YA author Traci Chee shifts from the fantasy genre of her first three books to tell a historical fiction story in We Are Not Free, which follows 14 Japanese American teenagers during World War II. BookPage spoke to Chee about her personal connection to the story, how she managed her large cast of characters and what can be gained by a deeper understanding of history.
Is this a story you’ve always wanted to tell? Why did you decide to tell it now?
I think my journey toward We Are Not Free started the day I first learned about the Japanese American incarceration. It was 1997, and the San Francisco Unified School District was awarding honorary diplomas to Japanese Americans, like my grandfather, who would have graduated from their schools if not for the mass incarcerations of WWII. I don’t remember much about the ceremony, but I do remember my grandfather being quoted in the local newspaper, and what he said was this: “Where were the bleeding hearts in 1942?”
That stuck with me. At age 12, I didn’t fully grasp the nuances of the term “bleeding hearts,” but I couldn’t miss that hard edge of anger and bitterness, that deep, decades-old well of memory and resentment.
I couldn’t forget it. Seventeen years later, when I began to pursue publication in earnest, I knew that I had to tackle the incarceration at some point. I began interviewing relatives in 2016—an experience that was both totally inspiring and totally confounding, because their stories were all so different and so good. For years, I tried to figure out how to combine all those rich historical details and varied, sometimes conflicting, experiences into a single novel with a single main character . . . until I realized I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to write a single story. I could write 14 stories. I could create this kaleidoscope of experiences and reactions and contradictions, all linked by friendship and love. I could write a novel-in-stories. And once I realized that, I could really begin.
“Part of the gift of researching We Are Not Free was that it gave me this new perspective on history—how long and deep and wide it is, connecting all of us—and that helped me to see the present more clearly, too.”
Your author's note in the book mentions that your research included interviewing your relatives. Had your relatives shared their experiences with you before? What did you gain from them that you might not have been able to discover from other sources? If you feel comfortable sharing, what was the experience of those interviews like for you?
I suspect this is common for many Japanese Americans, but my family never talked much about the incarceration. There were a few anecdotes that got told and retold, of course—like the story of my great-uncle being shouted out of an ice cream parlor when he was 8 years old—but for the most part, I think a lot of these stories were buried for a very long time. So it wasn’t until I began sitting down with my relatives and asking questions that I began to understand the depth and breadth of what had happened to them.
In these conversations, what came through most clearly for me was the fact that my grandparents and their siblings were just kids in 1942, when they were uprooted from their homes and forced into detention centers. My grandmother was 13, for example, and rather than quietly submitting to the oppressiveness of her situation, she came at the incarceration with the blazing, powerful energy of youth. She did so many things while she was imprisoned! She joined the Girl Reserves. She went to dances. She played basketball and organized socials and fought with her dad. She listened to the radio and snuck out at night and, in general, went at her teenage years determined to wring the most out of them, no matter the circumstances. To me, hearing these stories so many years later, that felt like a kind of resilience. Yes, there was a war going on. Yes, there were people in this country who not only wanted to imprison citizens like my grandmother but also deport them and, in many cases, kill them. And still she insisted on living her life like any other American teenager.
I didn’t know any of this when I started interviewing my relatives. Both my grandparents had died long before I began asking questions about camp. But listening to my great-aunts and great-uncles, I feel like I got to know them—maybe not as we would have known each other as grandparents and grandchild, but as they were when they were young and strong and foolish and falling in love. Doing the research for this book, from the interviews to the visits to camp to my grandparents’ letters, brought me closer to my family in a way I never expected and a way I will treasure forever.
As you researched this book, what did you learn that surprised you—and what didn’t surprise you at all?
It’s strange, because so much of my research was both surprising and unsurprising, shocking and, at the same time, totally expected. I’d known some of the facts of the incarceration before I started—community leaders swept up by the FBI right after Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 people evicted from the West Coast and imprisoned behind barbed wire—but I think it’s one thing to know the facts and another to understand them.
One of the most striking moments for me was in an interview with my Auntie Mary in 2016. It was incredible, and it was moving, and it actually gave me the title of the book, but it wasn’t until a couple years later, as I listened to the conversation again, that I realized I’d completely glossed over one part of the story. When Auntie Mary was a teenager, there’d been a family in her neighborhood—two parents, both teachers, and their two daughters—and after Pearl Harbor, both parents, who were cultural leaders in their community, were picked up by the FBI and shipped off to prison camps, leaving their daughters totally alone.
Initially, I’d blown right past this detail, but by the time I was relistening to the interview, a lot of things had changed. We were well into the Trump presidency by then, and family separation was in all the headlines. Parents being deported. Children being imprisoned. Infants taken from their guardians without any process for reuniting them. So many people were shocked, saying this wasn’t their America. This wasn’t us.
I didn’t have this reaction. Because at the same time, I was also listening to this story about family separation in the 1940s, and I knew it was us. Family separation wasn’t new. In fact, it’s been around since before the founding of this country.
I already knew this though, right? We already knew this. We knew that the children of enslaved people were separated from their parents and sold off by their enslavers. We knew about Native American boarding schools. I don’t want to directly compare these experiences, but I think they can be interpreted as part of a pattern of racism and oppression in this country, and I think they demonstrate that you can know a thing without really knowing it. You can see an injustice without really seeing it. Part of the gift of researching We Are Not Free was that it gave me this new perspective on history—how long and deep and wide it is, connecting all of us—and that helped me to see the present more clearly, too.
Your first three books were a fantasy trilogy. What was it like to shift to historical fiction? Do you think you’ll continue to explore new genres and categories of writing in the future?
For a long time, I assumed I was a speculative writer because I couldn’t help it. Whenever I tried writing contemporary fiction, the magic just sort of crept in without my even knowing it! So initially, I thought if I was going to write a story about the Japanese American incarceration, it had to be historical fantasy. The problem was that the more research I did, the more I realized that the real, lived experiences of the incarcerees were so rich and so beautiful and so poignant that they were already so much better than any magic I could hope to conjure up.
I realized that the magic was in those details, those pockets of history, those slices of life, and my job wasn’t to wave a wand over it and summon something out of thin air but to weave those details into a narrative that felt both authentic and respectful to the people who’d lived them. It was such a challenge, and I embraced it wholeheartedly, because as a writer, I always want to be challenging myself. So even though I’ll always return to speculative fiction, I’ll also always be tackling new genres and categories and combinations and finding new ways to tell a good story.
“The narratives of that time can be complicated and contradictory, and I hope we continue to tell them, because telling them will only enrich our understanding of this history and its impacts on us today.”
I’m so excited to ask you about the structure and characters in this book. How did you arrive at it? Was the structure inspired by any other works of fiction or art? What did you do to ensure each narrator was distinct? What do you hope the multiplicity of perspectives adds to the reader’s experience of the book?
Thank you! I am so excited to talk about the structure and characters in this book! Once I realized We Are Not Free had to be a novel-in-stories, I had to figure out how to make it work—in essence, how to tell many smaller stories that ultimately come together to tell one big story. As with most of this book, I found the answer in the actual history.
In order to create this kaleidoscope of characters with all their varied perspectives, I used each chapter to focus on a different aspect of the history. For example, in the first few chapters we have the anti-Japanese racism following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the mass eviction and the temporary detention centers. Then later we see things like the loyalty questionnaire that divided the community, the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the return to the West Coast in 1945.
Once I’d chosen these focal points, I found characters who could give us a nuanced perspective on what living through these times might have been like. Often that meant they were unexpected choices. Bette, for example, is our window into the dreary early days at the incarceration camp in Topaz, but like my grandmother, she’s a bon vivant, determined to make her high desert barrack lifestyle as glamorous as any Hollywood movie. There's Mas, who details his experiences in basic training with the 442nd and grows more and more uncertain that he’s made the right choice in volunteering to fight for his country.
These are just a handful of the many thousands of stories about the incarceration, but I hope they demonstrate that there is no single Japanese American experience from WWII, no reductive reading of this community and what happened to them, because Japanese Americans are not a monolith. I hope this book demonstrates, in part, that the narratives of that time can be complicated and contradictory, and I hope we continue to tell them, because telling them will only enrich our understanding of this history and its impacts on us today.
What do you think readers can gain from historical fiction that they might not by reading a work of nonfiction? What’s the power of telling (this) history through the lens of fiction?
I’d like to celebrate both fiction and nonfiction here, because I think they complement each other! I mean, there’s power in a narrative. A story can pull us in and keep us captivated and help us make sense of the world. It can evoke empathy and create understanding in a way that’s sometimes more difficult for facts alone. But the facts are powerful, too. When a work of fiction favors narrative over edification, nonfiction can fill in the gaps to create a more complete history.
I used both fiction and nonfiction in my research for We Are Not Free. I read novels. I read poetry. I studied the art of incarcerees like Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata, who, like my grandparents, were imprisoned at Topaz. I also combed through newspapers, letters, diaries, government documents and various books of nonfiction. Every text and every work of art gave me a different perspective, a different approach, and I think it was the combination that filled out my understanding and gave me the resources to tackle writing about the incarceration.
In short, I think we need both, and I hope we read both! I hope readers find their ways into history, whether they are fiction or nonfiction, that compel them and pique their curiosity, and I hope that leads to more reading, more learning, more connections made and more connections deepened. Although I didn’t know it when I was in school, history is fascinating. It’s full of details and full of stories, and it’s with us right now, in the present. I think the more we understand who we are and where we’ve come from, the more clearly we can choose who we want to be and where we want to go from here.