Same Page Community Read: Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free

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Same Page Community Read: Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free

February 19, 2022, marked the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in 1942. A response to the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this order instructed the Secretary of War to create “military zones” along the Pacific coast (in California, Oregon, and Washington state) from which all people of Japanese ancestry would be “excluded” for the duration of the war. The rationale for this violation of civil rights was that “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities” (text of Executive Order 9066).

The War Relocation Agency (WRA) was created to implement the evacuation all Japanese Americans—yes, Americans—living in these areas to “detention” camps far from the Pacific coast. Although two-thirds of those affected were American citizens, and some had even served in the U.S. military during World War I, 122,000 men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes, sell most of their possessions for far less than their true value—including farms and businesses—and with only what they could carry—at most two suitcases of belongings—board buses and trains to nowhere. Families burned anything that might associate them with Japan—such as letters, photos, videos, artifacts, and language books—either in home fireplaces or in huge bonfires in the streets.

The “detention” or “internment” camps were hastily commandeered areas offering substandard conditions, including crowded barracks surrounded by barbed wire fencing and guard towers manned by armed soldiers, where these citizens were essentially prisoners until the war ended three years later. “In recent years, there has been a movement to change the terminology of the incarceration,” Traci Chee explains in the Author’s Note to her novel We Are Not Free. “The words most often used, such as ‘internment,’ ‘evacuation,’ and ‘assembly center,’ for example, are euphemisms originally intended to conceal the truth of the inhumane conditions, poor treatment, and civil rights violations that occurred in the camps.” Some would even call them concentration camps, where armed guards often used violence to maintain control.

Chee’s deeply affecting novel tells this heartbreaking story through the eyes of 14 teenaged friends living in Japantown in San Francisco, whose first-hand accounts of their shared trauma reveals many little-known details of this shameful episode in U.S. history. The novel is in part based on the experiences of Chee’s grandparents and their families, supplemented by research. Selected as this year’s JMRL Same Page Community Read, it will be discussed at the Crozet Library Monday Night book group at 7 p.m. March 7. If you decide to read this excellent book, please join us! Email [email protected] for the zoom link. In addition, Chee will be discussing her book on March 17 at 7 p.m. in the Irving Theater in the new CODE building on the downtown mall, as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book. The bestselling author of the YA fantasy trilogy, Sea of Ink and Gold, Chee will also be discussing her new fantasy novel A Thousand Steps into the Night on March 16.

The memorable characters we get to know in Chee’s novel—from 14-year-old budding artist Minnow Ito, to 16-year-old accomplished pianist Yum-Yum Oishi, to 19-year-old itching-for-a-fight Frankie Fujita, to 17-year-old irrepressible Twitchy Hashimoto, and more—are first transported to the Tanforan Assembly Center at a former horse racing track in San Bruno, California for temporary detention. With entire families housed in small, dirty horse stalls with shared restrooms, they have to build their own furniture out of scrap wood and tools borrowed from those smart enough to bring them. After five months, they are permanently settled in the Topaz War Relocation Center in the Utah desert—only a slight improvement, providing crowded barracks connected by dirt roads amid extreme temperatures. Although classified as Young Adult (YA) because of its teenaged protagonists, the book actually deals with very adult themes of dislocation, incarceration, prejudice, violence, and the need for Gaman—endurance, described by 17-year-old Shig as “the ability to hold your pain and bitterness inside you and not let them destroy you. To make something beautiful through your anger, or with your anger, and neither erase it or let it define you. To suffer. And to rage. And to persevere.”

Of course, the imprisonment was hard on adults—on their dignity, pride, and faith in America’s claim of being “the land of the free.” But imagine how much harder it was on young people like the young adults depicted here, who did not yet fully understand politics or patriotism, who were only just developing their identities and feelings of self-worth. We see the effects of this suffering and confusion on Yum-Yum, who suddenly rebels against her parents’ rules and expectation of obedience, sneaking out at night to meet her friends. “I can’t be the same girl I was on the outside. If that girl is in a detention center, an American imprisoned without trial or even charges, then the world doesn’t make sense. But if I’m someone else, then it’s easier to accept that the world now operates by different rules. Up is down. Wrong is right. Captivity is freedom.”

Mary Katsumoto recalls that in San Francisco, there were lights, crowds, music, and noise. “Here” she laments—i.e., in the boring, soulless camp— “there’s nothing. Because we’re nothing.” But the friends also try to enjoy life through regular pursuits like baseball, school, and dancing to the radio. Some of their parents find jobs in the mess hall or growing food. Minnow’s drawings provide touching illustrations of the barracks, the group of friends, and even Yum-Yum as a constellation, playing her piano among the stars.

By 1943, in the cruelest of ironies, the U.S. decided to form a Nisei army battalion composed exclusively of Japanese Americans. “Nisei” refers to a son or daughter of Japanese immigrants (Issei), who is born and educated in the U.S.—that is, a second-generation Japanese American. Recruiters arrive in the camps, and some of our narrators enlist, or are even drafted. But before this plan can move forward, everyone is asked to sign a loyalty oath, consisting of two questions: 1. are you willing to serve in the U.S. armed services? and 2. will you swear allegiance to the U.S. and forswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan? This creates a painful division between those who would do anything to escape the camps and those who are so angry at their treatment they no longer feel allegiance to the U.S. 

Young men who say Yes-Yes, including Mas, Frankie, and Twitchy, join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and are sent to fight the Germans in Italy and France. They are determined to prove their patriotism through extreme bravery. “Mas says it best,” Twitchy explains. “We gotta be better. We gotta fight harder. We gotta be twice as perfect so they can’t overlook us.” And they succeed: the 442nd became the most highly decorated unit of the war. Other Yes-Yeses can apply for resettlement away from the coast, in Chicago or New York. But those who refuse (known as “No-Nos” because they answered No to both questions) were ultimately sent to the even more prison-like Tule Lake Segregation Center in northeastern California, where they are treated like true criminals.

One Crozet resident shares a family history that closely parallels the events of this novel. David Miyamoto’s father, James Tadashi Miyamoto, was evacuated at age 20 with his mother and siblings from Los Angeles, California to the Santa Anita Racetrack, and later to the notorious Manzanar War Relocation Center, east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Through a family connection, James was lucky enough to be sent outside the Manzanar camp to do “useful, war-related” work farming potatoes in Idaho, where he met his wife. Like the characters in our novel, he was ultimately drafted into the 442nd Nisei Regimental Combat Team, where he became a corporal and served with distinction. James seldom spoke about his time in the camp, but lived a rewarding life until his death in 2018. 

Chee’s novel brings history to life with a compellingly written, eye-opening, and heart-rending narrative. The characters who give voice to their experiences in alternating chapters are so well-developed that we feel their pain and remember them as individuals. They share normal teen concerns of friendship, romance, smoking, and baseball, alongside the anger and degradation they experience in the camps. When they finally return to their completely changed home of San Francisco, they continue to face discrimination. “But we’re already fighting a war out there,” laments Minnow when they cannot find housing or are refused service in shops. “Why do we have to fight one in our own country, too?” 

This beautiful work of historical fiction shines a light on a disturbing, and too often forgotten, chapter in U.S. history. Above all, we are impressed with the grace and courage these citizens exhibited as they faced extreme prejudice and the unwarranted violation of their civil rights as Americans. To learn more, the University of California Berkeley’s Bancroft Library exhibit titled Uprooted: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans the features archival photographs by Dorothea Lange (www.berkeleyside.org/2022/02/18/bancroft-library-exhibit-marks -80th-anniversary-of-japanese-internment). Ansel Adams’ photographs are featured on the website of The Manzanar National Historic Site, which preserves and interprets the legacy of Japanese American incarceration in the United States (www.mps.gov/manx/index.htm), and is considered the best preserved of the ten former camp sites. 

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