By Noh Sangeun (23S06Q)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
It’s official (or maybe it’s old news): the world population broke eight billion. Eight billion people have as many stories to tell, as this award-winning novel by Traci Chee about the displacement of Japanese-Americans during WWII makes abundantly clear.
We Are Not Free isn’t about the people on either side of the war. The plot follows a large group of friends who are forcibly removed from their Californian homes by government mandates and incarcerated in prison-like camps, on suspicion that they present danger to society.
The first layer to We Are Not Free’s emphasis on diverse narratives is its very subject material. One would expect a piece of historical fiction set during WWII to be about, well, war. While war is indeed an integral part of the novel, injustice and identity are more significant themes.
“It’s been over three months since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and my oldest brother, Mas, has told me to come straight home from school each day.”The opening line of the ‘We Are Not Free’
The mention of Pearl Harbour in the opening line does not herald an epic about heroic battles or a thrilling tale of espionage, but rather a chronicle of teenagers navigating racial hatred and complex family relationships.
After the initial disorienting effect of their eviction, the young characters face challenge after challenge to their identity: loyalty tests that drive rifts in their community, generational conflict, and forcible separation from one another.
Drawing from her family’s experience and those of other Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) during the incarceration, Chee paints an impressively nuanced picture of the era. While at times the modern prose feels distractingly anachronistic, especially as she focuses more on capturing broad settings and events rather than offering detail, it does contribute to a rending candour.
Therein lies a certain charm of the YA genre that this novel employs masterfully; the artless authenticity of the young characters allows it to explore painful topics with an unflinching frankness. At the same time, the empathy Chee has for these characters in their plight is unmistakable. An undertone of warmth eases the reader into what might have been a very difficult read.
The result is a highly unique coming-of-age story which, though set in 1942, discusses universal themes with which any teenager, migrant, or member of a minority community would still resonate. A point of particular merit is that Chee never strays into the loftier ideas driving the war at large, but grounds the story firmly in the stories of these teenagers who are, like any individual, swept up in the flow of history.
The second layer to the novel’s success in portraying diverse narratives is the sheer number of characters. Alongside the 14 central characters—already a crowd by any measure—there are dozens of supporting roles, including but not limited to parents, coaches, and comrades.
It is commendable that every personage comes off as real and believable. We Are Not Free avoids the dreaded pitfall of having a single clear favourite among its veritable ensemble cast. With each chapter comes a new character’s perspective, unfailingly exposing some new aspect of the Nisei experience—a recognition of the individuality that creates such unique narratives even within the same community.
That is not to say, of course, that all the characters were given equal credit; there were certain chapters much more compelling than others. Perhaps this was inevitable in a book that is, after all, only 365 pages. While none of the 14 teenagers came off as exactly superfluous, some of their arcs felt underdone: either rushed or vague.
Though rare, there were also points where the first-person narration seemed rather disingenuous. Beyond the scope of maturation that could be expected to come from hardship, some characters can sound older than their age. Alternatively, they exhibit inexplicably righteous mannerisms that run counter to the appeal of having flawed, vulnerable characters.
Still, on the whole We Are Not Free is populated with delightful characters, each of whom commands the reader’s attention in their own right. With such heavy subject material, there are naturally numerous moments of heartbreak scattered throughout the novel. This is amplified by the emotional investment driven by the reader’s fondness for these characters.
In another instance of Chee’s adroit storytelling, the chronological flow of the story gives it a sort of momentum, a natural flow that feels enhanced rather than thwarted by the introduction of multiple narrators. For the time frame it covers, the progress of the plot is swift, at times to the point of ruthlessness. Watching the characters forced to grow and develop at such a pace only draws further empathy.
As extolled by a number of prestigious magazine reviews, We Are Not Free is indeed a necessary read. The timelessness of the themes it explores makes it pressingly relevant, eighty years on from the time in which it is set. With an impassioned account of prejudice and hatred, and yet a charmingly gentle touch, it is guaranteed to touch any heart—regardless of whether your age puts you in its intended YA audience.