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I was eight when my grandmother died, and of our time together, I have only one real memory: we were in her apartment, with that milky-gray San Francisco light filtering through the window, and she was showing me how to glue colored pebbles together to make a mosaic. She was artistic like that, I think; from the things she left behind, I know she also soldered stained glass windows and upholstered her own sofas. Mostly, though, my impression of her was one of volume, like she was large in personality, if not in stature, and could dominate a room with nothing but the force of her presence.
She passed away years before I learned that both she and my grandfather had spent some of their most formative teenage years in the Japanese American incarceration camps of WWII, when, spurred by racism and war hysteria, the U.S. government forced more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent from their homes on the west coast and shipped them to desolate barbed wire camps in the American interior. But I so wish I’d been able to ask her about it.
When I began research for We Are Not Free, a novel-in-stories about the mass incarceration, I reached out to relatives who’d lived in the camps, hoping for the kinds of details that might not have made it into the newspapers and propaganda pieces: stories about hanging out in the barracks, sneaking out at night to meet friends, learning to drive with a truck borrowed from the camp commissary and returning it with an extra dent or two in the fender, and, most of all, the way it felt to grow up this way, imprisoned and betrayed by the country they had always called home.
And I got those details. But I got more than that too; I got to know my grandmother. According to my auntie Mary, Grandma’s older sister, my grandmother was popular. She was on the basketball team. She organized dances. She strung along a bunch of boys all at once, as evidenced by the huge stack of letters I discovered in one of her old steamer trunks. She’d borrow Auntie Mary’s clothes to go out at night and stuff them back into the drawers, unwashed, before morning.
One of my favorite stories about her is actually from after camp, in the mid-1940s, when the exclusion orders barring Japanese Americans from the west coast had been lifted. Grandma was enrolled in beauty school, and one day she wore a blond wig home. Her father (my great-grandfather) just about blew a gasket, thinking she’d actually dyed her hair. Auntie Mary describes how he just kept yelling, getting madder and madder, while Grandma stood there, grinning, until she finally ripped the wig off, wagging it in his face and laughing and laughing and laughing. I love that story so much, I gave it to one of my characters in We Are Not Free, a girl named Bette, whose sense of fun and beauty are an homage to my grandmother.
Writing this book has brought me closer to my family in ways I’d never imagined, ways I’ll always be grateful for. It feels like these stories are a bridge between me and them, now and then, here and there, spanning nearly eight decades and thousands of miles to bring us together.
That’s one of the powers of telling stories, I think. To forge connections, no matter how far apart we are.
As I write these words, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, social-distancing to protect ourselves, our communities, and those, like my relatives who lived through the camps, most at risk for COVID-19, and I think a lot of us are feeling cut off from the people we love.
Still, I take heart in this: We can reach out. We can ask for stories. We may not be able to speak face-to-face, but we can still create bonds with our loved ones and with our own histories. It isn’t too late to ask how we got here, to develop a deeper understanding of the many ways we are linked, both as individuals and as a community. In fact, in a time of such uncertainty, when so many of us are yearning for contact, I think it may be more important now than ever. To call. To tell a story or listen to one. To know that we may be apart, but we are not alone. And right now? I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Traci Chee is a New York Times–bestselling author of the YA fantasy trilogy, composed of The Reader, The Speaker, and The Storyteller, which were shortlisted and nominated for multiple awards and accolades. In We Are Not Free, Chee changes gears, pulling from her own family history in this stunning and evocative novel, one that resonates so deeply against today’s tumultuous political backdrop. Visit her at www.tracichee.com, on Twitter @tracichee and on Facebook and Instagram @TraciCheeAuthor.
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