Ambitious, emotionally raw novel on camp

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WE ARE NOT FREE

By Traci Chee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 400 pp., $17.99, hardcover)

Yonsei author Traci Chee’s ambitious new novel, “We Are Not Free,” weaves 13 devastating stories of San Francisco Japantown Nisei reeling in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Immediate, personal and pulsing with drama, the book takes us from March 1942 to the spring of 1945, after the West Coast ban on persons of Japanese ancestry is finally lifted.

She is a terrific writer, providing something that is missing from most books about camp: the raw emotions that course through every character — rage, gritty determination, resentment, and even love and heartbreak.

This is a work of fiction; while I respect the author’s freedom to shape the story as she chooses, I am conflicted about aspects of the book. Historical fiction is an author’s creative interpretation of history, which frequently involves inserting events and people into an otherwise factual framework, and it can be a fine line to walk. She retains the names of some historical figures (particularly ones the characters disdain, such as the controversial Japanese American Citizens League leader Mike Masaoka and Gen. J.L. DeWitt) but fictionalizes virtually everyone else, and I’m not clear why. In one chapter, 18-year-old Stan witnesses the shooting of James Hatsuaki Wakasa, who is killed by Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp military police, yet Chee changes Wakasa’s name, rather than memorialize him and his wrongful death.

I also found that 13 different narratives is a lot to keep track of, and while some chapters delve more deeply into their characters, the stories blurred into a wash. Strangest of all, she peppers the entire novel with the slang word, “keto,” a derogatory term for a white person that I have only come across in rare historical readings. Practically every one of her 13 characters says it. In my experience, family and community would more likely use the word “hakujin,” and it not only feels shallow to use this offensive, discriminatory language, compared to the rest of the novel’s lofty aspirations, it also makes me question the authenticity and facts of other parts of the book.

Nevertheless, I appreciate her sensitivity to the diverse points of view that the inmates were forced to adopt during their incarceration. She includes voices of resistance, such as the No-Nos, the resisters and the renunciants, juxtaposed with the patriotic military volunteers and draftees. Only a fully committed writer could build characters whose inner voices speak so passionately and uninhibitedly.

Chee’s finest work culminates in the chapter told from the perspective of 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldier, Twitchy Hashimoto, and I will admit that while reading his story, I ached for the harrowing pain that the Issei and Nisei endured throughout the war, and wept.

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