We Are Not Strangers

  • Review
By – September 11, 2023

In this inno­v­a­tive graph­ic nov­el set in Seat­tle dur­ing World War II, Josh Tuininga depicts the friend­ship between Mar­co Cal­vo, a Sephardic Jew­ish Amer­i­can, and his neigh­bor Sam Akiya­ma, a Japan­ese Amer­i­can. Mar­co is an immi­grant from Turkey who strug­gles to make a com­fort­able life for him­self on the Pacif­ic coast but then ulti­mate­ly suc­ceeds. Sam, mean­while, has estab­lished him­self and his fam­i­ly in what seems to be a secure com­mu­ni­ty in Seattle’s Nihon­machi, or Japan Town. But when Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt issues Exec­u­tive Order 9066, intern­ing inno­cent Japan­ese immi­grants and cit­i­zens, Mar­co and Sam’s paths diverge. 

The nov­el opens with a flash-for­ward to Marco’s 1987 funer­al in the Sephardic Bikur Holim Syn­a­gogue, where his grand­son is sur­prised by the pres­ence of sev­er­al Japan­ese Amer­i­can guests. Sub­se­quent chap­ters each begin with a date rang­ing from 1938 to 1945. Read­ers unfa­mil­iar with the dis­tinc­tive his­to­ry of Sephardic immi­grants to Amer­i­ca will learn how they were mar­gin­al­ized, but also how they per­sist­ed in both assim­i­lat­ing to the dom­i­nant Amer­i­can cul­ture and main­tain­ing their own. Pan­els depict deli­cious spinach-and-cheese bole­mas and incor­po­rate the Ladi­no (Judeo-Span­ish) language.

Mar­co even­tu­al­ly devel­ops a suc­cess­ful busi­ness career, while Sam Akiya­ma opens a mar­ket. Both men are ded­i­cat­ed to their fam­i­lies, and both have con­front­ed the indig­ni­ties of prej­u­dice. At this point in the sto­ry, Tuininga’s text is min­i­mal­ist, and the col­ors of his illus­tra­tions, sub­dued. But after the Japan­ese attack on Pearl Har­bor, under­ly­ing ten­sions that have always exist­ed sur­face abrupt­ly. Although Mar­co and his fam­i­ly are out­siders in terms of their reli­gion, cul­ture, and lan­guage, they are safe. The Akiya­ma fam­i­ly, on the oth­er hand, is forced to leave their home, busi­ness, and com­mu­ni­ty because of unfound­ed fears about Japan­ese Amer­i­can disloyalty.

At the same time, the Cal­vo fam­i­ly is ter­ri­fied about the fate of Europe’s Jews, which ulti­mate­ly con­tributes to Marco’s con­vic­tion that he must help oth­ers fac­ing oppres­sion. An extend­ed syn­a­gogue scene on the Shab­bat before Passover includes light­heart­ed con­ver­sa­tion among the female con­gre­gants seat­ed in the bal­cony; they are focused on main­tain­ing nor­mal fam­i­ly and com­mu­nal life. Grad­u­al­ly, as the rab­bi deliv­ers an impas­sioned ser­mon about their respon­si­bil­i­ty as Jews to stand up for any­one suf­fer­ing from injus­tice, their talk turns to fear­ing for their Japan­ese neighbors.

Stark images of intern­ment camps fea­ture sur­veil­lance tow­ers, crowd­ed quar­ters, and depressed pris­on­ers, but they also depict com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tions that defied these con­di­tions and flour­ished. Even after they were freed, Japan­ese Amer­i­cans would return to face finan­cial loss­es and con­tin­ued hatred. In this con­text, Marco’s mod­est actions dur­ing the war to safe­guard Japan­ese prop­er­ty take on even greater mean­ing. The mourn­ers at his funer­al remem­ber the life of one seem­ing­ly ordi­nary Seat­tle res­i­dent, whose Jew­ish iden­ti­ty gave him the strength to resist bigotry.

In a let­ter to the read­er, Tuininga explains how his own fam­i­ly back­ground helped him write the book. Exten­sive back­mat­ter, as well as an intro­duc­tion by acclaimed author Ken Mochizu­ki and an after­word by Pro­fes­sor Devin E. Naar, pro­vide addi­tion­al information. 

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions