Book Review: “Freedom Swimmer” by Wai Chim (#AWW2017 #LoveOzYA @onewpc @ReadingsBooks)


Wai Chim’s Freedom Swimmer (Allen & Unwin 2016) is one of six titles shortlisted for the inaugural Readings Young Adult Book Prize, which celebrates emerging voices in Australian youth literature. It was also one of the highly recommended titles for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2017 – Writing for Young Adults.

I am drawn to this book, having recently helped a Chinese-Canadian author publish his historical fiction that is also set during China’s Great Leap Forward political movement (1958-1962). As the protagonist of Freedom Swimmer, Ming, is a peasant boy orphaned as a result of this campaign. I am keen to observe how the book depicts this historical event from a young person’s perspective.

Here is how I describe the Great Leap Forward campaign as a blurb for the aforementioned Chinese-Canadian author’s book:

Under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, whose ambition was for China to “surpass Britain and America” and for himself to become the “saviour of all mankind”, the Communist Party launched the Great Leap Forward campaign to promote industrialisation and collectivisation. All private farming was prohibited, and all the farming tools and cooking utensils made of metal were confiscated in an attempt to produce steel using the so-called “backyard furnaces”. A number of crop experiments were widely conducted, with disastrous results. Worse, in fear of being condemned as lacking the “revolutionary spirit”, party cadres (who doubled as local leaders) falsely reported ever-higher grain production figures to the government while communal kitchens across the nation increasingly ran out of food.

In the resulting Great Famine – which the Chinese Government conveniently described and continues to insist as a by-product of Three Years of Natural Disasters – it is estimated that between 20 and 43 million people perished, either having starved to death or were prosecuted as “counter-revolutionaries” at the hands of party cadres and their faithful followers, a great portion of whom consisted of local thugs. Again under the leadership of Chairman Mao, who sought to maintain face as a great leader of not only China but also the Third World, the Chinese Government refused foreign aid while continuing to contribute millions of tons of food to Cuba and various countries in Eastern Europe and Africa. Meanwhile, cases of cannibalism occurred across China…

In Freedom Swimmer, Chim does not linger over details of the campaign, but focuses on its long-term impact on a young mind that is weary of suffering yet struggles to remain hopeful for a better future. Chim also chooses not to cover the rise of the Red Guards, hundreds of thousands of high school and college students encouraged by Mao to denounce, humiliate and interrogate their teachers as “class enemies” as he ordered the closure of all schools in China in the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Young people were allowed to travel for free as they roamed across the nation and attacked everyone and everything that they deemed to represent the “Four Olds” (old customs, old cultures, old habits and old ideas).

By 1968, the Red Guards had done their fair share in destroying the nation. In an attempt to re-distribute excessive urban population and to re-gain control of the overzealous, rebellious young minds, Mao declared all privileged urban youth would be sent to rural and frontier regions to be “re-educated” by the workers and peasants. As a result, approximately 17 million youth were forced to re-settle “up to the mountains and down to the countryside”. The second protagonist Li and his peers in Freedom Swimmer would be part of them.

Knowing this history, I pay particular attention to Li’s transformation from a model young Communist Party Cadre to someone desiring liberty so much that he is willing to risk dying for it. In Freedom Swimmer, Li is distinguished from other urban youths as one who is kind and resourceful and takes pride in overcoming personal shortcomings in order to serve the greater good. He is portrayed as an idealist, a true believer of the Communist Party who remains within the system even after it denounces him as a result of his family’s fall from prestige. In this sense, Li is perhaps more of a victim of his time and circumstances than Ming is, as the former never challenges or gives up his faith in Communism. What happens to Li at the end of the book is therefore no surprise, when compared to Ming who has always been an outsider to the system.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s efforts to manipulate the Chinese national psyche through sweeping political campaigns is addressed, and the constant citations from Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong and some of the sub-plots help to illustrate the profound impact of such manipulation on people of all socio-economic classes. Yet the focus of Freedom Swimmer remains on the complex and ever-evolving relations among a small group of young people under unusual political and social circumstances, so from time to time it feels like the China of the late 1960s to mid-1970s depicted in the book can be replaced by any other human society that is under totalitarian rule.

Perhaps that is the challenge faced by writers of historical fiction: How do you make a distant time and place relevant to today’s readers? How do you re-construct yesterday’s events and actions in order to best illustrate their impact on todays and even tomorrow’s decision-making process? In the same way that memories can be reformatted so that many in China today believe the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre never happened, major historical events such as the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution can and have been lightly treated as results of natural disasters or mistakes of only a handful of individuals. Hopefully, beyond Freedom Swimmer and the personal adventures of its characters, Wai Chim can further explore how generations of seemingly ordinary people can be affected by extraordinary political and social events in China and elsewhere.

You can find more information about Wai Chim’s Freedom Swimmer here.


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