Living Snoqualmie Regional Reads: We Are Not Strangers by North Bend Artist Josh Tuininga

I met Josh Tuininga when he and his wife Lisa, owners of local design company The Medium, started helping me with a website project in May.

A North Bend resident of over 20 years, he and his family live down Mt. Si Road on a property by the Middle Fork that his wife’s family has owned since the 80s. Lisa manages their company, and twin daughters, Klara and Hazel, are starting their sophomore year at Mt. Si.

The Tuininga family lives in a small house, and when they had twins, the house suddenly felt much smaller. There wasn’t room for his artwork setup, so he started looking at options for an outbuilding or shed that he could use for an art studio. An old school bus came up on Craigslist. He went to look and fell in love.

Josh bought the bus from an old hippie who had given up on his dreams of getting it running and taking it to the Burning Man Festival. He had it towed to North Bend, gutted it, put in a wood stove, and now works in the bus daily.

Josh grew up surrounded by creativity and art making because his Dad was an artist. He started drawing and writing comic strips at a very young age but says he didn’t take it seriously until much later in life.

Tuininga says, “When I had kids of my own, I read countless children’s books, and it was then that I thought to myself – hey, maybe I should give this a shot! So, I wrote and illustrated my first children’s book and was lucky enough to find a good publisher. I guess it was just a natural next step to dive headfirst into the world of comics and graphic novels.”

He has written and illustrated two children’s books, Why Blue? (Xist Publishing, 2014) and Dream On (Indiegogo campaign, 2019). We Are Not Strangers is his first graphic novel.

It’s been a long time since I picked up a comic book. Would it be a bunch of superheroes getting into silly fights with each other? Josh told me that the new work these days is some of the most educational, moving stories I’d ever come across, and I might be surprised about what I’d find. Reassured I pre-ordered my copy of We Are Not Strangers in June.

This project began in October 2019 with a story his Uncle told him about while attending his Grandfather’s funeral. He said it was a typical Jewish event until a handful of Japanese-American guests arrived. No one knew who they were or why they came. His Uncle discovered that his Grandfather had helped these families when they were forced out of the neighborhood and incarcerated during WWII.

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II, there was widespread fear and suspicion of Japanese Americans as potential spies or saboteurs. This fear was not based on credible evidence but on racial prejudice, war hysteria, and economic considerations.

With its significant Japanese-American population, Seattle, Washington, was deeply affected by this order. The once-thriving Nihonmachi, or Japantown, was almost emptied as families were given just days to prepare for their removal. They were first taken to “assembly centers” – makeshift facilities like Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fairgrounds – before being transported to more permanent internment camps in desolate parts of the country.

Many of these detainees were from Seattle’s professional, business, and cultural communities, and the abrupt uprooting led to significant economic and personal losses. It wasn’t until 1945 that these internees were allowed to return to their homes, and for many, the scars and memories of the internment experience lingered for the rest of their lives.

Tuininga said, “The story only took a few minutes to tell, but for the next few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, I thought it would make a great short comic story for a local Seattle newspaper. But as I began to do some research, the story began to grow. I learned about other similar stories of people reaching out to help their neighbors and friends during the war. I learned about the unique, diverse community of the Seattle Central District, where my family is from, and I started to learn more about a dark part of history that I knew little about. The next thing I knew, I was interviewing Rabbis on the daily and sitting down for poke bowls with Japanese fishing merchants.

In We Are Not Strangers, Josh wove together the oral histories of many people to craft a profoundly resonant tale, drawing readers into the intricate weave of history, family, and human connections. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of World War II, the story gracefully navigates the complexities of friendships formed in the shadow of adversity.

The narrative follows Papoo, a Sephardic Jewish immigrant whose ties to his Japanese neighbors highlight the common human spirit that thrives despite divisive cultural and political circumstances.

Through Papoo’s eyes, Tuininga portrays a sobering account of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, bringing to life the unjust incarceration of Japanese-American families. The unfolding events, beautifully illustrated, are a testament to the strength of bonds forged in hardship and the resilience of communities that rally in times of injustice.

Tuininga’s graphic novel is not merely a historical account; it’s a story of tenacity and humanity. The multicultural canvas of the Central District of Seattle provides a vibrant setting where cultures clash and collaborate.

The relationship between Papoo and Sam Akiyama serves as a focal point, underscoring the theme that individual kindness can create positive change even in the face of systemic prejudices.

The artistry of the graphic novel shines through, with Tuininga’s captivating illustrations adding depth and emotion to the tale. Every page feels like a carefully crafted piece of art, each frame resonating with emotion.

Endorsed by Kazu Kibuishi and featuring thoughtful pieces by Ken Mochizuki and Devin Naar, the novel is bolstered by a rich blend of perspectives. It’s a powerful testament that even during the darkest times, humanity can find a way to shine through.

“We Are Not Strangers” is more than a graphic novel; it’s a chronicle of hope, friendship, and the enduring human spirit. It is a must-read for history enthusiasts, graphic novel lovers, and anyone who believes in the power of community.

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