Hello mersquad coven!
This was pretty emotional for me because of how both Traci and I had family members that were directly impacted by WWII and had family members that were incarcerated in internment camps despite being American citizens. It was just a difficult time in history that I feel isn’t always discussed when people talk about WWII, and knowing how this happened to so many people across the US and it feels almost erased from history feels really insulting to those that had to endure it. So, while I know that this book could be seen difficult to read because of the plot and time in history, I feel like this book brings some sort of honor back to them.
Thank you Colored Pages for including me in this tour. Click on the banner for the rest of the schedule and to see what other tours they have coming up.
We Are Not Free
by Traci Chee
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 1, 2020
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
“All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us.
We are not free. But we are not alone.”
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.
Traci Chee is the New York Times bestselling author of The Reader Trilogy and We Are Not Free (HMH, September 2020). An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts, though she also dabbles at egg painting, bonsai gardening, and hosting game nights for family and friends. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. Traci grew up in a small town with more cows than people, and now feels most at home in the mountains, scaling switchbacks and happening upon hidden highland lakes. She lives in California with her fast dog.
What convinced you to write a historical fiction novel about the mass incarcerations of Japanese-American citizens during WWII?
In WWII, my family was incarcerated, along with more than 100,000 other people of Japanese descent, so I like to think that this history is part of my personal history. It’s something I learned about when I was twelve, and when I started pursuing publication, I knew that I’d want to tackle it in fiction someday.
Was the process of switching from fantasy to historical fiction difficult? What were some things that felt similar?
It was difficult at first! Early on, there was a chapter where I started writing in some fantasy elements before I even really realized it, and I had to pull myself back from that. But mostly, it’s just been so clear to me that the magic of fantasy is magic, but the magic of history is history. Once I understood that, the rest of it—creating characters, telling a good story—all felt pretty familiar.
I’ve rarely – if ever – heard of historical fiction novels talking about the Nisei during WWII, let alone a YA historical fiction novel. How did you push yourself to make sure this book got published?
I like a challenge! There are a lot of different elements to this project—it’s historical fiction, it’s about Japanese American teenagers, it’s a novel-in-stories with fourteen main characters—but I like to think that these elements, as complex as they might be to weave together, are also what make the book unique and compelling and worth publishing, and I was so fortunate to have publishing team that thought so too.
There are SO many historical fiction novels surrounding wars, but from the European perspective. Why do you feel like it’s important to finally show things from the Nisei perspective?
It’s my hope that We Are Not Free takes its place in a rich canon of literature about the Japanese American incarceration. Some, like Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, approach the Nisei experience from the perspective of young children. Others, like Journey to Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida, broach the subject through the lens of a pre-teen. We Are Not Free, and Displacement by Kiku Hughes, which also came out this year, hone in on what camp was like for young adults. All of these portray different experiences, but together, they show that there is no one narrative of the incarceration, and that there is a wide breadth of stories to tell about Nisei in WWII.
You mentioned in your article on Booklist Online that your grandmother passed away before you learned that both her and your grandfather were in concentration camps during their teenage years. How did you feel when you found out about that? Do you think you would have been able to understand what happened and why it was an important piece of history if she had told you before she passed away?
While doing the research for this book, I definitely missed being able to talk to my grandparents, because I think it would have been so cool to hear about their lives in their own words, even if—because I was so young when my grandmother died—I might not have been able to understand all the little nuances of her experiences. Still, I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn all these things about her now. It’s been such a gift.
It’s really great that you were able to get first-hand accounts from your relatives on what happened during that time. Was there anyone in your family that couldn’t talk about it, because it was either still too difficult to deal with or other reasons?
I’m actually so grateful, because my relatives were very generous with sharing their stories. It was wonderful learning more about their lives during the incarceration as well as before and after, and I’m so glad that I asked them to share their experiences with me!
Do you feel like those experiences from your relatives have impacted the way that you and younger generation relatives were raised?
Absolutely. In WWII, the federal government put extreme pressure on Japanese Americans to assimilate into white American society (although of course this pressure was a form of racism, and the very idea of assimilation was a lie), so that had lasting effects, not only on the heirlooms lost in the mass eviction, but in language and culture as well.
Was it difficult writing about an event that’s so close to you and your family, especially since it’s not a completely positive topic?
I think the new extra layer of difficulty for me was that this was both historical and personal. Where in fantasy, you have a lot more freedom to invent and create and conjure, with this project it felt like there was an added responsibility to cleave as close to the truth of events as possible and to be respectful of the people who lived through them. At the same time, though, that responsibility felt like a gift, like I was in charge of something very precious, and I was humbled and honored to take care of it.
Do you see yourself writing more YA historical fiction in the future? Do you know what events or topics you would write about?
I can definitely see myself writing more YA historical fiction! I’d love, for example, to explore more of the history on my Chinese-American side. It will all just depend on whether I can find the story in it!
What is one piece of advice that you would give others that want to know more about their family history during difficult times?
I loved learning from my relatives and would encourage others to sit down with their families in the spirit of sharing and good conversation, but I also think difficult times can be equally difficult to talk about, even decades after those times are over. It might be time for some of those old stories to be told. It might not be. If it is, then I think that approaching a conversation from a place of love, humility, and respect is a pretty good place to start.
Like I was saying before, this was emotional for me, and I so appreciate Traci being able to respond to these questions that I had. Stay tuned for my review sometime soon, along with my review for Displacement by Kiku Hughes, which Traci also mentioned in the interview above.