Book Recs: We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Title: We Are Not Free

Author: Traci Chee

Publication Date: September 1, 2020

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers

Genre: Historical Fiction

Age Range: YA/NA

Content warnings: some war and death, incarceration and violence

Synopsis: From New York Times best-selling and acclaimed author Traci Chee comes We Are Not Free, 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.

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.

I gotta tell you, reading We Are Not Free and Against the Loveless World back-to-back (along with my snail-paced reading of Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning) definitely threw me into a bunch of feelings that I wasn’t ready for. We Are Not Free had some of the same bleak and bitter humor, the conflict that comes with love for a distant home country, and finding communities that feel like home, that made me fall in love with Against the Loveless World. And much like Susan Abulhawa, Traci Chee’s writing had me in an inescapable grip to the very end.

Reasons to read We Are Not Free:

  1. Traci Chee masters the art of multiple perspectives. She includes not one, not two, but fourteen distinct voices, all within one story. There’s Minnow, the quiet observer. Bette the optimist. Twitchy, the boy who keeps going. Shig, the charming but angry rebel. Yum-yum, the resentful obedient daughter. They all have such distinct personalities and struggles, and to get to know each of them both through their own chapters and their features in others was one of the most beautifully heartbreaking experiences. I’ve seen some reviews that didn’t love having fourteen perspectives, mainly because it was just too much and it felt incomplete in a way. I agree that it can be a bit much to keep track of at times, but I think in terms of historical fiction/non-fiction based work, we’re lucky to get complete happy endings anyway. In the lives of these fourteen teens, their lives have literally been interrupted; they didn’t get to finish their own stories, not in the way that they wanted to anyway. At a time when they’re being tossed around like nothing, they’re each trying to gain control over something in their lives, no matter what that means. I’m not sure if Traci meant to parallel their unfinished lives with the patchwork writing of their lives (I think she did), but regardless, the pairing made for a tear-jerking read. It’s no surprise that I cried multiple times while reading, and I’d gladly endure it all again.
  2. Can we say pure, wholesome friendships??? I guess this kind of goes along with #1, but it deserves a category to itself. The friendships they build with each other create a whole other dimension to what it means to be a second-gen Japanese American teenager. Chee plays around age differences and gender norms and meshes them together in a way that allows the characters to form raw, authentic, and necessary relationships with each other. There was never a moment where someone felt alone. Sad, beaten, pissed off, hopeless, sure. But alone? Never. Something that really resonated with me was the bit about the yes-no surveys. In short, these two-question surveys serve as a loyalty gauge for those in the camps, and both questions had to be answered the same; basically, they’re forced to either incriminate themselves or relinquish their freedom. To make matters even worse, younger children and teens couldn’t answer for themselves and their fates depended on their parents. That being said, some of our 14 protagonists are “no-nos,” who are forced to move to a more established base. Despite being separated by distance and now ideology in a sense, these friends write to each other and continue to think about and love each other from afar. They truly love each other for who they are, which is especially awe-inspiring because of how different they are. Absolutely nothing could separate these friends.
  3. Honestly, being a teenager is hard enough without racism and prejudice. Chee’s choice in focusing on second-gen Japanese American teens is an astounding, extremely nuanced one. They live in a world that not only vilifies them for their existence, but in a smaller subculture of Asian Americans who face expectations of obedience and submission and goodness, internalized both by themselves and their parents. Chee’s different commentaries on the stereotypes of obedience and resilience are refreshing and unapologetically angry. Have you ever thought about writing the book you needed when you were younger? Traci Chee has done it. It is a hurt and angry love letter to Japanese Americans and to have been able to grasp just the tiniest bit of it was amazing.
  4. I’m not sure about other countries, but if you’re from the U.S., the most we’ve learned about Japanese American history in school stops at Pearl Harbor. In We Are Not Free, it’s just the beginning. Unless you’ve sought out information about Japanese internment camps and the mass evictions and vandalism and exclusion during and after WWII, it’s hard to find it taught in schools. The surveys and the war itself became huge parts of the story. The surveys especially, although tiny little things, changed the entire direction of their lives. Their answers became their identities and nothing else mattered. That little bit of history alone leaves much to be unpacked, and I don’t quite have the words to do it for you here, but if and when you read this, it will change you forever. The layers are so complex to work through and I’m still trying to figure it out for myself, but to read this was to become more human. Tying in with #3, I think centering teenagers was such a brilliant idea!! This generation has never known a world without war, and to write about how war affects everything off of the battlefield was absolutely genius.

We are not free. But we are not alone.

Traci Chee, We Are Not Free

I had such a difficult time writing this review just because of how much there was to say, and how little words I had to say it. As soon as I finished reading, I dm’d Sara (@ words with wings) just to vaguely scream?? It was one of those books that left me with a mess of feelings that I needed to explain to someone who would understand them only by reading this book, and I’m so ready for any of you who decide to scream once you finish (sorry not sorry). In addition to We Are Not Free, I’ve been reading Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (since February whoops), which is a nonfiction compilation written by Korean American Cathy Park Hong. So far, it’s easily one of my favorites this year, and deals with many of the same themes. It’s sharp and poetic, and pairing the two books has whittled me down to a ball of tears. Traci Chee holds nothing back. She lays her anger bare, and pushes her hurt forward until it’s all you can feel, and I couldn’t help but love it. This was unforgettably raw beauty that will stay with me forever.

All that being said, I’d love to wish We Are Not Free and Traci Chee a very happy book birthday! If you’d like to support this stunner (as you should), you can find it at the links below and add it on goodreads!

Barnes and Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound | Amazon

7 thoughts on “Book Recs: We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

      u g h traci chee is a LEGEND and minor feelings had me crying from the first chapter and it’s taken me ages because quite frankly, i don’t wanna finish it yet


  1. Your review has gotten me even more excited to read this book! 14 POVs is seriously an accomplishment, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the discrimination Japanese-Americans faced during WWII. Thank you for this wonderful review, Orianna! 💛

    Liked by 1 person

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