Traci Chee (We Are Not Free) discusses her acclaimed novel for young readers, the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II. In conversation with local children’s author, Amy Lee-Tai. Read the transcript from this event below.
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.
“A compelling and transformative story of a tragic period in American history… Each voice is powerful, evoking raw emotions of fear, anger, resentment, uncertainty, grief, pride, and love… An unforgettable must-read.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Chee is a master storyteller… Here, she uses her own San Francisco–based Japanese American family’s history to inform a blazing and timely indictment of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Her passion and personal involvement combine with her storytelling talents to create a remarkable and deeply moving account of the incarceration… [We Are Not Free] should become required curriculum reading on a shameful and relevant chapter in U.S. history.”—Booklist, starred review
Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco. Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted. Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps. In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.
- Educator guide with bibliography of related books, from Traci Chee (PDF)
- Brief histories of the Japanese American incarceration from Traci Chee (website)
- Traci Chee’s research stories from We Are Not Free (website)
- National Book Award finalist reading by Traci Chee (video)
- Excerpt from We Are Not Free (website)
- Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Resources from the Library of Virginia (website)
- Lesson plans and resources related to We Are Not Free, developed by the Hidden Histories Fellows
Virginia Festival of the Book staff, volunteers, partners, and attendees appreciate all of our sponsors. It is their crucial support, along with individual donors, that allows us to present the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book almost completely free of charge. We appreciate the generous commitment from our Premier Sponsor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and these major sponsors: Michelle and David Baldacci, Dominion Energy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This event is presented in partnership with Jefferson-Madison Regional Library as the 2022 JMRL Same Page Community Read selection.
About Same Page Community Read
Each year, the Virginia Festival of the Book partners with JMRL to present public programming celebrating the annual Same Page Community Read author, selected by committee. JMRL invites everyone to read the selected book, and offers a limited number of free copies to the public through its eight branch locations and Bookmobile. As part of the Same Page community-wide reading series, the Festival features appearances by Traci Chee discussing the selected title and her new release. Additional programming will be presented by JMRL throughout March. The Same Page Community Read is supported by the Art and Jane Hess Fund of the Friends of the Library Endowment.
CATHERINE FAE: Hello and welcome to the JMRL Same Page Community Read program, featuring We Are Not Free with Traci Chee. I greet you on behalf of the Virginia Festival of the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. I’m Catherine Fae, programming and reference manager at JMRL. And before we get started, I’m just going to cover a few housekeeping notes. First of all, make sure that all cell phones are turned off. If you would like to tweet about this event, you can use #VirginiaBookFest or #VaBook2022. And I want to offer a special thanks to our sponsors, Dominion Energy and the Friends of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, and our partner JMRL Community Read. So, the Festival is free of charge. It is not free of expense. Please support Festival programming with a donation by visiting VaBook.org. Your support ensures that we may sustain the Festival for many more years. Please do fill out an evaluation. These provide useful information that keeps the Festival free and open to the world. You can complete it online at VaBook.org/feedback, or you can look at the QR code on the back of your program. You simply open your phone’s camera app, hold it over the QR code, and click the link that pops up. So, in order to keep all members of our community as safe as possible, please do remain masked during this event. Our speakers have shown negative tests today, so we are removing our masks so that you can hear us better. Also, please support our Festival authors and local booksellers by purchasing a book today. Traci Chee will be available for book signing after the program.
So, with that, we are presenting the JMRL Same Page Community Read, We Are Not Free, featuring author Traci Chee and our moderator Amy Lee-Tai.
Traci Chee is a bestselling and award-winning author of books for young people, including A Thousand Steps Into the Night, which is a Japanese-influenced young adult fantasy released on March 1st, as well as the Printz Honor Book, Walter Award–nominee, National Book Award–finalist We Are Not Free, and the instant New York Times bestseller and Kirkus Prize–finalist The Reader. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, cooking, outside gardening, and hosting game nights for her family and friends. She lives in California with her dog.
Our moderator, Amy Lee-Tai, is the author of A Place Where Sunflowers Grow. Her picture book, informed by her family’s Japanese American incarceration experiences, won the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Born in New York City, raised there and in San Francisco, she now lives in Charlottesville, where she teaches reading to elementary school students and writes picture books.
So tonight, Traci will offer a short reading from We Are Not Free, which shares the collected account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass US incarcerations of World War II. Then, Traci and Amy will share a book discussion, and we’ll have a short period for a few questions for Traci before we open up the opportunity for Traci to sign copies of We Are Not Free.
So, with that, I’ll hand it over to our special guests tonight, author Traci Chee and moderator Amy Lee-Tai. And we’ll begin with a short reading. So, give them a warm welcome.
TRACI CHEE: Thank you so much for being here tonight. I’m going to start off with a hopefully relatively short reading—we’ll see how quick I can get through this—from We Are Not Free. The selection I chose is from chapter two, which is Shig’s chapter. He is a young, sixteen-year-old Japanese American guy living in San Francisco in Japantown. And he has just watched half of his neighborhood get evicted from their homes and shipped off to the Tanforan temporary detention center about fifteen miles south of the city. So this scene that I’m going to read is him and his good friend Frankie kind of wandering the streets at night, looking for an outlet for their anger, and then him coming home to see his mom and then also seeing that difference in how she’s dealing with this.
The night the last families are evacuated from the north side of Japantown. Me and Frankie Fujita walk through the neighborhood together.
The deserted streets.
The abandoned businesses.
The boarded windows.
The darkened homes.
Half of the community amputated, the people I’ve grown up with shipped off to who-knows-where. There’s hardly anyone around now—just me and Frankie and the shadows and the streetlights haloed in fog. We walk down the middle of the road like the kings of a hollow kingdom.
He’s practically humming with anger. I can feel like it like a current coming off him.
Hell, I can feel it coming off me, too, growing stronger with every vacant house we pass.
My fists are electric.
We break into a noodle house. There’s not much left. The tables and chairs have all been sold off. There are a few blank spaces on the walls where wood carvings used to hang, but the rest is papered with menus in kanji and hiragana and English, peeling at the corners.
We rip it apart. We tear the daily specials from the walls. We throw napkin dispensers and empty tubs. Frankie shreds a string of paper cranes, sending them limply into the air like confetti. In the kitchen, I find a maneki-neko, a ceramic good-luck cat—big eyes and calico spots—and drop-kick it into the dining room, where it shatters.
One of the neko’s red ears skids to a stop in front of Frankie. He stares at it for a second. Then he laughs. It’s a horrible humorless laugh, and his open mouth looks desperate and hungry, like he wants to devour the whole world.
When we make our way outside again, we find the Kitano brothers, Jim and Shuji, smoking on the corner of Bush and Laguna. Beside me, Frankie picks up the pace. He’s practically running at them, shouting, “Hey Jimmy, you ugly son of a gun, where’s that two dollars you owe me?”
I don’t remember Jim owning Frankie money, but he is a son of a gun, and I’m itching for a fight, and who the hell cares anyway?
Before either of the Kitano brothers can say anything, Frankie slugs Jim in the jaw. Not hard. I’ve seen Frankie hit like a hammer, and this is nothing. This is a love tap.
He wants Jimmy to fight back.
And he does. Jim comes up swinging, and then they’re grunting and grappling on the curb, stumbling into the street.
Before Shuji can do anything, I clobber him. It feels good to hit something. To make something hurt.
We’re throwing punches. We’re getting bloody. The Kitano brothers are yelling, but me and Frankie are stern and fierce, and the only sound we make is our breathing. Exhaling anger.
Shuji gets me good in the mouth, but I hardly feel it. No, I welcome it. I eat up the pain like breakfast.
Lights go on down the street. Someone’s shouting at us. Sirens wail in the distance.
We scatter into the night—Jimmy and Shuji in one direction, me and Frankie in the other—swallowed up by the empty street.
We finally come to a stop in an alley. We’re doubled over, breathing hard. When he stands, I see he’s got a black eye and a bloody nose—backlit from the street, he looks like a young samurai, glowing and wrathful.
“Goddamn it all,” he says.
I straighten, tonguing my split lip.
I spit blood.
Goddamn it all.
THINGS I’M HOLDING ON TO
When I get home, Mom’s waiting up for me. She’s wearing her old robe, fraying at the cuffs, as she kneels in the living room, sorting our things into piles.
What stays behind: the carpets, the coffee table, boxes of Dad’s old clothes I didn’t know she’d kept.
What goes with us: sheets, blankets, cups and bowls and silverware for each of us, a hot plate, a kettle.
She looks up at me, pursing her lips, and for a second, I think she’s going to scold me. But she doesn’t. She just pats the bare floor until I sit next to her. “What happened to you, Shigeo?” she asks, turning my chin to the light.
I don’t meet her gaze. “Got in a fight.”
“The Kitano brothers.”
She clicks her tongue. “Those bad boys.”
I laugh—quietly, because Mas and Minnow are sleeping.
“You shouldn’t be fighting.”
“I know, Mom.” I sneak the last of Mas’s yearbooks from the “stay” pile. It’s filled with notes from his friends: Chinese friends, hakujin—white—friends, friends who have been evacuated. “But I wanted to fight something.”
She sighs. “You can’t change out situation with your fists.”
“But it has to change, Mom. Doesn’t it?”
She tugs at a stray thread on her sleeve. It unravels. “No, Shigeo, it doesn’t.”
Angry tears fall onto the pages of Mas’s yearbook, and I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. “Then what do we do?”
She puts her hand on my shoulder and squeezes once. “Gaman.”
The word means something like persevere or endure. It’s a word for when you can’t do anything to change your situation, so you bear it patiently . . . or as patiently as you can, I guess.
I think of Mrs. Katsumoto and her thank-you note. I think of the people dressed in their best for their own eviction.
But I can’t do it. I can’t suffer nobly while we’re displaced. I can’t not feel this electricity inside me. I can’t not be hurt and angry and want to wrench things from the walls.
I don’t think “gaman” is in my vocabulary.
I’ll leave it here so Amy and I can begin talking.
AMY LEE-TAI: Wow. Traci, thank you for that very powerful reading. It kind of took my breath away figuratively. It was so beautiful to listen to in a heartbreaking kind of way. Maybe I just took very deep breaths. Gosh, it cuts to the core kind of like your entire novel.
Before I get going, I just want to welcome you to Charlottesville, welcome you to the Virginia Festival of the Book.
TRACI CHEE: Thank you.
AMY LEE-TAI: Scooping down across country. We also had the Daylight Savings Time switch. Just being here to spend an hour. I’m very honored to be participating in this discussion. I have so many questions, but I guess I’ll start at the beginning. I always love the story behind the story. So, will you tell us, Traci, what is the story behind We Are Not Free? What drove you to write this very ambitious novel?
TRACI CHEE: Thank you. Thank you so much, Amy. Again, thank you all for having me here. We Are Not Free—I think Catherine may have mentioned it’s loosely inspired by some of my own family stories during the Japanese American incarceration in World War II. And this is something, unfortunately, that my grandparents—even though they were thirteen and sixteen when they were evicted from their homes in Japantown, San Francisco, they didn’t talk about it for most of my life. I actually didn’t even know that this had happened to them until I was twelve years old.
And when I was twelve, the San Francisco School District decided to award these honorary diplomas to the people who should have graduated from their high schools if it had not been for the incarceration. My grandfather was one of those people. So, I don’t actually remember that much about him getting his diploma or the ceremony or any of that stuff or actually even learning that much about the incarceration.
What I do remember is that the newspaper did this whole article on it, and in that newspaper, my grandfather was interviewed as saying, “Where were the bleeding hearts in 1942?” And that’s the thing that really stuck with me. And as twelve years old, I didn’t know what a bleeding heart was. I had to ask my mom, and she’s like, “Oh, it’s a person who cares about another person.” I was like, oh, that sounds great. But he was still angry. He was so bitter about it. And that anger and that bitterness fifty-five years later—that’s what really stuck with me.
So, as I grew up, I kind of learned more and more about what had happened to my family, about this history. And I heard a few more family anecdotes here and there. I went on what’s known as a pilgrimage back to one of the incarceration camp sites where most of the book takes place and family was incarcerated. So that gave me kind of more knowledge about what had happened.
And I knew that at some point I wanted to write a book about this. It felt like a story that needed to be told. And the problem was I didn’t know how to tell it. There was so much there. I didn’t know even where to begin. At one point I actually thought it was going to be a family novel set in the Japanese incarceration camps. Because I am a fantasy writer. Then I thought, no, no, no, I can’t do that.
What actually kind of set me down the path of writing We Are Not Free itself was my family who’d been in the camps—they were getting older. So, I felt this kind of urgency to get those stories before they passed away. My grandmother and grandfather had already passed away by that time, unfortunately. But for the relatives who were left, I started this little road trip around California with my mom, where we’d go visit a great aunt or a great uncle. And I’d sit down with them over tea, and I’d press record on my computer, and we’d just ask them questions about their lives. It was such a precious thing to be able to do that, especially sharing it with my mom.
And during that time, as I was hearing these family stories, I was really struck by how different their experiences were. There was my grandmother and my grandfather growing up in J-town San Francisco. Like inner city, urban kids. They had come from like poor working families. My great-grandparents had been like a shipping clerk and a gardener. So, like working class folks. They rented their apartment. They didn’t own a home. This was different. I noticed that their experiences were different from my step-grandmother’s family. They had owned their farm in the Sacramento Valley, and so losing this piece of land that they had bought and toiled and improved was really different from my great-grandparents getting kicked out of their apartments in San Francisco. So, it was a really different experience of that. And then too it was a very different experience from my step-grandfather, who was from a very, very poor class of itinerant farmers in LA. And my step-grandfather didn’t always have enough to eat. And so, his experience of going into these camps and getting three square meals a day, it’s again very, very different.
So, I was getting these stories. I was learning more about the incarceration. I was starting my primary source reading for my research. And I was like I have no idea how I’m going to write all of this in one book. There’s so many good stories. There’s so much out there to tell. How can I fit it all into one person’s perspective?
And that’s when I was like, oh, maybe I don’t have to. Maybe it can be from fourteen different perspectives. Oh well, then. And that’s how I settled on writing a novel of stories, so that we get hopefully what feels like a kaleidoscope of different experiences of the incarceration because there were more than 120,000 people in these camps. There could be no one experience. It’s impossible, right? So, I wanted to capture that feeling of this being a really multifaceted community as much as I could in 400 pages. So that’s kind of how that came about.
AMY LEE-TAI: So, it sounds like your history, your family’s history, US history just all came together and was melded into your novel. I have to say this was a really emotional novel for me to read. It was not a quick read. One, your writing is gorgeous, and I just wanted to relish it. Two, there were fourteen characters, as you said. And I just really wanted to give them the space between. And three, my family was also incarcerated. Actually, Traci and I discovered that our families were incarcerated in the same two camps. At Tanforan, which was the temporary internment camp called the assembly center. There were fifteen in all, I think. And then at Topaz in Utah, which was a more permanent incarceration camp, which was called relocation.
TRACI CHEE: Yes, a relocation camp.
AMY LEE-TAI: Right. So, I also grew up in San Francisco as a teen. I could relate to being a teen. So, there were so many places where I felt connected to it, and I wonder if it was such an emotional experience for me to read, as a writer than to live in this world for a really long time and still have to with events like this, how was the emotional experience for you?
TRACI CHEE: Yeah, thank you. It was—I mean, its difficult subject matter, right? This is a really heinous period in United States history, and we’re trying to get back into the headspace of young people, who they should have been thinking about their futures and all of this possibility. And instead, then incarcerated behind barbed-wire fences without trial or charges even. They’d done nothing wrong. They were American citizens. They had done nothing wrong. And trying to get into that headspace, and I think it comes back in Shig’s section, which I read—that sense of betrayal, right? And anger. It was difficult for me.
Then on the other hand, it also felt like a huge gift to be able to look into my family’s history, to look at the past, to interact with it in this kind of way. Something I like to talk about is how one of my primary resources throughout my research was this huge, huge, huge stack of letters between my grandmother and my grandfather. My grandfather was drafted into the Army in 1945. He was nineteen; she was sixteen. And once he was drafted, he started writing letters to her from basic training. And it was just—it was so precious to be able to see them go from friends and like, for real—because in his first letter, we’re just friends. This doesn’t mean anything. And like to see them go from that into like begrudgingly admitting that he liked her and had feelings for her. And leading up to like when he got to go back to camp, and they had their first date. It was so precious to be able to vicariously experience that through their letters or to hear about things that happened to my step-grandmother or my great aunts and uncles. It was just this—this book felt like such a responsibility and such a gift. So, it was something that I really, really treasured.
AMY LEE-TAI: Thank you for doing all of that emotional and creative and everything else labor to get to the end of your book. You addressed some of this already, but I wondered if you have anything you want to add about your research, writing, and revision process as well. I know those are all connected, and I’m sure you cycled back again and again.
TRACI CHEE: Yeah, so the research process. Like I said, I had like been learning a little bit throughout my lifetime. It started kind of in earnest with interviewing my family members while I still could, reading my grandparents’ letters, and also my great uncle had written and self-published a memoir just for the family. So having access to that was a huge gift as well.
And from there, I expanded to novels written by people who had been in the camps themselves. So again, I had primary sources, although fictionalized. And then I expanded into nonfiction books, reading newspapers from the time, reading newspapers from Topaz. Actually, the whole archive of The Topaz Times is available online, which is a really, really cool thing. And so, I combed that for details. I also looked at a ton of photographs. There’s a lot available through the National Archives. It’s just an amazing archive from that era. It’s Densho.org, if you’re interested. Again, a great online resource.
And then I also visited some of the camps. I mentioned that I’d visited Topaz already. But I went to Manzanar, which is in California. And that one has a really incredible museum set up on site. So you go through this museum, look at these exhibits, and then you can go see the barracks—these reproduced barracks where people were staying. And they’re set up with beds and little telephones that you can listen to, and you can hear people kind of telling their own stories. It’s really incredible to be at one of these places and to feel kind of that oppressive high desert, really, really dry heat just kind of fall on you as soon as you step out of your air-conditioned car. And to sense the dust sweeping across these desert plains. It’s really something. So, if you ever get the chance, I would recommend going to one of these sites. Because you can feel the history there.
I also went to museums, like the Japanese American National Museum. I did a lot of stuff because I wanted to try and cleave as close to the history as possible. I have this background in speculative fiction and fantasy, and I was worried about that for a while. Because I was like how am I going to get through this if I can’t have magic? But it turned out that I didn’t need magic. The magic was already there in these little, tiny details that you could find in a newspaper or in your grandparents’ letters or photographs. It was all already there. So, in a way, kind of writing this book felt like the history and the events were just sliding into place. Again, I know I said it a lot, but it felt like kismet almost. It felt like a gift to be able to do this. And I forget the rest of your question, but please ask it again if I didn’t address something.
AMY LEE-TAI: Research, writing, revision.
TRACI CHEE: Right, yeah. So, the writing of this is related to that research where I knew that I wanted it to be a novel in stories. I did not quite know how to do that. And what I decided was that, okay, it’s going to be a work of historical fiction for young people. And they might not know about the Japanese American incarceration. So, what do they need to know in order to kind of get a sense of what this was like for the people living through it? And I was like, okay, that means we’re going to walk through the history in a way.
So, what do people need to know? They need to know that in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, there was a huge surge in anti-Japanese sentiment and racism, right, and war hysteria. So, I was like that’s our first chapter. That’s Minnow’s chapter. Our window into that.
I was like, okay, now we know about that. What do we need to know next? And it was the mass eviction in the spring of 1942. We need to understand what that was like for the community and how it affected them—what it felt like. And then on to like Tanforan and the temporary detention centers. Because that was, again, a discrete experience from the work and location of the authority camps. They were more permanent, a little bit better living conditions. So, I kind of tried to select these moments from history that would guide me through, and I could have a character be a window into that moment in history. And that’s how I ended up with fourteen. It did not start out with fourteen. I just kind of ended up there with the moments that I wanted to pick.
And revising it. Mostly to make that structure. Like that structure didn’t really change, so it was kind of revision within each of these almost, stand-alone short stories as we were going through.
AMY LEE-TAI: Just a brilliant structure. So, you said earlier a couple times you were a fantasy writer. Your first trilogy is The Reader, The Speaker, and The Storyteller. And just released on March 1st—
TRACI CHEE: Yes.
AMY LEE-TAI: —A Thousand Steps Into Night, which is also fantasy. So, she’s kind of bookended her novels in fantasy. So, I’m wondering—you spoke a little bit to this, about finding the magic in historical fiction. Were there other surprises that you found going through this process?
TRACI CHEE: Surprises. I mean, there was so much about the history that I didn’t know. I kind of knew, but like digging into the loyalty questionnaire. After being in camps for a year, the US government is like, “Now we’re going to give you a questionnaire to see if you’re loyal.” And people are like, “What the heck? It’s a little late, don’t you think? We’re already in camps.”
So, like digging into the nuances of that and how the pressure—like this external pressure from the United States government to declare loyal or not, without any nuance whatsoever, and how that pressure really kind of broke apart the community in, to me, a really heartbreaking way. That was a surprise. I had known about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. My great uncle was in the 442. So, I had known about it, and I had known of it—the most decorated military unit of its size and length of service. But like going into kind of this almost play by play of their actions in Europe. It was really harrowing.
There’s this book that I found—it’s wonderful. And if you get a chance, please take a look at it. It’s called Go for Broke: A Pictorial History of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion. It is a mouthful, I know. And there’s a lot of books called Go for Broke, but this one is a pictorial history. And it was really great for me because I’m not a great nonfiction reader. I like the pictures. So, in each chapter, they have like a little summary of this is what the campaign in Italy was like or this is what the campaign in France was like. But then the bulk of the chapter was photographs of the men in the 442nd and also excerpts from interviews with the people who were experiencing this. So, getting those little details was so surprising and so wonderful. There’s a moment in Twitchy’s chapter—he’s our window into the 442nd—where he talks about going through a minefield and using toilet paper to mark the spots where he finds the mines. And that’s a detail from this book. That’s something that really happened. So, it’s stuff like that—these little things. I could have never imagined that. I never could have made it up.
AMY LEE-TAI: So, my next several questions, if we have time for them, have to do with your characters. You bring to light lots of painful history, but you also bring to light the love between these characters. And I just find that juxtaposition so poignant. Yum-yum, the character, says at the end of her chapter, “We are not free, but we are not alone.”
So, I think you really show us the worst of humanity and the best of it. And if I were in the camp, I’d want to be part of that friend group. So, your fourteen characters. How did you keep track of them? For the writers in here wondering, did you have any organizational devices? Were there arcs? Were there relationships?
TRACI CHEE: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a lover of spreadsheets. So, I had a spreadsheet. Like, okay, in this time period we’re going to be looking at this thing, and it’s going to be this character. They’re related to this character. They’re boyfriend with this character. And so that really helped.
The other thing that really helped this was because the spreadsheet—I’ll do it backwards. Because the spreadsheet kind of went forward through time like the book, and I could see each character going forward, I also knew that by the time we got to let’s say Stan’s chapter—he’s chapter five—we needed to be ready for Stan. Like we needed to be ready to see this guy that maybe we’d heard of before. And so, I tried to make it a point to kind of slowly build up the character. You see a little bit of him in one and a little bit more in two as we are introduced to his family and his family store. He falls off a little in chapter three. But then by the time we get to Frankie, Frankie is like a big fan of Stan, you know? So, he comes out more, and we’re ready to see him. So that’s something that I really tried to do.
And then I also tried to kind of add the tail on it as well. So, we find out what happens to Stan. He comes back and he gets kind of thrown in the stockade. Oh, what happens after? Oh, maybe he wants to be a lawyer, right? Like there’s a little tail end to his story as well. So, I hope that by doing this, by kind of weaving into them and weaving out of them, you get more of a sense that this friend group is like a dynamic thing. People are moving in and out of it, people come and go, but kind of their connections remain.
AMY LEE-TAI: So, like our children or our nieces and nephews, our books, our characters—we love them in different ways. But I wonder, if you don’t feel like you’re betraying your other thirteen, do you have a favorite character?
TRACI CHEE: I think the two standouts for me that were just a blast to write were Bette. She is our window into the war relocation camp at Topaz. And like this is very early on. So, when she arrives, the barracks aren’t super finished, and it’s a huge shock for these San Francisco like fifty-, sixty-degree kids to go to like a high desert winter and see their first snow of their lives. It’s really dusty. It’s really bleak. And she walks in there like she is a queen, and this is her kingdom. And I love that about her. I tried to write it so that she wasn’t naïve. She knew what she was getting into. She knew what kind of life she was having. But she, with her optimism and like sheer force of will, was going to make this a blast. She was going to make it her Hollywood love story.
So, writing that—and especially because Bette is partly inspired by my grandmother, who was thirteen when she went in and sixteen when she got out. And kind of like the social butterfly. Very interested in boys and dating and dances. So, I really kind of wrote Bette’s chapter as a little tribute to my grandmother.
And then the other one, of course I loved writing Twitchy. Again, our window into the 442nd. And it was so funny. Twitchy is very unlike me. I’m a very cerebral, in-my-head kind of a person. And Twitchy like is not. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he sure is pretty. I love Twitchy. He’s so fast. He lives on his legs. He’s a boy of action. And yet his chapter came out really seamlessly.
Speaking of writing and revision, I wrote that chapter and pretty much what I wrote and sent to my editor for the first time is what showed up in the final chapter. It felt like kismet. It felt like this kid telling me his story. And even now it’s—I’m not sure if any of you have listened to the audiobook. But Kurt Kanazawa, who read Twitchy’s chapter—it’s just I love listening to that chapter. It doesn’t even feel like me.
AMY LEE-TAI: I love Bette and Twitchy too. They’re fun characters, I think. So maybe this is an overlap, but it may not be—which was the most fun to write?
TRACI CHEE: Oh, yeah, definitely those two were the most fun to write. The most like me, which I know you’re going to ask, but I do like to shout out because—poor kid—is Mary. Mary is our window into the segregation center, and she is so frustrated. She really reminds me of myself when I was a teenager because she’s smart enough to know that things in the world are wrong. Things in the world are unjust. This is not right what’s happening to them. This is hypocritical what’s happening to them. And yet she missed the cutoff for answering the loyalty question for herself, so she didn’t have a say in whether or not she stayed in Topaz or had to go to Tule Lake. And that frustration of seeing the wrongs in the world and being powerless to do anything about them really reminded me of when I was a rock, rebel teenager. I so empathize with her.
I listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana quite a lot while writing her chapter. So, she was the one I identify with most, even though she’s not as fun as Twitchy.
AMY LEE-TAI: On the flipside, what was the most difficult character for you to write?
TRACI CHEE: It might have been Mary, actually. Even though she’s the most like me. But maybe that’s because I was too close to her. But getting kind of that nuance right. And she’s not just angry. She has reasons to be angry. So, it was really, really delicate. And then also because a lot of these characters are angry. She’s angry. Stan is angry. Yoshi is angry. And trying to get the different flavors of anger was a challenge to kind of make them feel a bit more distinct.
AMY LEE-TAI: I imagine when you were writing the work, inhabiting the skin, walking in the shoes of your characters and having fourteen characters—so I’m wondering were there fourteen pairs of shoes walking around out there? How was that to do?
TRACI CHEE: Well, I wrote it fairly quickly. We sold this on proposal, so once we sold it, I kind of set aside three months and was like, okay, I’m doing a chapter a week, here we go. So, I would write and revise one perspective for a week, and then I’d be like, okay, we’re done—we’re moving on to the next one.
So, I was really only in kind of one character’s head at a time as I kind of built toward the deadline. I don’t quite know how I did it, but I did accomplish it somehow.
AMY LEE-TAI: An altered state.
TRACI CHEE: Yeah.
AMY LEE-TAI: So, reading a novel to me is like inhabiting the skin and walking in the streets. And I hope it’s not tacky for me to quote another author here, but Jason Reynolds said something like I want to bear witness to children’s lives. And I feel that is what you do for the teens and their families. You talk about their pain, their joy, their extraordinary, their ordinary lives. And you tell their emotional truth. You tell the historical truth. There’s so many times when I was reading and it’s like, “Yes, Traci. Tell it.” I felt like all along you were holding the US government, racist individuals, and systems accountable.
So, your characters—they experience this large-scale, long-term, life-long racism. And racism unfortunately is alive and well. And I’m just wondering where you see your book fitting into the larger anti-Asian American racism and just racism in general.
TRACI CHEE: Yeah, thank you. This is a huge, huge, huge question, so I’m going to try and address a small part of it kind of through my limited lens and experience. But one thing that really struck me during the research and writing of We Are Not Free was that anti-Asian racism didn’t start with the Japanese American incarceration, and it is still not over. I learned so much about Asian American history and how even before the 1940s and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there’d been a growing racism against Japanese Americans, particularly on the West Coast, where a lot of white farmers were feeling threatened. They felt their livelihoods were threatened by these Japanese American farmers who were prospering and doing well. And so that was going for a long time. And then getting into the 1930s, 1920s, and before. So, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place during that time, and I’m also Chinese American. So that was a thing. So, you just go back and back and back and then also forward and forward and forward.
And what I noticed is that anti-Asian racism has always been here, and the target has changed. It’s the target that has changed kind of depending on what else is going on in the world. So, in the 1940s after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that target was Japanese Americans. But later on, as we move in to the 1950s, maybe that target was Chinese Americans because we were getting into the Cold War. And now while we’re still in a pandemic, we notice again the target was Chinese Americans. So, I think that target is always there—is always shifting. But the racism I feel is always there.
So unfortunately, I do feel like this is still relevant. We’re still dealing with the repercussions. Like this long breadth of anti-Asian racism and just racism in this country, baked into the foundations of this country. So, my hope is that We Are Not Free engages in a little sliver of that overarching, huge conversation and reckoning that I hope we are doing with our history and our actions past and present.
AMY LEE-TAI: Thinking about a take away, I’m wondering, as an author, do you have any particular wish for your readers to take away?
TRACI CHEE: Thank you. I mean, I think it’s related to what we were just talking about. I hope that this book is seen. And I think you all for being here because I think you’re a part of that. You’re helping to bear witness to this little corner of history that I think so many people, including my family and probably people that you know as well—I think seeing and acknowledging these parts of history is uncomfortable. But that discomfort is so important to get us outside of what makes us feel comforted and to like actually create that distance between like, oh, I am uncomfortable, I have things to learn, and I have actions to take, and there are steps to take in making this world a better place than it was. So, I hope that people bear witness and then look around and also continue to bear witness to what’s going on around us right now. And then hopefully, thoughtfully, and carefully make changes where they can. And that could be interpersonal changes within your own family or friend group. Or it could be bigger. You could join a movement. You can act within these more organized institutions.
But I think we can still change this history because this history is going on around us. So that is my hope—is that it can be seen.
AMY LEE-TAI: Thank you, Traci, for challenging us as individuals and as a country to do better. And also, through the humanity of your characters and their experiences.
At this point, I would love to open up the floor for questions for Traci. Yes?
[Question from audience inaudible]
AMY LEE-TAI: Have we had a reaction from the Japanese American community, and is there a translation for the book? For those readers who may not know English.
TRACI CHEE: Yeah. Thank you for this question. We Are Not Free has not yet been translated into Japanese or another East Asian language, but I hope so because being part of the Japanese diaspora is important, so I hope that history gets told.
From the Japanese American community, I hesitate to speak for all of them because I’m just one person. But I can speak for my experiences with my family, who’ve been so wonderfully supportive of this book. After I had sold it, drafted it, gotten it pretty polished with my editor, I got advanced reading copies, and I sent those to the family members that I had interviewed as part of the research for this book. And I said, “Here is what I have done with your story. I hope you like it. But if you don’t, please tell me now, because now is a chance to change anything in case you don’t want it public.”
And like across the board, they said, “This is wonderful. We’re so proud of you. Thank you for telling these stories. It’s really wonderful.”
So having that support from my family, who again, they hadn’t talked about it for so much of their lives. And it certainly meant a whole lot, and so I’m really grateful for them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So, we hear a little bit—you mentioned your family’s backgrounds, and you see some of it in the story. Did you think about having a character with the same background as your step-grandmother? And if not, what part of her story did you use?
TRACI CHEE: Thank you for this question. Did everyone hear it? Can I get hands up in the back if you heard it? Great, thank you. Yeah, so this was like the problem with having too many good stories in my family. Was that like even throwing in Kiyoshi in the last half of the second act was a challenge. But I think my grandmother actually shows up the most in Mary’s chapter, where she and Kiyoshi meet. Because my step-grandmother and my step-grandfather met at Tule Lake. And they had a very similar situation, actually. She was sitting in her classroom. I remember her telling me this story about she heard these loud boots. Clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp in the classroom behind her. And she looked up, and she saw this very handsome boy in a nice plaid shirt. And that was like her first impression of my step-grandfather. So, kind of just that moment is kind of a little tribute to their relationship and their love story.
And then also something I remember my step-grandmother telling me about was, when she got into the camps, she had access to a piano. And that’s not something she had had before. And so, Yum-yum’s love of playing the piano also is a little bit of a tribute to her.
[Question from audience inaudible]
AMY LEE-TAI: I’m not sure I heard all of that. You’re an aspiring writer, and you’re wondering if there are any tips.
TRACI CHEE: Okay, so advice. Oh boy. I think I’ve gotten two really great pieces of advice as I have been on my journey of being a writer. And the first is like to always keep learning. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to get to a place where I feel like, “Oh, I know everything. I am the world’s best writer. Look at all my accolades.” I feel like there’s always going to be someone to learn from like a peer group to find, right? You can find a writers’ group that’s really helpful, or you can check out books on craft from the library, or you can take a class. I went to college for it. You don’t have to. There are other ways you can learn. There are so many things that you can do to always be pushing your skills and trying to learn more. And I feel like that has really pushed me to become better and better and better as I’ve been writing.
Then the other thing that I found really, really valuable is someone gave me this little piece of advice. And it’s a bit of a story. I was in graduate school, and I was in the short story workshop, and like in general grad school programs teach you to write serious adult literature. You know what I mean? Like grounded in reality. Maybe it’s about someone bringing in the groceries from their car, and that’s the whole story, right? And so that’s kind of what my training was.
And I was in this program, and I was like I don’t want to write about that—I’m going to write about this other thing. So, I turned in this story that was a retelling of a number of different fairy tales, but the point of view was like constantly changing. And also like you could see some scenes—like it was really, really experimental. And I sat through this whole workshop, and nobody liked it. They were like, “Why are you telling this scene so many times? Why don’t you just stick with one point of view? Why do you have to be so weird?” Right, because that’s basically it. I mean, we were trained to just kind of sit there and take it, and so I did. And I was feeling like why am I even doing this? Like no one is going to get this.
And then after class, one of my colleagues came up to me and he said, “Don’t listen to any of them. Hold your ground because you are doing something awesome.”
And I thought, “Okay, I am awesome. All right, I will hold my ground.”
So that is something that I’ve really taken forward with me. As I’ve been learning and trying new things and pushing myself, I’m also cognizant all the time of like, okay, there is a thing that only I can do. There is a thing that is in me to write and is really burning to get out. And that’s inspired me to try writing a novel in stories that’s historical fiction, and I’d never written historical fiction before, right? But I knew that was right, and so even when it was like, “I don’t know if I can do this, it’s so different,” I still held my ground.
And those two pieces—always learning and evolving, always growing, and then also holding to that core in yourself I think is really important as well. Thank you for the question, and best of luck with your writing.
[Question from audience inaudible]
TRACI CHEE: I think the question was about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is that right? And why I chose not to include it in the novel. Yeah, thank you. The thing is this history is indeed so broad, right? That there’s so many stories that can and should be told. And in order to keep it in one volume, I had to focus on just this one little piece of it. And the piece that I chose was incarceration camps. So, I chose to start it a few months before they were evicted and then ended when they came back. And that felt, like you said, kind of this complete story.
And to step outside of that—because things happened after that, right? There’s a whole repatriation. People going back to their homes, to war-torn Japan. That’s part of the Japanese American experience as well. But it did feel—like to have written about that as well would have just been—it would’ve been like a thousand-page book. And I was not prepared to write and revise a thousand-page book.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question. I really just feel so grateful for this book and your viewpoint and your courage. I just am amazed. Recently, we read a book at my school by Meg Medina. And one of the things that she said is that you can share more truths with fiction. And so, I noticed that when I’m reading your book. I know I’m not reading a history book, but all of a sudden it feels more true to me than history. And I just wonder if you kind of felt that way too, that somehow how we haven’t been able to touch a lot of this stuff for like hundreds of years, and I just wonder if we need a different way of doing it. And I just feel like you’re bringing art into the world, and it’s making a difference. So, I wanted to say thanks.
TRACI CHEE: Thank you. Thank you. Shout out to Meg Medina too, who is an amazing author. I mean, I do come from—I mentioned this. I have a hard time reading nonfiction. I think my brain—a lot of our brains are hard-wired to stories, right? To characters, to people. So, for me, as part of the project of We Are Not Free, I mean, I tried to remain as close to the facts and the history as possible. But it also—it felt important to me, in writing for young people, to kind of get to the truth of their emotions and what they were going through and what they were experiencing and how it was changing who they were or who they thought they were going to be. That felt really clear to me as I was reading my grandparents’ letters. So, it became a really integral part to try and, as you mentioned, live inside their skins and try and get that truth.
That’s not a truth that you can necessarily get in a history book and yet feels really valuable to me in understanding history and understanding where we’ve come from. So, thank you. Thank you so much.
AMY LEE-TAI: We have time for another couple of questions.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I know you said that you generally do fantasy, you said. So, you wrote this book, and you had a lot come out. You probably really didn’t have a scope. Do you think that after writing this, like there’s more, like you would expect maybe another type of historical fiction in your plans that you’re writing, or are you done?
TRACI CHEE: Oh, thank you. Yeah, fantasy is my first love, and I will always go back to it because I love magic. But I did—I think there was something that was so invigorating about writing about real things that happened to real people. I really loved the process of writing this book. And it also made me think more about my Chinese American heritage and the questions I had about that and what happened to my grandparents when they came to this country.
So, I would—I don’t have the idea for it yet, but I would love to one day write about my Chinese American heritage because I think there are stories there too that I could tell and are ready to be told.
AMY LEE-TAI: Is there one last question?
[Question from audience member inaudible]
TRACI CHEE: Thank you.
AMY LEE-TAI: Thank you all for being here and for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions and comments. And Traci, again, thank you so much for being here and sharing so much of yourself through your words. And if you have not read, We Are Not Free, I strongly encourage you to do that. I’m not sure that I even need to do that after you heard Traci speak. But please tell your friends and family. And if you’re here in the theater, if you would like to pick up a book of hers, New Dominion Bookshop is back there selling copies. And Traci is going to remain up here and autograph. So, you can pick up a book, come back here, join the line, and say a quick hello to Traci. Thank you all. Have a good night.