We Are Not Strangers Review

By | Tuesday, October 10, 2023 Leave a Comment
I suspect a large percentage of the American population has not yet learned about how their own government incarcerated anyone of Japanese descent -- regardless of where they themselves were actually born -- in the time immediately after the bombing of Peral Harbor. George Takai's They Called Us Enemy from 2019 is perhaps the most widely known/circulated graphic novel on the subject, but it's the most widely known/circulated in large part because there's almost no other competition. There is frighteningly little acknowledgement of what was done to Japanese-Americans at that time.

Fortunately, that's starting to change (albeit slowly) and the latest graphic novel on the subject is Josh Tuininga's We Are Not Strangers. While Tuininga comes at the story from a very personal perspective as Takai did, his view is a little more removed. He himself was not incarcerated the way Takai was, but his grandfather was directly involved in helping those who were. In many of the instances of discussing how the government rounded up anyone who seemed vaguely Japanese, the focus is almost entirely on what went on in the concentration camps themselves. What's spoken about less often, or certainly afforded less attention, is what happened with all their stuff while they were in camps. Basically, it was all given to other people so that once the camps were eventually closed, the former inmates had literally nothing to go back to.

SO in Tuininga's story, his grandfather saw what was happening and, recognizing that it was astonishingly similar to what the Nazis began doing to Jews a few years earlier, he went about working with his Japanese friend Sam to be set up with Power of Attorney rights over Sam's property. They were able to get all the paperwork formalized before Sam was imprisoned, which meant that Tuininga's grandfather could then take care of the propety in Sam's absence ensuring that Sam and his family would have a home to return to if/whenever they were released. He evidently helped out many other families in the same way, and acted as a landlord renting their houses out for years until the government finally released all those they wrongfully held.

What's intriguing about the book is that we, the audience, don't really find out what Tuininga's grandfather is doing until quite late in the book. Much of the first three-quarters of the book is spent showcasing the life Tuininga's grandfather built for himself and his family after emigrating from Spain, and providing social context of how/when/where average people started seeing sentiment turn against Japan and those of Asian descent. This follows Tuininga's grandfather's whole approach, which largely consisted of doing the hard work and simply not talking about it. It's clear some of that was from concern about reprisals, but I suspect there is some measure of humility there as well. Partiucularly since Tuininga himself never learned of any of this until after his grandfather's death.

The story is strong, indicating the impact even a single person can have in another's life when it's not possible to correct for the government's heinousness. Tuininga's couldn't stop the incarcerations, or shorten them, or make them more tolerable. But he was able to give those folks something to come back to later. And even if that was only for a handful of families, it is worth noting that that no doubt made a phenomenal difference to those individuals. It's a, at times necessary, reminder that not everything has to be a grand gesture just to help. Use the skills and knowledge and resources you have to help who you can, even if that's just making sure a single family has a home they can come back to.

We Are Not Strangers came out last month from Abrams Books and retails for $24.99 US. You should be able to pick it up from your favorite book shop.
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