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'There’s this wound': Kiku Hughes uses sci-fi to explore generational trauma in deeply personal 'Displacement'

By Alex Dueben

Kiku Hughes is a cartoonist known for her science fiction and fantasy stories in various anthologies, including AlloyBeyondElements, and Avatar: The Last Airbender – Team Avatar Tales, but her new book, her first full-length project as a writer and artist, is both science fiction and a deeply personal story. Displacement is similar to Octavia Butler’s seminal novel Kindred, a debt that Hughes freely admits, except that in this case the main character, also named Kiku, travels back in time to experience America's Japanese internment camps alongside the grandmother she never knew. As Kiku keeps being pulled back she’s forced to experience what other Japanese Americans, or nikkei, went through, and she later discovers that this isn’t an isolated singular experience but something that many others have also lived through.

In Displacement, Hughes uses science fiction to talk about communal trauma and personal history, tying together the past, present, and future in a way that science fiction can do well, all in an effort to get at the emotional truth of her grandmother’s life and story and what it means for her — and all of us — today. SYFY WIRE caught up with Hughes to talk about the book, which hit shelves last month.


Why did you decide to tell this story as opposed to a piece of historical fiction or another approach?

There were a lot of details that were impossible for me to actually know. Specifically about my grandmother’s life, because she died long before I was born. There were so many things that she never talked about or mentioned. There are details about the camp that were not going to be available to me just because so many people never talked about the camps and the fact that the government didn’t talk about all the details.

I wanted to create a story where it was emphasizing the importance of what a community carries with it. The lasting effects of these big historical moments that didn’t necessarily rely on the specific factual details, but on the emotional details and the way trauma is carried. I felt like time travel/memory travel was almost a more accurate way of telling the story that I wanted to tell, which was how generations down are affected by these racist policies and community trauma.

You mentioned that Octavia Butler was an inspiration. 

I read Kindred in college and it was not only an extremely powerful book but also opened my eyes to the ways that sci-fi can be used to tell really authentic stories. It was using sci-fi and time travel tropes as a narrative device — and almost a metaphor — for community trauma. What Butler did with time travel really showed the ways that history is malleable and the ways that history affects us are much more important. She was one of my writing inspirations and heroes.

In the third part of Displacement, Kiku talks with her mother, who says, "That happened to me also," which gets at this idea of family and community trauma. That this isn’t a singular experience for the character.

I definitely didn’t want it to be about my character’s singular journey, because it was representative of every nikkei, and every later generation’s experience of trying to either figure out what happened or just feeling the effects of the camps without even meaning to or looking for it.

How much of the conversations between you and your mother in the book mirror the conversations you’ve had with your mother over the years?

I think that in the book I’m much more direct and our conversations are much more direct. [Laughs.] I had a hard time talking about [the] camps and my grandmother with my mom because I always worried that it was something painful because she lost her mother when she was so young. I realized that probably mirrors her own experience trying to talk about camp with her mom.

There’s this wound that you have no direct experience with, but you’re aware that you may be upsetting somebody, so you just don’t talk about it. When I was doing research for the book, I started having these really earnest conversations with my mom. I think that she really enjoyed talking about her mother and it wasn’t as painful as I worried it would be.

I’ve lived on the East and West Coasts, and I feel like the camps are much more of a presence out west than they are on the East Coast. I’m curious if you found that to be true?

The one time my mom said that her mother spoke about camp in public was [when] they lived in New York they went to a Japanese-American church that had a lot of congregants that were born and raised in New York and they hadn’t had to go to camp because only the West Coast nikkei were moved.

Apparently, in the '60s, there was talk of reopening some of the camps for political dissidents — communists, Black Panther party members, etc. There were members of her church that were voicing their support for such an idea, and it was one of the only times my grandmother stood up and said, "You don’t know what you’re talking about." Even among Japanese-Americans who lived on the East Coast, there was a distance from the experience of the West Coast nikkei.


You mentioned the struggle to convey life in the camps and get at the details, and I don’t want to say that science fiction freed you from the requirements of detail, but did it give you more flexibility?

It de-emphasized the importance of the fine details. Certainly, some of the specific details of the situation in camp add to the emotional detail. It was very important to rely on first-person accounts and what people in the camps felt was important. Reading what people emphasized over and over again. The dust was a big one. The way that the toilets worked. The details that really added to the emotional impact of camp because they were clearly ones that people were talking about over and over again. There were certain aspects of camp that even though we didn’t talk about it very much were passed down to me. Those are the ones that I focused on.

With historical fiction, there can sometimes be almost a fetishization of details that can get in the way of capturing emotional truths.

I think it allows a distance between not only the reader and the work, but the author, in a certain way. Focusing on these very specific details doesn’t force you to live in the emotional moment.

Is this how a lot of your work has been and how you’d like to continue to work?

This is my first full-length graphic novel. I’ve had a few short comics before. I would like to continue doing soft sci-fi that’s really character-driven and focused on the emotional impact of whatever the story is. I can promise you that everything I do will have some element of sci-fi in it, because it’s the only genre I really like.

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