Traci Chee Talks with Roger

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Fantasy writer Traci Chee moves to historical fiction in We Are Not Free, a kaleidoscopic look — fourteen narrators! — at the lives of young Japanese Americans “relocated” (incarcerated) during World War II.

Roger Sutton: You’re coming off a very successful fantasy trilogy with a different publisher [the Reader trilogy]. Different genre, different kind of thing — what possessed you to write this book?

Traci Chee: My muse! I have a very unruly, creative spirit, and whenever a project strikes me, that ends up being what I’m best equipped to write at that time. After the Reader trilogy, I pitched a post-apocalyptic young adult fantasy to my agent. She was like, “This is cool, but it’s going to be a little while before we can pitch it, so keep doing your thing.” I’d been thinking about writing a book about Japanese American incarceration for years — since I decided to pursue publication professionally — and it all came together in that couple of weeks before I had to get back to my agent.

RS: Because it’s so different. I read some of The Reader today, which I hadn’t read before, and I thought, “Wow, she’s really using different strings on her bow for the new book.”

TC: I listened to an interview with Markus Zusak [The Book Thief] and he said something like, “I only want to write books that maybe I can’t write.” That very much resonated with me. I like challenging myself. I think I would get bored otherwise.

RS: You have fourteen main characters. Somebody gets two entries, but otherwise everyone just has one chapter, is that correct?

TC: Yes. It felt right to bookend the story with Minnow, who’s fourteen years old in 1942, experiencing post-Pearl Harbor racism in San Francisco, and then to revisit his perspective after going through the incarceration camps. Now he’s seventeen, he’s coming home, and really thinking about what “home” is and what he wants to make it. Everyone else gets one chapter. Although there is a chapter that’s in the royal we, with a little bit of everybody.

RS: You tell the story not just through a spectrum of voices, but through communities of teenagers. First in San Francisco, and then within the two camps [Topaz and Tule Lake]. There are parents, there are older people, there are younger children there — but who we really get a sense of are these teens. They don’t all meet, but they’re all linked to each other in one way or another.

TC: That came from my research. In 2016 I started interviewing my relatives, because they’re all getting up there in age, and I didn’t want their stories to be lost before I could write them. In these interviews with my great-aunts and -uncles and my step-grandma, I got so many rich historical details, but also really different experiences. I struggled with this for a long time, because I could not figure out how I could possibly write just one single perspective and get in all of this incredible nuance, complexity, contradiction, and detail. I also had the really good fortune of having access to my grandpa’s letters to my grandma from 1945. Near the end of the war he’d been drafted into the army, and he started writing to her. In them — he’s nineteen, she’s fifteen at the time — it was so clear to me that they were just kids. He was interested in getting a copy of the yearbook, finding out all of the good gossip about their friends, and knowing what songs she liked on Your Hit Parade. These were just such normal, regular teenage things, that I went through when I was a kid, and I imagine kids today are still concerned with. It became really important to me to tell the story of Japanese American incarceration through the lens of what it’s like to be a young person — one who had been promised so many things, and then had that promise broken by their own country.

RS: What was your sense of the incarceration camps growing up? What did you hear from your family, and from the culture around you?

TC: It was kind of a mystery to me. I didn’t actually know anything about them until I was twelve. Then my grandpa was awarded an honorary diploma from the high school in San Francisco where he would have graduated from if it hadn’t been for the incarceration. That was kind of my introduction. And you know how in a family, you have a couple of family stories that keep coming up again and again? It was like that with the incarceration. An example is the story of my great-uncle, at age eight, being shouted out of an ice-cream store by the man behind the counter because he was Japanese American.

RS: And that became an anecdote in the story.

TC: Incarceration was one of those things that we all knew had happened, though they didn’t really cover it in school. Then in 2007 I went on a pilgrimage with my mom and my aunt to Topaz, where my grandparents were incarcerated. That was the first moment of me learning more about what it was like for them, standing at the site of their old barracks, and really having it hit home what had happened to them.

RS: When you’re taking, for example, your anecdote about the ice-cream store, which then becomes an event that happens in your novel, how does a writer detach something like that from family lore to make it her own in a story? I would imagine it’s tough.

TC: I think I went through a similar process with the family lore and the historical details that I found in my reading or visiting museums or the camps. I really tried to understand the truth — the factual truth, but also the emotional truth — and to tell that truth through fiction, and also for a twenty-first-century audience. In that anecdote about my great-uncle, some of the details are changed. The character is sixteen years old when that happens to her. There’s the context of her winning a baseball game, and she’s riding high on that, and then she gets absolutely crushed. That context, within the novel, helps drive home that emotional impact. That feeling of being screamed ethnic slurs at by an adult is kind of the core of that story, so that’s what I tried to adhere to.

RS: I was reading another historical novel that gave a lot of family lore, but it felt like the author didn’t feel free to detach from it. All kinds of unimportant detail came with the core of the story. It seems like you need to carve that stuff off to reuse it.

TC: I think so. You have to winnow down to the truth, and then take that truth and put it into fiction. That was my process in writing the book.

RS: When did you arrive at your characters? Did you know that there were going to be fourteen of them from the beginning?

TC: No. I knew there had to be multiple main characters, but I did not know how many. It wasn’t until I took a look at the history, and figured out which moments I wanted to focus on, that I decided: we need a character for what Topaz was like when they first arrived in the fall of 1942. And after that: we need a character looking at the loyalty questionnaire at the beginning of 1943. Selecting these windows into the everyday life of incarceration — and also really heightened moments, like that period of martial law in Tule Lake in 1943–1944 — that became my structure. And then that number ended up being the number of characters I needed.

RS: How did they arrive in your imagination?

TC: Some of them came out of family stories, or moments from my family history. In the second chapter we have this guy, Shig, who is our window into the forced eviction in 1942. The inspiration for him came from a photo of my grandpa that my mom saw at the Smithsonian Institution during a visit when I was a kid. He’s lounging on the steps, as the neighborhood is piled up in suitcases on the sidewalk. That photo of a kid watching his neighborhood get uprooted was really the heart of that chapter. A little later on there’s a character, Bette, who’s our window into Topaz early on. She is kind of a diva. She approaches her situation with determination to make it the absolute best it can be, and nothing and no one can tell her no. That spirit is inspired by my grandma, who was thirteen when she was incarcerated, and seemed like kind of a wild child — running around the camp, flirting with boys, going to dances. So, some of the characters came from family members, and some of them I had to discover through revision.

RS: What do you think Bette ended up doing in New York? You just had a sense she was going to be very successful, whatever it was.

TC: Yeah. I would say, like my grandmother, she was very enterprising. One of the things that my grandma did was she would cobble together enough money to buy a home, keep it for a couple years, and then sell it and move to a nicer home. And then keep it for a couple years and sell it and move to a nicer home. I think that’s what Bette would be doing in New York, while she was doing whatever work. She would definitely be trying to always increase her station and her access to glamour. I do have in my head that after the war, Frankie came back, and he ended up in New York, because that’s where she had gone, and they ended up together.

RS: What’s it like to write battle scenes, like you had to do for him at Anzio?

TC: Ugh. It was, on the one hand, fun, because I’m a fantasy writer, and I write a lot of battle scenes, and I always have a good time with them. On the other hand, this was so different, because it was real, and that made it quite a bit more harrowing, knowing that this had happened to actual guys out there. When I’m writing a battle scene, I really try to focus on the energy and not so much the exact thing that is happening, in order to capture the chaos, and how quickly things can go and also how slowly things can go, I’d imagine. With the chapters in the European Theater, I tried to be as respectful as I could of combat experiences, never having been in combat myself.

RS: When you think about writers, they don’t really seem like a bloodthirsty lot in general. But the conveying of the madness it must feel like to be in a battle — I don’t know where that comes from, how you do that.

TC: I would say that actually quite a lot of young adult fantasy writers are a bit bloodthirsty!

RS: Where did you learn the techniques of how to put that down on the page?

TC: I get a lot of inspiration from film and TV. I used to watch a lot of Chinese kung fu movies with my dad when I was little, so that helped me get that really quick, slashing pace of a good kung fu movie fight into the Reader trilogy. And then for We Are Not Free, those battle scenes, I watched a lot of Band of Brothers and read the book.

RS: Speaking of brothers, I loved the brothers in here, the three brothers. I kept thinking of The Outsiders. They have a mother, but it’s like they’re a little family of their own, with the older one taking responsibility for the others, and the younger one fucking up. I thought that was great.

TC: Thank you! Yeah, that was intentional. I was reading The Outsiders at the time, and I was thinking about that first chapter, where Ponyboy gets jumped by the Socs. What would it look like if it wasn’t white kids in Oklahoma? What would it look like if it was Japanese Americans in 1942? Part of the structure of the Ito family and the structure of that first chapter is me both paying homage to The Outsiders and also kind of writing myself into the canon, saying that Japanese American stories are American stories.

RS: You feel that very much in here. There was young adult fiction that was written — they were called junior novels in the 1940s and 1950s in America — and I got a lot of a sense of the time there, but also of the literature. How did we depict teenagers in those eras? I feel like you really captured it. You see that in some movies, some of those Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies, even, slightly earlier. It’s a different time and place. I don’t feel like you just plunked down twenty-first-century kids in the 1940s.

TC: Good. That’s a line that I really tried to walk. I know the modern conception of teenagers theoretically didn’t appear until the 1950s and 1960s, but reading those letters from my grandpa to my grandma — these are teenagers. They are kids who are interested in dating and partying and learning to drive.

RS: Right, and all that stuff still goes on in this incarceration camp.

TC: Yes. That was important to me to include in the book, because I felt so strongly reading these letters.

RS: Would you say any one of these characters is you, mostly? I’m a Mary. I’m the one who wakes up and is like, “What fresh hell is this?” I really enjoyed her.

TC: I’m so glad you pointed her out. She is very much me as a teenager. That sullen, “I know I’m smart enough to be my own person and yet I feel like I have no choices to make in my own life” kid. I was listening to “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana over and over again when I wrote her chapter.

RS: I’ll put a link to that into the interview, I promise.

TC: Nice.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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