We Are Not Free is emotional and powerful. I actually don’t know if I have the words to describe how much I adored We Are Not Free. This historical fiction novel talks about the mass incarceration and forced removal of Japanese American Citizens during World War II. Telling the stories of fourteen teens, Chee weaves a story of heartbreak, racism, war, and identity. Keep reading this book review to see my full thoughts on this amazing book.
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
(Disclaimer: I received this book from Edelweiss. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
TW: assault, racism
We Are Not Free defies descriptions. A story about fourteen teens united by their bonds to each other and their struggles with identity, it is an emotional story of harassment, enemies and resilience. This historical fiction novel examines the racism, the ways they are forcibly removed, forced to navigate two halves of themselves. The racism and the fear of harassment was incredibly emotional to read, especially as a fellow person of color (and especially considering the growing Anti-Asian sentiment experienced during the pandemic – even though these are in no way similar experiences).
Choosing fourteen different characters was an epic undertaking, but it works so seamlessly not only because each of them are interwoven in their friendships, but because it also advances the time of the novel. Each one references the friends and inner narrations we’ve come to love, but also as the time has progressed. And, y’all, some of these chapters made me tear up so have your tissues ready!
Chee creates stories from these new articles, giving them moments of heartbreak, watching their belongings that make up a life lying on the sidewalk for scavengers, and moments of joy and lightness. It’s a story about fourteen teens growing up in these camps of barbed wires. As they figure out how to filter their lives and histories into one suitcase. But it’s also about their feelings falling in love, watching the people they love leave us, and the moments their heartbreaks for the first time. The characters and their feelings leaving themselves raw and vulnerable on the pages before us.
A huge theme, understandably so, is the way these characters, and people, are turned into ‘enemy aliens’. The ways it matters who defines us and the ripples it has in our lives. Not only the fear we have walking down the sidewalk, or going into a store, but for renting an apartment and going to college. It’s a story not only about their forced removal or the temporary detention centers, but about the ways their identity becomes split. Only being defined for what you can see and asking to separate our ties to our culture with the soil on which we’ve been born.
Where questions on pieces of paper are more than words, but traps made of ink. Where the answers of yes and no split families in the middle and place oceans between birthdays. Knowing that there are these images of you, overstated and grotesque, and they expect you to fall into these placeholders. That when you give into those feelings of rage, it merely confirms their beliefs all along. That your existence is already their sign of trouble.
We Are Not Free is a story about resilience. Survival full of complicated mistakes, struggles with anger and resentment at the sheer injustice, and knowing that when we give into that anger, they only win. The writing in We Are Not Free is glorious as Chee takes us on a journey of highs and lows, of sadness and rage, love and tenderness. We Are Not Free is a story we all have to read, not only to know more about the past, but to educate ourselves on the present. To realize that just when they were released from the detention centers did not mean the ends to their struggles. That struggles like that not only exist today, for others, but that echoes of the past still linger today.