Alumna Traci Chee named finalist for National Book Award

Author Traci Chee poses with her book"We Are Not Free"

New York Times bestselling author’s YA novel nominated for nation’s top book prize

Author Traci Chee (M.A., ’09) is known for the young adult fantasy series “The Reader Trilogy,” which made the New York Times bestseller list. But it’s her recent novel “We Are Not Free,” a story that mixes her family history, World War II and fiction, that’s a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award.

Chee’s book was selected from nearly 1,700 submissions in five categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Young People’s Literature and Translated Literature. The five finalists in each category were chosen by a panel of literary experts, and the winners will be announced Wednesday, Nov. 18.

“We Are Not Free” traces the lives of a group of Japanese-American teens living in California during World War II, showing how they cope with the rise of racism following the Pearl Harbor attack and the mass eviction and internment of Japanese-American citizens. It’s a topic Chee always planned to write about because it’s part of her family history. Her grandparents and great aunts and uncles were all incarcerated during World War II in different parts of the U.S. They spent 1942 to 1945 in camps along with more than 100,000 other Japanese Americans, Chee said in a video about the novel on her YouTube channel.

In researching her book, Chee drew from her late grandparents’ diaries, photo albums and memoirs. She also interviewed other relatives about their experiences. In going through family archives, she watched the love story between her grandparents unfold in letters, she says in a video. The research process allowed her to get to know her relatives in a new way, bringing her closer to her family.

The book is broken into 14 different stories, each revolving around characters whose lives are linked through friendship and love. “These are just a handful of the many thousands of stories about the incarceration, but I hope they demonstrate that there is no single Japanese-American experience from WWII, no reductive reading of this community and what happened to them, because Japanese Americans are not a monolith,” Chee told BookPage, a book recommendation website. “I hope this book demonstrates, in part, that the narratives of that time can be complicated and contradictory. And I hope we continue to tell them, because telling them will only enrich our understanding of this history and its impacts on us today.”

The 71st National Book Awards Ceremony on Nov. 18 will be held exclusively online. As part of the evening’s ceremony, acclaimed author Walter Mosley will also receive the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

The National Book Foundation was founded in 1989 to administer the awards, which have been among the most prestigious literary prizes in the country since 1950. Its mission is to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.