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Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo

When I was in the seventh grade, I read Farewell to Manzanar and was told that it was the only book about the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. Fifteen years later, I found out that this wasn’t true. There was in fact another book about the internment and one that was published long before Farewell to Manzanar (1946 versus 1973). Moreover, it was told from the point of view of a young adult, not a child, which meant it had many more details about life in the camps. More incredibly, it was a story told in words and pictures.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s the picture book aspect of Citizen 13660 that has made it less popular than Farewell to Manzanar, but I think it can be a strangely empty book for people who are unaccustomed to reading visual narratives (I definitely felt this upon a first reading). The text in the book is encyclopedic in style. There is no characterization, no dialogue, and little opinion. Details are given matter-of-factly. On the one hand, this makes the things depicted all the more monstrous, because they are so out in the open. But on the other hand, it can make the book seem a little flat.

That is, until you look at the images. Like a picture book, there is one image per page, set above the text. This separation is not popular in graphic novels today, but in Citizen 13660 the separation creates a tension between the text and the images. This is intentional, because the art serves to subvert the encyclopedic narrative. As Megan Kelso says in her review of the book, “new meaning arises from the discord.”

First of all, there is the nature of the figure drawing. Okubo was trained under Diego Rivera and her figures have a similar roundness and abstraction to them. Faces convey emotion, but are not heavily detailed, and everything is inked in a simple line black-and-white. One curious effect of this is that in some panels it is difficult to tell who is Japanese-American and who is not. On page 12 Okubo says that “people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.” The accompanying image makes effective use of the intersecting lines of a bus window to highlight the figure of Okubo herself and underscore the tension. Yet when one looks at the other figures depicted in the bus, Okubo is not obviously more Japanese than any of them. This is due to the simplicity of her art of course, but it also adds a counterpoint to what is going on. She is a citizen like the rest of them. She isn’t any different. In fact, Okubo had been painting mosaics at a military base, Fort Ord, when talk of internment began (ironically). So while the text mentions a growing desire to make the Japanese-Americans into untrustworthy others, the image shows sameness. The reality the art depicts is not the one that the history book narrative allows space for.

The pictures are also the place where Okubo’s emotions become clear. On page 18 she tells of registering at one of the Civil Control Stations. The text simply states the rules regarding this and the fact that she did it. There is no point of view provided. Yet in the illustration above Okubo is giving a stern look to one of the soldiers and he is looking back at her with an expression of surprise. Likewise, on page 59 she talks about curfew at Tanforan and the roll call done by the house captain twice a day. Again, plain factual text. Yet in the picture Okubo seems to be sticking out her tongue at the house captain. On page 108 is perhaps my favorite scene. In the text, Okubo tells the reader that every room was inspected for “potentially dangerous tools” and the like. At the very end, she mentions that her room was almost not inspected due to a sign on her door. And that’s it for the text. The image, however, depicts the inspection of her room. The house captain is going through her drawers while a soldier stands guard. The soldier looks at Okubo with a harsh expression. Okubo looks back, her glance similarly stern. Yet she holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a piece of paper in another, and on her head is a floppy spiral cut out of paper, a whimsical counterpoint to the mood of the scene. Since Okubo is an artist, many of her tools could be construed as being “dangerous” by suspicious minds and yet the image shows the absurdity of such a claim. Not only does the image show a different reality than the text, but also the art within the image, the paper spiral, similarly resists the assumptions made by the other people in the scene. Art is the only sane response to such surreal inhumanity and the only possible recourse for resistance.

So it is the words in the book that provide the stark reality, just like it was the wording of Executive Order 9066 that made the internment a legal reality. Through words, people are able to convince themselves that stealing others of their civic rights is acceptable and even necessary. Words have the ability to create a new reality, but do so at the expense of human emotion. So it is left to visual art to subvert the inhumane effects of words. And that is exactly what Okubo does all throughout Citizen 13660. So the book is not simply an act of trying to remember the past, as Farewell to Manzanar is; it is a book about the necessity and humanizing power of art.


Megan Kelso wrote an insightful review of the book, but it seems to no longer be available on-line.

 

(written May 30, 2009)