Traci Chee’s beautifully written historical fiction novel pulls from her own family history of being forcefully relocated during World War II to draw attention to an often overlooked episode of American history.
We Are Not Free follows a group of teen Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American citizens, and their experiences with increasing racism in a time of rising racial tension during World War II. The resulting mass incarceration of Japanese Americans threatens to tear apart the tight-knit community as their lives are forever changed.
Rather than limiting the perspective to one or even a couple of characters, We Are Not Free centers fourteen characters ranging from ages thirteen to twenty: Francis “Frankie” Fujita, Tom “Tommy” Harano, Aiko “Ike” Harano, David “Twitchy” Hashimoto, Masaru “Mas” Ito, Shigeo “Shig” Ito, Minoru “Minnow” Ito, Stanley “Stan” Katsumoto, Mary Katsumoto, Keiko Kimura, Hiromi “Bette” Nakano, Yuki Nakano, Amy “Yum-yum” Oishi, and Kiyoshi “Yosh” Tani.
Though fourteen perspectives sounds overwhelming, Chee skillfully manages these characters in a way that adds more depth to the story, bringing the nuances of different experiences during the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II. Traci Chee’s incredible writing brings the characters to life and ties together their stories in a cohesive and multi-faceted master narrative. The pacing paired with the characters’ relationships to one another also makes the many perspectives more cohesive.
We Are Not Free begins right before the mass incarceration and forced relocation of Japanese Americans, which reflects the racism the characters experience on the day-to-day level before addressing the state-sanctioned racism and violence of the mass incarceration itself. Through the progression of the novel and the different obstacles that the characters encounter, Chee reflects the diversity of experiences even amongst those who were incarcerated. Factors such as the camps they were relocated to, their perceived loyalty to the American government determined by an inherently incriminating survey they were required to take, and the family situation of the characters were determining factors that shaped their experiences.
We Are Not Free calls attention to a not-so-distant history, and its publication during the COVID-19 pandemic — with anti-Asian hate crimes on the rise — only emphasizes its relevance. Japanese American mass incarceration and forced relocation may have taken place during World War II, but the US government continues to deport and separate families at the US-Mexico border. It would be a mistake to take this book’s label of “historical fiction” at face-value rather than looking deeper into its historical and current contexts. And it would be a mistake to ignore these patterns of racial injustice in American history by persistently labelling them as “historical” events.
Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free is not only a necessary book, but a beautifully written masterpiece as well — and definitely a book to add to your nightstand to-read stack.