power, or organization?” (Takei 114).[]
  3. “…that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress…but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past” (Takei 203).[]

Related Articles