Rachel DeWoskin, who teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago, has been many things throughout her life: a critically acclaimed writer and poet, the star of a Chinese soap opera (“without talent or qualifications,” she stipulates, “other than my being a Western girl living in China in 1994”), and a professor. But she isalso a Jew who spent formative years in China, and it is that experience that led to her new novel, Someday We Will Fly.
DeWoskin has spent her life shuttling between China and the United States, “and China has always been a part of my imaginary landscape,” she says. Indeed, it was in Shanghai in 2011 that she came across something unexpected that got the cogs of her imagination spinning. It was a photograph of a boys’ table tennis team displayed in the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.
These were people, DeWoskin explains, who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe, who had endured unimaginable hardship along the journey and suffered loss, and yet, “they put together a school for their kids, and then they put together a table tennis team for their kids, and then they made T-shirts. Those embroidered T-shirts seemed to me to signify the ability of human beings to create meaningful childhoods for their kids no matter how horrific their contexts became.”
As World War II dragged more and more of the world into conflict, Jews desperately attempted to flee the European Holocaust that would eventually consume 6 million of their fellow Jews. There are tragic and well-documented cases of refugees being denied entry to countries like Canada, the United States, and Cuba—stories that end with Jews being forced to return to Europe, where many of them eventually perished. But a fact not widely known in the West is that tens of thousands of European Jews found refuge in Shanghai, a city then occupied by Germany-aligned Japan. “It's much more well-known there than it is here,” DeWoskin says, “and there's a tremendous amount of affection for and solidarity with Jewish people in China.”
Lillia finds herself there after she manages to escape Poland with her father and younger sister. Arriving in Shanghai after weeks at sea, an exhausted Lillia steps out into a city teeming with an unfamiliar type of life, crowded with Chinese locals, Japanese soldiers, and rickshaws, filled with previously unknown smells and new languages. “It’s almost unimaginable how unfamiliar that context must have felt,” DeWoskin says, and yet added to it all was the overwhelming sense of fear and hope centered around her mother, who had been mysteriously separated from the family just before their departure. The characters that DeWoskin creates around Lillia are nuanced and complicated and thoughtful.
But this was a story that was always going to revolve around a young girl. “My original inspiration was pictures of children, so it was natural,” DeWoskin says. And teenagers make remarkably interesting narrators. “I wanted to see someone who was coming of age, who was old enough to be utterly conscious of her loss and her surroundings and her responsibility to her family and also who hasn't completely formulated her identity in the world yet.”
What the reader is left with is a scrappy young narrator who struggles—and succeeds—in helping her family survive incredible hardship even as she learns to navigate the tricky landscape of school rivalries and first romances. And her resilience, whether born through her youth or rooted in something more personal, allows her to stitch together an understanding of her life and place in the world through artistic expression. “We survive by way of art,” DeWoskin says. “We keep our spirits and our minds intact by way of art, both consuming it and creating it.”
James Feder is a writer living in Tel Aviv.