An Interview with Printz Award Honoree Traci Chee, Author of We Are Not Free

Each year, a committee of thoughtful and diligent YALSA members reads dozens of titles to determine the winner of the Michael L. Printz award for literary excellence in young adult literature. The committee also selects honor titles, a small group of exemplary books that merit special recognition. In 2021, the committee selected Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free to receive this honor designation, and this multi-vocal novel about the incarceration of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor is worthy of every accolade it has received.

We are so grateful for Traci’s words and her wisdom, and most especially, for her time, given so generously for this interview. If you have not yet read We Are Not Free, perhaps this interview will convince you to move it up the TBR pile! And if you are a fan of audiobooks, the full-cast recording of this one is tremendous.

THE HUB: Besides being an important part of United States history, the events you explore in We Are Not Free are part of your family’s history. Would you describe your research process and how you balanced the external research with the personal stories from your family?

CHEE: For the first twelve years of my life, I wasn’t really aware that this had happened — I just didn’t know about it. And then, when I was twelve, my grandfather was awarded an honorary diploma from this school in San Francisco where he would have graduated if he hadn’t been evicted and incarcerated. That event put the incarceration in my mind as a thing that had happened in history and also a thing that happened to my family. But even then my family didn’t really talk about it very much. It was still something they played really close to their chest.

So, after that initial seed, I started reading novels like Journey to Topaz or Farewell to Manzanar, so I had this little bit of exposure through fiction, and then, I started hearing family stories here and there about what they had gone through in the camps. For example, there’s that moment in We Are Not Free where Yuki is shouted out of the ice cream parlor, and that is inspired by something that happened to my great-uncle when he was 8. So, I was gathering these things, and then in 2007 my mom and my aunt took me on a pilgrimage to Topaz, the incarceration camp site where my grandparents were. We drove all the way across the Nevada desert to this middle of nowhere, high desert location, and I got to stand at the old cement foundations where the barracks had been, where my grandparents had lived when they were 13 and 16. I got to look at the original barbed wire fences that had enclosed them, and it was a hugely powerful experience. That moment was when I really understood, as best I could without having experienced it myself, how harrowing it must have been to have been uprooted from San Francisco, which is so different from high desert Utah, and then to be plopped down there in what felt like a foreign country. 

I started doing research for this book in earnest in 2016. I’d been to museums, I’d been to these incarceration campsites, but in 2016, my mom and I went on this little tour of our remaining family members who had been in the camps, and we got to interview them and to sit down at their tables and drink tea and ask them about their lives before camp, in camp, after camp. Hearing all of their really diverse experiences of what it was like to be incarcerated — and it depended on how well off they were before the incarceration or what they lost or what their parents’ attitudes were, which camps they went to — all of that gave us this wonderful kaleidoscope of experiences, and I was starting to understand how I might tackle this story. Then I started doing nonfiction research, reading newspapers, reading more novels from the time, looking at art from the time, visiting more of the incarceration camp sites, reading my grandparents’ letters from that time. My grandmother and grandfather basically fell in love over mail! And all of that came together in We Are Not Free. So it was part “regular” research and then part learning my family’s stories, and I hope I fused them together in a powerful way.

THE HUB: Oh, definitely. Hearing those stories as a member of the family probably had its own heartbreaking and difficult moments. And retelling them had to have some weight to it as well. Is there a moment that stuck out to you as being particularly hard as you were retelling it? A moment that hit more on a personal level for you or for your family?

CHEE: I would say that it was emotionally difficult trying to spin these family anecdotes into fiction, to translate them into this fictionalized narrative. For example, in chapter 3, Yum Yum has this experience at the Tanforan Detention Center, where she’s looking out over the city of San Bruno behind these barbed wire fences. The conditions are pretty horrible, she’s living in a horse stall, and she’s looking out at all of these free people and thinking to herself, “I am not free.” And that is a moment that I got from my great-auntie Mary who had that similar experience. She’d been told again and again, “You’re an American citizen! You’ve got all these great rights! You’re free! You’re so lucky!” And then what happens to her? She gets evicted and incarcerated — not for anything that she’s done or her family has done or almost anybody has done — and then she’s locked up and she has to look out at all of these people that get these rights that she was promised. Trying to understand that feeling was emotionally difficult, but it felt like such a privilege and a gift to have these stories and to be able to translate them into a novel, so that part actually felt easy. It just felt like this is a huge thing that hardly anyone gets, and putting it into fiction felt seamless. That part was easy; the emotional part was difficult.

THE HUB: You said, “hardly anyone gets” the chance to experience family stories in this way, and that makes me think about the fact that “hardly anyone gets” the reality of these camps because it’s not really taught in school. Your book and a few others (like Kiku Hughes’ Displacement and George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy) are offering today’s readers really powerful and engaging perspectives on this piece of history, a part of our past that — at best — we’ve glossed. Like we know it went on, but the prevailing narrative is that it wasn’t such a big deal, it was just for a short time, right? And I can’t help but think with the work you’re doing, you and others, maybe more people will “get this” now.

CHEE: Yeah, thank you! I feel really lucky. And there is a long history of incarceration literature: Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo, who was in the camps, and she drew pictures of her time there. Or No-No Boy, which came out in the 50s, by John Okada. So, there is this long history of people writing about the incarceration, but to land among Kiku and George Takei is really special. To have these books come out at the same time and to be read against each other, it’s exciting to see all of the different perspectives. For instance, Displacement has this time travel concept, focusing on a character in the 21st century looking back and critiquing that time, and in We Are Not Free, I really tried to land us in it more, so that contrast, and to see more stories, is really exciting. I hope that people keep writing, that we hear more and more.

THE HUB: So true. I’m so glad you’ve named those older titles and authors, those who’ve been doing this work, to remind people that these stories have been there all along, and that maybe as librarians we could do a better job of highlighting the train of narratives that has been taking place over the years. 

Despite that history, your book is particularly timely, landing as it does in what some would call a “rise” in anti-AAPI violence and discrimination. But as you write in the author’s note, “we are part of an ongoing pattern of injustices that have affected and are still affecting millions of people of color on this continent” and later, “History is not dead. We have not moved on.” So if there is no “rise,” how do we, like Mas, grapple with the reality of “what this country was and has always been” (237)?

CHEE: I love this question, and it is so difficult! But in doing this research, it seems to me it has always been there, this anti-Asian sentiment. It’s been woven into the fabric of this country since we have been here, either brought here against our will or immigrated here voluntarily. That’s a history that’s hundreds of years long, but it does come with some ebbs and flows to it. If there is a throughline of anti-Asian sentiment or anti-Asian racism, I also feel like the groups that get singled out as particular targets, that ebbs and flows, and that’s something I really noticed in doing this research. The Chinese Exclusion started in the 1880s and went all the way up through the 1940s, but then because the U.S. was at war with Japan all of a sudden in the 1940s, politically it became wrong to be racist against Chinese people, so the Chinese Exclusion era ended, and then Japanese people were put in the incarceration camps, and then the 50s rolled around with this fear of Communism, so there was a new rise in anti-Chinese sentiment.

It goes in these ups and downs, and you can see us in the 2020s in an up period, specifically against Chinese people because of these fears about the coronavirus, and particular comments that specifically racialized this virus and made Chinese people in particular–but certainly anyone who looks Chinese–a target. That feels to me like that ebb and flow, that rise and fall of racism, but it is, I think, always there. And I feel like this sense that it is rising or falling, or that it is new, comes from our forgetting, or like you mentioned, our glossing over of history. It comes from forgetting that we have a long history of being here, and a long history of persecution, and a long history of activism and literature about it in this country. So I think part of grappling with this is to continually try to educate ourselves about our history and about our current situation, and to use that knowledge to do better. I hope that’s what we’re doing. But at least for me, in the process of researching this book and learning more about Asian American history, that’s certainly something that I’ve experienced, that long look at history and the understanding that this racism isn’t new, and we’ve got to do a better job stopping it now before it continues.

THE HUB: That calls to mind those buttons or badges that Minnow describes, the ones worn by his neighbors that say “I am Chinese.” I assume that’s something based in fact, not something of your imagination?

CHEE: Yes. I went and looked at some archival photos of people with those buttons and also heard it from family members who saw their peers wearing those buttons. There is a pattern there, I think. I was reading my uncle’s memoir, and he pointed out that after the attacks on 9/11, anyone who looked Muslim was singled out, and it didn’t even matter who those folks actually were. The people lashing out at anyone they perceived as Muslim had so much fear and hatred and racism inside of them, and that’s what mattered. It’s important to focus on that vitriol. I think it’s Minnow who says, “we could do everything right, and they’d still hate us.” And I feel like that is the case for a lot of minorities in this country, not just racial minorities, but other groups as well. It doesn’t matter how good you are. That hatred and vitriol and prejudice still exists in the person who is “othering” you or attacking you. It’s heavy stuff. It’s complicated.

THE HUB: It is! But to your credit, the book is also so full of the effervescence and life of teenagers being together. There’s so much joy and laughter, so I would not want anyone to come away from our conversation and think, “Oh, what a downer!” It is hard, but it is also life-affirming and so joyful at times.

CHEE: That was important to me, to not have it be all bad, all the time, because in my research, it didn’t seem like the experience of most of the people who were there. Yes, it was bad, but also they were trying to live their lives. They were trying to make the best of what they had, and they were very resilient in doing that. I think that being able to thrive, as best you can, in a situation where you are oppressed, is a form of resistance. Finding joy and claiming that for yourself, is a kind of speaking up against what’s happening to you. So that was really important to me, and I’m glad it came through for you.

THE HUB: Your reference to their resilience makes me think of the concept of gaman. Would you talk more about that?

CHEE: The concept of gaman, or the idea of shikata ga nai — they’re similar — it means you’ve just got to deal with it, or persevere, or you bury it and do the best you can. This came up a lot during my reading and research, and I really struggled with that because in a lot of instances, it just meant “bear it.” And me being a feisty, anti-racist, feminist in the 21st century, I was like, “But I don’t get it! FIGHT!” I was struggling to understand that, and I know there are differences in culture between then and now and the situation was completely different, but I was trying to grapple with what that would mean for a teenager who was told, “gaman,” persevere, and who also had that instinct similar to my own, who felt so angry about it and could see it was so wrong and want to do something about it. So if you have all of that inside of you, what does perseverance look like? So that chapter became Shig’s chapter, where he’s really grappling with his feeling of powerlessness.

THE HUB: Yes, that anger really comes through in Shig. He fights, and he might be the most identifiable “teen” of all the voices.

CHEE: He’s really trying to figure that out, and he turns to a little bit of vandalism, and then he talks to his mom who tells him, “gaman.” And he doesn’t get it. He’s like, “I don’t get how that could be a response to this.” What he comes to, and I think what I came to, is it doesn’t mean “do nothing.” For him, it means — to persevere, gaman means — you can take what’s inside of you and use it to change your situation in small ways. Like how Yum Yum plays her heart out when she’s saying goodbye to her piano or how they decide to make little origami creatures for all the kids who are getting loaded onto the bus. To him, perseverance doesn’t mean “grin and bear it.” It doesn’t mean to mindlessly obey. It means take what you can and transform it in whatever ways you can. 

THE HUB: Definitely. I hate to do it, but I’m going to turn our conversation back to something painful. One of the quietest and most painful images is that of Mas and Shig and Minnow’s mother burning their Japanese heirlooms, trying to protect against what turned out to be inevitable. Did this element of the story come from archival research or from your family? 

CHEE: This one came, initially, from my family. I was interviewing my great-auntie Mary, and she told that story, and I had never encountered that before in my reading. I didn’t know that you could come home and find your parent or your grandmother or grandfather sitting in front of the fire, feeding things into it. I asked if that was unusual, and she said, “No, everyone was doing it at the time.” 

THE HUB: I asked because I guess in some ways I wanted it not to be your family’s story. Thinking about it broadly, I’m left with how much cultural history was lost just trying to save themselves. It was never going to be the case that they could have proved themselves American enough or divorced enough from their past, but they hoped that it could, and they destroyed those items.

CHEE: For me, being 4th generation, I certainly feel that loss. I certainly wish that I still had that to connect to, or still had letters from that time, or heirlooms that people had brought over from Japan when they immigrated here. That is a painful one for me personally. And on an intellectual level, I think about the pressure to assimilate and how that was absolutely a part of the incarceration as well. People were destroying their connections to Japan so that they could have the appearance of being American, and that didn’t mean Japanese American. It didn’t mean being Asian American. It meant being white.

During the relocation effort in 1942 and into 1943, the people who passed intensive background checks were encouraged to relocate into cities in the midwest, where they could hopefully assimilate into the communities there. That was encouraged by our government! Move into these communities and do the American Way! Try to blend in! And by “blend in,” we mean “be white.” I think that was a huge part of it – the breaking of this community. That was something that really came through in my grandfather’s letters to my grandma, where a lot of each letter would be dedicated to “Oh, did you hear? So-and-so’s in Detroit now — they’ve got a job as a dishwasher” or “So-and-so went to New York, and someone else is there.” I could really feel, reading it, that they were scattering–they were being scattered across this country. That’s something I tried to get into the book as well, that fracturing of this tight-knit community.

THE HUB: The book opens and closes with the image of the Golden Gate Bridge, a symbol of promise even though in Minnow’s drawing, “the tower looks flimsy and out of proportion, like it wouldn’t be able to hold up to the weight of all its promises” (8). What is it about this bridge that speaks to you?

CHEE: I grew up in San Francisco, in the Richmond District. From a lot of places in that part of the city, that bridge is there. You turn a corner, and there’s the bridge. It’s almost 2 miles across, so it’s huge, and it has that striking red color, and when the fog is rolling in through the Golden Gate strait, it’s coming underneath the towers, and to see the whole bridge appearing and disappearing through the fog, it’s a magical sight. Or from the East Bay, you can see the sun setting over this bridge, and it’s gorgeous.

So for me, growing up, it felt like a symbol of being a kid in America and also a symbol of entry into this country. Angel Island is in the center of San Francisco Bay, and that has a messy and complicated history too. It was a place where immigrants were brought and detained before being allowed into this country. And the Golden Gate bridge was how they entered. So, it was a symbol of hope, but also, we have to ask: What kind of country are we building? We have this promise, the American Dream: you can come here, you can make your way in the world. But also, and I think this is what Minnow struggles with, that’s not a promise this country makes to everyone. That is a promise that this country has made to different groups at different times in history, predominantly white men. And the definition of white has even changed throughout history, so it’s complicated. To have the bridge as a symbol that is complex is something that I hope comes through.

THE HUB: It does. It’s very effective. Another element that is effective is the multi-vocal narrative. Though multi-vocal novels are nothing new, the way you incorporate so many different narrators and pass the baton of the story so seamlessly one to the next does feel like a fresh iteration of the form. How did you come to this structure, these voices? Were they all there from the beginning, or did the form emerge in the revision process?

CHEE: For a long time, I thought that this would be a single point of view, linear novel. But that idea was complicated by all the research that I did. I started to realize that there were so many different experiences and so many good stories, even within my own family. Some were in San Francisco, but my step-grandmother was in the Sacramento Valley — they were farmers — and my step-grandfather was down in LA. Their experiences were so different, and the stories that they had to tell and their reactions to the incarceration were so varied and diverse, and I wanted to write them all! But I had no idea how I could possibly get that into a single point of view, straight up and down novel. I struggled with that for a long time, and then I realized I did not have to do that. I could write something that was more expansive in its scope. I could have more characters. I could have a situation where you only see a character once and then we move on. Once I stumbled on that idea, I realized this was something I could work with. 

From there, I tried to let the history guide me. I had to figure out what points on the timeline are important to hit, so I went through the history, and asked, “What do people need to know in order to understand the Japanese American incarceration?” And that’s how I landed on the post-Pearl Harbor war hysteria and anti-Japanese racism. And then I thought we’d need to understand what the mass eviction was like. And then I needed to have a chapter on the temporary detention centers, because those were a distinct thing from the so-called “relocation centers,” or incarceration camps. Then we have the loyalty questionnaire. Picking out these pieces of the history led me through the timeline and gave me the structure. 

Then, I had to decide what kind of character would be the most interesting to show us what’s going on. That’s how I ended up with Bette, for example, who is such an optimist and so glamorous, giving us this introduction to the Topaz incarceration camp, which is bleak and dusty and doesn’t even have all of its utilities set up yet. To have that contrast, I thought, was compelling. And then to tie them all together — this came through the revision process — I realized that love was the connection between each of these stories. Minnow loves his friend group but also loves his middle brother Shig the most, and so that’s who we see following Minnow’s chapter. And Shig loves and learns from his girlfriend Yum Yum, so that’s who we see next. And Yum Yum’s best friend is Bette, so . . . I hope that how much they love each other is a way to lead us through this story and give us that feeling of how tight this community was and even became through this experience.

THE HUB: And it works! Each of those voices, besides perfectly fitting those historical highlights that you wanted to hit, the voice itself or the character on the page takes a unique form, setting itself apart on the page in both tone and content. Which was your favorite to write? Which was the hardest?

CHEE: I loved writing Twitchy’s chapter. He is such a beautiful soul, and I loved how different he was from me — he really tries not to think at all whereas I am always in my head! His chapter was just action, and he’s so in love with the world, but also he’s in the middle of the European theater of war. His chapter just flowed out of me — the version you see in the book is actually quite close to the first draft that I sent to my editor. 

One of the hardest was one of the characters that is the most like me, and that is Mary. At least, she’s the most like me when I was a teenager. Mary is our window into the Tule Lake segregation center after the so-called “no-nos” were moved from their other incarceration camps into this one segregation center, as it came to be called, that had higher security. Mary didn’t get a choice. She wasn’t allowed to answer the loyalty questionnaire because she just missed the age cutoff, so she’s there, and I feel like when I was a teenager, I was developing my sense of justice and what the world should be like, and I was beginning to see how it didn’t match up to what it should be, and I feel like Mary is very much in that situation. But Mary, like me as a teenager, feels powerless to do anything about it and certainly she kind of is. There are all of these huge forces shifting her life, from her father to the U.S. government to the U.S. Army, which takes over the camp a chapter later. She’s railing, she has so much frustration and anger because she sees what’s wrong, and she can’t do anything about it. That is the way I felt as a teenager. I was in high school when 9/11 happened. There was this big push towards war, and I didn’t feel like that was the answer, so I was out there trying to protest and feeling like this may be something, but it doesn’t feel like enough. This doesn’t feel like I can change anything in any substantive way. That was Mary, and it was a real struggle to get that out.

THE HUB: I’m thinking, too, of all the different family units, and the ways they brought with them the difficulties and challenges of their family stories from before the incarceration. The reality of every family having its own conflicts was true before this terrible thing and remained true, and that’s another throughline. It reminds readers who would rather see history through a monolithic lens of how it’s all individual stories. We can’t dismiss not even one of them. They’re all important.

CHEE: That was absolutely part of the project. There were more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated, and they are not a monolith. They are so different, and they had so many different reactions to it. I feel like we could keep telling these stories, and I hope we keep telling these stories, for a long time to get more of those experiences into our cultural consciousness. 

THE HUB: I agree. From the title and throughout, this book explores the concept of freedom, both as a national slogan and as a lived reality. I particularly appreciated the description of Stan’s father as someone who yelled:

I think it was one of the most American things about him, how he seized upon the freedom to be loud, to be heard, to claim his own space, even if his space encroached on everyone else in earshot. (126)

Stan is describing a type of freedom, but it’s not particularly a positive connotation. How would you define a more ideal version of freedom? How would Kiyoshi? Or Bette?

CHEE: It’s so funny that you’ve pulled this quote out because this passage was a response to a historical expert who read this and said it was unrealistic for characters to be fighting in the barracks, for Mary and her father to be screaming at each other, because they had hardly any privacy, and this is a private culture where you would have tried to keep these things away from the neighbors. I thought that was accurate, and also hilarious, because Mary’s arguments with her dad come directly from stories about my grandma getting in fights with my great-grandpa. So I was thinking about that cultural meaning of shouting and having the freedom to be loud. That’s something that I wanted to touch upon with Stan’s dad claiming that loudness because he is in America.

But about that ideal version of freedom, I feel like it’s something we are going to have to be constantly negotiating. I don’t know that there is ever going to be an ideal when it’s something we are still grappling with. I don’t know if that’s a concept that we will ever be able to define because it’s still evolving. For the characters, Kiyoshi is a character who is very afraid–he is our window into the Tule Lake segregation center when it’s under martial law–so for him, I think freedom would feel like safety. The freedom to walk down his street and not be accosted, and that’s a version of freedom that I don’t think everyone has in this country now, even, so that’s part of it. And for Bette, I think it would be the freedom to be seen as she really is, because she is a character who is grappling with this white ideal beauty standard, and for her to be seen as beautiful without trying to be white would feel like freedom.

I’ve kind of dodged your question, but I don’t know that there is an ideal form of freedom; there are just all of these elements of it. But I do think that there is an element of an ideal freedom that includes equality and justice for all. It’s not something that should be applied to just one group, and it certainly involves an active attempt at making sure that everyone has equal opportunities. And I think it is something we are still lacking in this country, so I hope we keep trying to negotiate it.

THE HUB: I think you’ve nailed the complication of it because so much of what you rightly identified for your characters or for yourself would be a personal definition of freedom, and then there are all these folks in the world who want to define freedom on their terms, but their personal freedom is impinging on other people’s freedom. There is always an individual or personal perspective on freedom, but to avoid harm it has to be married to the collective, which is exactly what you’re doing in this book. It’s the personal story that makes the collective narrative, and that is the heart of whatever I might call an ideal version of freedom. So, I think you answered it with your book as well as with your response.

CHEE: Well, thank you. I love that.

THE HUB: And I love this book, so thank you. And thank you for your time!