Today we're excited to chat with Rachel DeWoskin author of
Someday We Will Fly.
Read on for more about Rachel, plus an interview and an giveaway!
Meet Rachel DeWoskin!
Rachel DeWoskin spent her twenties in China as the unlikely star of a nighttime soap opera that inspired her memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing. She is the author of Repeat After Me and Big Girl Small, which received the American Library Association's Alex Award for an adult book with special appeal to teen readers; Rachel's conversations with young readers inspired her to write her first YA novel, Blind. Rachel is on the faculty of the University of Chicago, where she teaches creative writing. She lives in Chicago with her husband, playwright Zayd Dohrn, and their two daughters.
Rachel and her family spent six summers in Shanghai while she researched Someday We Will Fly.
Meet Someday We Will Fly!
From the author of Blind, a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story set during World War II in Shanghai, one of the only places Jews without visas could find refuge.
Warsaw, Poland. The year is 1940 and Lillia is fifteen when her mother, Alenka, disappears and her father flees with Lillia and her younger sister, Naomi, to Shanghai, one of the few places that will accept Jews without visas. There they struggle to make a life; they have no money, there is little work, no decent place to live, a culture that doesn't understand them. And always the worry about Alenka. How will she find them? Is she still alive?
Meanwhile Lillia is growing up, trying to care for Naomi, whose development is frighteningly slow, in part from malnourishment. Lillia finds an outlet for her artistic talent by making puppets, remembering the happy days in Warsaw when her family was circus performers. She attends school sporadically, makes friends with Wei, a Chinese boy, and finds work as a performer at a "gentlemen's club" without her father's knowledge.
But meanwhile the conflict grows more intense as the Americans declare war and the Japanese force the Americans in Shanghai into camps. More bombing, more death. Can they survive, caught in the crossfire?
~ Author Chat ~
YABC: What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
I wrote Someday We Will Fly because I was curious about something I happened upon in Shanghai in 2011. I was there working on a contemporary television project, when I visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on a whim and saw two photographs that shaped my imagination suddenly and indelibly. The first was of a group of teenage boys, war refugees from Europe, like so many of the Jewish settlers who found themselves in Shanghai between 1939 and 1945. These boys were staring into the camera with the soulful, hollowed-out look of kids growing up in the deadening context of war. They also looked like boys anywhere, mischievous and sweet. Stunningly, they were dressed in polo shirts with school insignias, and holding table tennis paddles. These were teenagers who had arrived in Shanghai having fled entire lives, and yet their grown-ups, on top of managing near-impossible survival strategies, had made a school, a table tennis table team (where did they get the paddles?), and monogrammed shirts. Those tiny school insignias made me cry; they seemed iconic of how human beings save each other and our children, not to mention the resilience refugees demonstrate -- in ways both too small to be seen and too vast to be measured. Next to that image was a second, this one of two toddlers, girls holding rag dolls. The girls were in rags themselves, but someone who loved them, their parents, maybe, or friends or aunties, or Chinese neighbors, had sewn dolls for them, and painted on those dolls lovely, expressive faces. The records of these children’s lives, and the objects that revealed their community’s devotion to them, inspired Lillia Kazka, the 16-year-old refugee at the center of the novel. Lillia let me ask, in as many and complicated ways as possible, the horrifying question of how human beings survive the chaos of war. Who loves us enough to keep us safe in the face of staggering danger and violence, and how can children come of age in circumstances as un- nurturing as those of occupied cities? How do we figure out how to live, to use languages both familiar and unfamiliar to tell stories that make our lives endurable? How do we manage to hold onto the possibility of hope, even when we feel the constant pulse of its twin force, dread?
YABC: Who is your favorite character in the book?
Maybe this is too obvious an answer, but Lillia is the love of this book’s life for me. Even though it’s 1940, she’s like so many teenage girls I know (including my own!): scrappy, practical, resilient, fearful and fearless all at once, and inclined toward love even when she’s in a context as terrifying and brutal as the one she finds herself in. I see the qualities that allow her to save herself in a lot of contemporary kids: her willingness to learn languages that aren’t hers, to find friendships among people she’s encouraged to avoid, and to take care of her fragile and delayed baby sister in the absence of their mother. These traits, combined with the fact that Lillia sometimes behaves badly and somewhat wildly allow her the spinning, fully-rendered aspects of a real girl. I made her an acrobat because I wanted to give her literal flexibility, the ability and courage to make herself into various shapes. We all contain multiple versions of ourselves, of course, and Lillia has what I consider to be a lovely external manifestation of that internal reality, one we all share. Finally, I loved writing her dancing and flying and puppet making, her drive to make beauty even (and maybe especially) when her mama is missing and her community is surrounded by the horrors of war.
YABC: What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?
The street scenes were especially crackling to write; I tried to make Shanghai as beautiful, complicated, and fast-paced as possible, and to do so by making the syntax race the way the city itself does. So I wrote the markets, the circus scenes, the temples and street vendors and schools and apothecaries. I wanted readers not only to be able to see, feel, and imagine Shanghai, but also to love it, to want to explore more of its winding alleys; eclectic buildings; economies from the biggest to the smallest; cacophony of languages; wildly diverse communities and cultures; Huangpu River; Suzhou Creek; and brilliant, inimitable style. The novel is of course a celebration of havens, of places where desperate refugees are allowed to land, so I worked to honor Shanghai for its part in letting families call the city home when nowhere else on earth would take them.
YABC: Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
When I started this book, it was because I wanted to imagine what it must have been like for a young woman to arrive in Shanghai in 1940 with no idea of what her life was going to be, or whether her mom was going to make it. I thought this would be like any other book project, just with a bit more additional research. For six summers, my family and I lived in the Embankment Building, which used to serve as the processing center for Jewish refugees. It’s a very old-school building, and my girls were both surprised (at first) by it, and then used to it. I want them to get used to places that aren’t effortless, so this was good. The building was built in 1932 by the Sassoon family, and we wandered its halls all these decades later, mining artifacts and memories. Those Shanghai summers were a kind of scavenger hunt for nouns: what boxes, puppets, jewels, coats, books, trunks, letters and musical instruments did families bring or make or long for? What coal lit fires in the buckets over which they boiled water? Who baked bread, stirred soup, washed sheets, or hash-marked epic cycles of days and nights? What were Shanghai’s economies – not only of actual trade, but also of emotion and hope? In blazing heat, I walked the streets Lillia would have walked, explored people’s kitchens, climbed the staircases of houses almost unchanged since the war, and sat thinking in places from Wayside Park to the Bund to skinny alleys and lanes for which the magnificent city is famous. To write the streets, bridges, buildings, and river, ports, I ran along Suzhou Creek and over the Garden Bridge every morning for many months, looking up at the banks and hotels, imagining what Shanghai looked like to Lillia. I thought about bowing at the entrance to the bridge, what the requirement of such a humiliating gesture might have felt like. But the more I researched that era, the more I saw how similar some of our contemporary contexts and issues are to the ones I was writing: children separated from their parents; refugees being cast back into violent and impossible contexts at home; the difficulties of safe landing for marginalized people. Living in present tense Shanghai was fascinating in its own right and I also came to think that historical fiction offers us an almost magical path back. Writing the novel allowed me to visit and imagine moments that aren’t the ones I’m actually living in, and to create connections between then and now, them and us, our own histories, present tenses, and hopefully futures.
YABC: What do you like most about the cover of the book?
I love the cover of the book, because it so gorgeously conveys the relationship between beauty and danger. I find the illustration of Lillia breathtaking, balanced as she is on her two chairs (one of her contortion acts), with war planes and shadows around her. She’s both so fragile and so poised in the drawing, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s in a theater. There’s a spotlight on her, and she’s strong and lovely in the center of both performative and very real chaos. The world’s circus and her own, in other words. I can’t imagine a more profound or beautiful illustration of what I was hoping the book would ask and say, and I’m so grateful to Emiliano Ponzi (who made that drawing) for his brilliance.
YABC: What’s up next for you?
I have an adult novel called Banshee coming out this summer, and I’m thrilled that my first poetry collection, Two Menus, is being published in April of 2020. So I’m hard at work on those projects, and loving both.
YABC: What was your favorite book in 2018?
Here’s a funny thing: I read Another Country, by James Baldwin, for the first time in 2018. I’ve been teaching his essays and Go Tell it On the Mountain (one of my all-time favorite novels) for years, and I found my way to Another Country because of the way he talks about the book in an interview in the Paris Review. I was incredulous, not just at the novel’s incredible sweep and scope (which I expected, given his other work), but at how radical it was, even for 2019. It’s one of the most forward-thinking books I’ve ever read, and the fact that he wrote it when he did? Astonishing.
YABC: Is there anything that you would like to add?
I want to add here how grateful I am for the generosity of people who told me their stories, who wrote accounts of this particular Shanghai experience, and who, in some cases, let me roam through their houses and belongings and memories. I met a doctor at UChicago (where I teach), in 2014 quite by accident, and our meeting felt to me like a miracle. Her name is Jacqueline Pardo, and her mother, Karin Pardo (nee Zacharias) was a Shanghai Jew. I went to her house and was stunned to discover a world-class archive of objects, documents and photographs that belonged to her mother in Shanghai during World War II. The objects, documents, and photos of Karin’s girlhood gave me the sweep and scope of a lived girlhood in Shanghai during the war – I used them to create Lillia’s school life, curriculum, and many detailed aspects of her coming of age. I was so moved by Jacqueline’s mother’s belongings that she and I put up an exhibit at the University of Chicago this spring: Karin’s school bag; notebooks and diaries; a thank you note she and other members of her Girl Guide troupe wrote to American soldiers who had given them chocolate; exemplary report cards from the Kadoorie School (on which her music teacher hilariously notes: “can’t sing”); food ration coupons; passports stamped with “J” for Jewish; menus from a short-lived restaurant Karin’s family opened; Chinese language notes; Japanese language notes; diaries; a shirt with embroidered dragons twisting up its sides, and paper dolls Karin’s grandmother sent her from Germany, before dying at Theresienstadt.
I also talked with and read the books of the supremely generous Michael Blumenthal, a former Treasury secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Michael is a Shanghai Jew who grew up in the neighborhood of Hongkou (which in 1943 became a ghetto --— all Jewish refugees were forced to move there.). He gave me a view of China and humanity both profound and intricately detailed. He remembered the boys walking in circles around Hongkou, like teenage boys anywhere, hoping for the notice of their crushes. He also described what it felt like to come to understand as a child that some adults rally in the face of hardship, while others disintegrate. About each powerful person he met while working in the White House he wondered, how would he/she do in 1940’s Shanghai, dressed in flour sacks?
His wonder and empathy informed and continue to inform mine.
YABC: Is there an organization or cause that is close to your heart?
I’m so glad you asked. The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is doing urgent and essential work to take care of children and families at our borders, and they are working with unimaginable amounts of empathy and compassion and also against unimaginable constraints. They champion, defend, and care for children who arrive in the United States on their own, from everywhere in the world. Children like Lillia, who are terrified and unaccompanied, and who need to be recognized by our immigration system as children. Who need to be offered safety, justice, and love. Please support The Young Center in anyway you can!
Someday We Will Fly
By: Rachel DeWoskin
Publisher: Viking BYR
Release Date: Jan 21st, 2019
One winner will received a copy of Someday We Will Fly and a sterling silver Star of David ring like the one Lillia pawns in the book. ~ (US Only)
*Click the Rafflecopter link below to enter the giveaway*