GENERATIONAL TRAUMA can shape our experience in ways both concrete — the loss of a mother tongue, the separation of a family, a tendency toward hoarding — and more obscure. But even as trauma reaches into the present, the events that catalyzed it can be difficult to understand or even imagine. Family history, after all, is incomplete by nature: a mix of oral history, self-centered recollections, limited documentation, and silence. It can feel like a loss rather than an inheritance, a fog blurring even the closest surroundings. How does one make the past clearer, then? For cartoonist Kiku Hughes, the answer was time travel.
In her graphic novel, Displacement (published in August 2020 by First Second), Hughes uses science fiction to express her search for answers about her grandmother’s time in Japanese American concentration camps during World War II, borrowing the plot of Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred. In Butler’s 1979 story, a Black woman is pulled out of her life in the 1970s and deposited on the antebellum plantation where her ancestors — enslaved people and enslavers both — lived more than a century earlier. In Displacement, a fictionalized version of Kiku is spirited back on three different occasions to 1940s San Francisco, where she is rounded up by the US government and incarcerated, first at the converted Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, and then at Topaz in Delta, Utah. Because she travels not just through time but also through space, Kiku’s character calls the phenomenon displacement.
This fantastical device, along with the visual language of comics, allows Hughes — two generations removed from the incarceration — to make the camp experience vivid and immediate. That urgency also reflects in the character’s present, 2016, where then-presidential candidate Donald Trump is speaking on TV about banning Muslims from entering the United States and building a wall at the Mexican border. Hughes told me that Trump’s campaign rhetoric partly inspired her to write Displacement, because of how clearly it paralleled the racist fearmongering that led to the Japanese American incarceration.
While Hughes wanted to write about her grandmother, she knew she didn’t have enough information for a straightforward biography. Her grandmother died before Hughes was born and, like many Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, didn’t share much about the experience with her children. This silence stretched across the community, caused by a combination of trauma and forced assimilation, and exacerbated by government censorship.
Most people were not allowed to have cameras in camp. Even photographs by outsiders — like Dorothea Lange, who was commissioned by the government to document the so-called “evacuation” and concentration camps — were withheld from the public when they appeared to portray the situation as an injustice. Artists’ depictions became crucial records of life in camp, including Miné Okubo’s 1946 graphic memoir Citizen 13660, which chronicles her time at Tanforan and Topaz, the same camps where Hughes’s grandmother lived. Okubo’s drawings are mundane, funny, and sometimes disgusting, capturing scenes that photos couldn’t, like the communal toilet stalls with makeshift doors, and the horseflies and mosquitoes that swarmed on hot days.
Hughes used Citizen 13660 as a reference while writing Displacement, as well as the archive at Densho, an organization dedicated to preserving Japanese American history, where she was an artist in residence in 2018. While her research fills in the world of the incarceration, she purposefully leaves gaps in her family story. Displacement has the feel of a memory, sharper near Kiku and blurred in the distance, with empty space beyond. In crowd scenes, the people in the distance are merely silhouettes; Kiku’s grandmother is often physically nearby but always removed. Both 16 years old when first incarcerated, they live next door to each other at the camps but never speak. Often, Kiku sees her grandmother from behind; when she sees her face, it has a neutral, inscrutable expression. Hughes is careful not to overstep, to ascribe any motivation or emotion not documented firsthand to the real-life people who appear among her expressive fictional characters.
For the most part, Kiku the character has a light touch too. She tries not to intervene in historical events or participate in justice movements, even though she’s constantly thinking about resistance and the ways in which individuals weigh it against personal and family safety. “I didn’t want to have my character acting as some sort of savior sweeping in and doing what the Japanese Americans couldn’t at the time. And I think it reflects the powerlessness that was felt in the community in certain ways,” Hughes told me. “There’s not a lot you can do in that situation without a threat against your life.” While Kiku has a group of friends and a sweet romance with another teenage girl at camp, she’s mostly an observer who knows little about what to expect, despite the bits of history she learned in school and from her mother.
In 2019, the actor George Takei released a graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, about his experience as a child during the incarceration. Takei’s book and Displacement are similar in that they both cover enough of the major points of the incarceration that they seem meant for the classroom, for young adults and up. Both also read like letters to family members who have since died, as if saying, I’m sorry this happened to you, I see you, or I am trying to see you.
Takei’s empathy for his parents shows in all their facial expressions — nervous, scared, haunted — and the way they contrast with his elementary school-aged cluelessness and exuberance. Later in the book, Takei shows a conversation he had as a young adult, in which he accuses his father of doing nothing to resist incarceration. “It still pains me to this day,” Takei reflects, “that arrogant boy’s outspoken bluntness inflicted on his father, a man who knew the anguish of those dark internment years more intensely than that boy could ever understand.”
While Takei was with his parents during the incarceration, Hughes and Octavia Butler were generations away from the traumatic events that shaped their families. Takei’s conversation with his father haunts him, while Hughes and Butler are haunted by absence, by the mysteries of their ancestors. In both Displacement and Kindred, the characters who go back in time learn more intimately not just about the events themselves, but also how those events affected their elders.
An essay in the 2003 edition of Kindred explains that Octavia Butler was inspired to write the novel after seeing the way some younger Black Americans looked down on older generations for internalizing racism and tolerating injustice. Butler herself admitted feeling this way about her mother, blaming her for allowing herself to be “treated like a non-person” by her white employers. The more time Dana, Kindred’s protagonist, spends in the past, the more she gains empathy for the many survival strategies of enslaved people and how they’ve trickled down through the generations.
During her displacements, Kiku learns why she and her mother don’t speak Japanese or have much connection to Japanese culture. When she asks her roommate at Tanforan, Aiko, to teach her Japanese, Aiko pauses; her expression appears wounded at first, and then it hardens. “Kiku, we’re Americans,” she says. “I know Japanese only because I grew up with Issei [immigrant] parents; otherwise it’s useless to me. There’s no reason for you to learn it.”
Growing up outside Seattle with a third-generation Japanese American mother and a white father, Hughes told me, her connection with Japanese culture was limited. She knew a few words (samui, hashi, zori: cold, chopsticks, flip-flops), ate hamburger steak made with her grandmother’s recipe, visited a Buddhist bazaar at Christmastime, and celebrated New Year’s Day with Japanese food, though instead of the traditional holiday osechi dishes, her family made tempura, sukiyaki, and gyoza. Watching people at Topaz pound mochi at New Year in Displacement, Kiku sees how meaningful it is that her family managed to preserve the celebration in any form. “Though we felt so far from Japanese culture, there were some things we had left,” she thinks. “They were altered, but they were ours, and incarceration couldn’t take them away.”
Because the parts of Japanese culture Hughes knew felt limited and particular to her family, and because she’s mixed-race, she didn’t feel particularly Japanese while she was growing up. But as she conducted research for Displacement, she began to see “Japanese American” as its own distinct and valid identity, based less on Japanese culture than on social justice and collective responsibility.
In the decades after World War II, camp survivors and descendants spoke out against the incarceration and petitioned the government for redress. Among those who testified before Congress was Miné Okubo, who brought a copy of Citizen 13660. The community won redress with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Since then, Japanese American organizations have used the camp story to connect with and stand in solidarity with other groups, like Muslims targeted by post-9/11 Islamophobia and immigrant families separated by ICE.
In the last chapters of Displacement, Kiku opens up a conversation with her mother about family history and politics. They start researching the camps, looking for records of her grandmother, and making signs to take to a demonstration in support of immigrants. “Never again,” they say, holding their signs aloft.
Hughes doesn’t think stories can stop the past from repeating. Still, she sees the value in keeping the story of the Japanese American incarceration alive, even generations after it ended, even if by a time travel plot. For people outside the community, it shows what can come from racist hysteria. For Japanese Americans, it’s a call to action. But it’s also a reminder of what we’ve lost and what we’ve managed to keep.
Mia Nakaji Monnier is a writer in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Shondaland, and more, and an essay of hers is featured in the forthcoming book This Long Thread: Women of Color on Craft, Community, and Connection by Jen Hewett (Roost Books, November 2021).