THIS WEEK, WE interview Frank Abe, co-author of the graphic novel “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” (Chin Music Press and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, 2021), illustrated by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki, and co-authored by Tamiko Nimura. This powerful account of courage and confrontation offers compelling lessons for us today.
Jean Sherrard: When and where does this story begin?
Frank Abe: It begins with the FBI arresting 150 immigrant leaders in Seattle in the hysteria following the start of World War II. The men were marched in the predawn hours from the U.S. Immigration Detention Building to King Street Station, where The Seattle Times captured a photo of them on the platform boarding a train for the Department of Justice alien internment camp at Fort Missoula, Montana. When I first saw this photo, I knew it would be central to the story of Jim Akutsu, one of our three main characters.
Jean: Why a graphic novel?
Frank: It matches the epic sweep of a movie at a fraction of the production cost. I asked Ross to draw Jim’s mother as clawing through the bars and screaming to her husband, after I read the description in The Times of “tear-stained eyes” and the din of “staccato chatter” in the morning air.
Jean: Your book takes an uncompromising view of systemic exclusion and racism.
Frank: Many fathers were separated from their families, who were themselves incarcerated at camps like Minidoka, Idaho. Jim and his brother Gene refused to be drafted until the government restored their citizenship rights, starting with their freedom. We emphasize that the government was responsible for targeting these families based solely on their race.
Jean: The storytelling has a documentary feel to it but also feels intensely personal.
Frank: Everything is drawn from the historical record. Readers can immerse themselves in the personal stories of our characters in a way that generates empathy. Empathy is the only thing that can bind us when the same elements of wartime fear and ignorance of the “other” survive to this day.
Jean: So the empathy signals a warning bell along with a possible remedy?
Frank: Our book opens with the FBI knocking on the door to arrest Jim’s father. It ends with ICE breaking down the door to deport unwanted immigrants. In 1941, America feared a second attack from the Pacific. Just one year ago, we had a pandemic-era president dog-whistle “China virus” and “Kung Flu,” received by some people as permission to kick and punch Asian Americans on the street. Some things haven’t changed.