Someday We Will Fly: Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour

Welcome to our stop on the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! Author Rachel DeWoskin was kind enough to answer my questions about Someday We Will Fly (Viking), this year’s Gold Medal winner in the Young Adult category. In this lushly written historical novel, Lillia and her father and sister flee Warsaw during the Holocaust and take refuge in Shanghai. There, Lillia’s need to support her family, her relationships with others, and her awareness of her place in the world all contribute to her growth. Though I saw many Holocaust books in my two years on the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, this one shed light on an aspect of the period I’d known almost nothing about.

Visit the Association of Jewish Libraries’ “People of the Books” blog to see where the other gold and silver medalists will be interviewed over the next few days. Can’t get enough Schmooze of the Jews (or, er, the Jewish books)? Check out the brand-new Sydney Taylor Schmooze!

Shoshana Flax: You’ve lived much of your life in China, including several summers in Shanghai, where this book is set. What surprised you most in your research about the Shanghai of the 1940s? 

Rachel DeWoskin: I was surprised by the entire history of the Shanghai Jews, which I’d never known of until I happened upon the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in 2011. It was there that I discovered that 18,000 Jewish refugees had fled Nazi-occupied Europe and survived WWII in Shanghai, one of very few places in the world that would allow them safe landing. I wrote Someday We Will Fly because of two photographs I saw at the museum. The first was a 1943 shot of a group of teenage boys from Europe. They have the soulful, hollowed-out look of kids in wartime, but they also look like boys anywhere, mischievous and sweet, wearing polos monogrammed with school insignias and holding table tennis paddles. I stared at that picture — these kids had fled entire lives. Yet their grown-ups, on top of managing near-impossible survival, had made sure they had a school, a table tennis team, even polo-shirts. How? Next to that image was one of two toddler girls holding rag dolls. Someone who loved these little girls — their parents, maybe, or friends, or aunties, or Chinese neighbors — had sewn dolls for them, and painted on lovely, expressive faces. These records of children’s lives, and the objects that revealed their community’s devotion to them, inspired Lillia Kazka, the teenaged refugee at the center of Someday We Will Fly.  

I wanted to ask, in as many and as complicated ways as possible, the horrifying question of how human beings survive the chaos of war. I began imagining and researching teenage life in WWII Shanghai; Chinese citizens welcoming thousands of Jewish families into their city; the Shanghai Jews building businesses, schools, girl scout troops, theater companies, chamber music groups, community, and a sense — astonishingly — of normalcy for their children. The stories I found continued to surprise me for the duration of the seven years I spent traveling back and forth, reading, asking, and writing. Someday We Will Fly is a tribute to the most surprising and compelling aspects of what I discovered: the Shanghai Jews' gritty practicality and profound courage, and the resilience that so many refugees demonstrate, by holding onto hope in contexts that guarantee the pulse of its twin force, dread.  

I was also stunned by how generous other human beings are with their anecdotes, lives, ideas, thoughts, and sorrows. I was so moved by those who lived this history, who wrote accounts of their particular Shanghai experiences, and who, in some cases, talked to me over the course of months, or let me roam through their houses and belongings and memories.  

I met a doctor at the University of Chicago (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 (née Zacharias) was a Shanghai Jew. Jacqueline’s records of Karin’s girlhood gave me the sweep and scope of a lived childhood in Shanghai during the war — I used them to create Lillia’s school life, curriculum, and many detailed aspects of her coming of age. Jacqueline and I put up an exhibit at the University of Chicago last spring: Karin’s school bag; notebooks and diaries; a thank you note Karin and other members of her Girl Guide troop 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; 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 after 1943 became a ghetto; all Jewish refugees were forced to move there). He remembered the boys walking in circles around Hongkou, hoping to gain 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 in his work, he wondered, How would he or she do in 1940s Shanghai, dressed in flour sacks? His wonder and empathy informed and continue to inform mine.  

SF: Where did the idea come from to make Lillia’s family acrobats?  

RD: I love the circus, partly because of the willingness of acrobats to take risks in order to convey (and give the gift of) beauty. The juxtaposition of that sort of performative danger with the real and palpable danger of war created an alchemy I found both painful and profound. I wanted to give Lillia tools I consider iconic of the resilience teenage girls often show (and less often get adequate credit for), one being flexibility. Of course I mean this both literally and figuratively; I wanted Lillia to be able to change her shape to accommodate unfamiliar and painful circumstances. She wants, as I think we all do, to be able to transcend her own sorrows and difficulties — in other words, to fly. So I gave her aerials and a willingness to move, to transform, to get above herself and her own life. The circus offered me a beautiful, literal way to render some of these ideas (and I got to go to almost a hundred circuses while I was researching, one of the great joys of this project!). Both of my daughters now take aerial silks lessons. They came to the circuses, spent all those summers in Shanghai, read the novel, and helped me endlessly by being incredibly lively and thoughtful about what it feels like to grow up, and to fly.  

SF: Lillia is in an interesting position: she is a refugee living in poverty herself, but in some ways, she has privilege over people around her who are originally from China. Was it difficult to find the right balance? 

RD: It’s always complicated to write about socioeconomic and racial disparities, and also to write about anyone else’s culture or country. At the same time, I think most writers feel a moral and political obligation to imagine the lives and perspectives of people who are radically different from us and from each other. My first book, Foreign Babes in Beijing, a memoir about the years I spent in China, was a good training course for me in the challenges of writing about someone else’s home. In both my memoir and Someday We Will Fly, I tried to be as nuanced as possible; to ask more questions than I answer; and always to be cognizant of the very real possibility of getting aspects wrong. (I have a lot of readers of my early drafts, and I listen carefully.) Regarding my portrayal of the relationship between the Jewish refugees and their Chinese counterparts, many of the accounts I read and the interviews I conducted suggested that those relationships were “transactional,” but I don’t believe that; with so many refugees living in such close quarters with their Chinese neighbors, there were bound to be relationships of every possible sort, and I know of Chinese composers who studied with Western musicians, of interracial couples who met during the war and married, of children who were born of those unions. In any case, I’ve spent so much of my own life in China, and the deepest and my most identity-shaping conversations and experiences have been with my Chinese friends. So the portrayal of Lillia’s relationship with Wei, a friendship of great depth, feels true to me. I believe, and want to convey in my work, that what makes us proximate as human beings outweighs and transcends the forces that threaten to disconnect us (cultural and linguistic norms, fear, uneven distribution of fortune or resources, unfamiliarity, discomfort). 

SF: Was there any pushback about including the social club where Lillia dances, since it’s such a mature element? 

RD: I’ve never had publishers, editors, or readers ask me to defang the difficult or dark parts of my novels. I think we’re mostly in agreement that young people endure genuine suffering and that to soften the edges of their experiences is to patronize them and do them a disservice. I made Lillia young in her mind and life experience at the opening of the novel because I needed to show the agonizing transformation from being sheltered and composed entirely of hope and faith to being increasingly alone and sophisticated about the basest impulses of human beings. I wanted readers to have to endure those moments of revelation, to see Lillia learn that women she knows are being forced to sell sex, that we have the capacity to let each other starve. For those moments to be alive in the book, to matter, Lillia needed to be young before they happened, and to have to grapple herself with a question all girls face in some way: how much of ourselves will we be required to give? I write teenagers not just because I love them (my own and my students), but also because they’re such dramatic and shape-shifting hybrids of children and adults; they can have such self-awareness and even awareness of the world, and also sudden and stunning lacks of reference points. My own daughters are a constant model of this strange contradiction. I wanted Lillia to have some (potentially false) confidence that she could escape whatever might be required of her (sexually, or even just in terms of self-survival at the cost of the survival of others). So I gave her an innocent, sad, and also reassuring hope I think many of us hang onto even as we stand on the stages of clubs or in hallways leading to back rooms. That there’s still a possibility it won’t happen to us. Lillia’s naiveté is partly meant to show the turbulent and somewhat agency-less coming of age, and also partly to suggest denial, her unwillingness to look straight at what’s happening, because she knows that if she stares at the horror directly, it may burn her vision out and leave her hopeless. I’m fundamentally a hopeful person, and of course I did not subject her to what I consider to have been the worst-case scenario outcomes. I needed her to be okay. 

SF: The ending was in some ways more hopeful than I expected — but it was still clear that some things had changed forever. What thought process went into the ending?  

RD: I wanted to tell a story in which human beings ultimately save each other, but also to allow for the parts of us that cannot be saved (innocence, for one example; wholeness, for another). So Lillia’s mother both survives and doesn’t; she returns, but not fully intact, and no longer the version of herself she once was, no longer the mother Lillia knew. That Lillia is also not her same self — has learned what’s most difficult, seen and contemplated everything from murder and dismemberment to prostitution — means she and her mother can never fully know each other again. Which is, for me, as excruciating a closure as I could bear as I tried to live out both of their lives in my mind. As I imagined who might save my daughters were they to land in 1940s Shanghai without me. And what it would look and feel like to come back together, knowing how lucky we were, but also the ways in which we had been transformed into strangers, not just to each other but also to ourselves.  

SF: I’m sure I won’t be the only one on this blog tour to ask this question: to you, what makes a Jewish book? 

RD: I think the Jewish experience, in all its complexity and difficulty and also joy and beauty, has given us an understanding of the suffering of others. Jewish history is of course full of stories of our experiences being outsiders, being in exile, being different, and being persecuted; we also have a vast store of hopeful and moving narratives of resilience and resistance. The combination gives us the ability to empathize with those who are suffering, fleeing, or in need of our protection. And this ability to imagine, fully and humanely, the experiences of others, can make a Jewish book Jewish.  

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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