Freedom Swimmer: An Interview With the Author

'Freedom Swimmer' is a young adult novel that is loosely based on the experiences of Wai Chim's father. (Image:  Wai Chim)
'Freedom Swimmer' is a young adult novel that is loosely based on the experiences of Wai Chim's father. (Image: Wai Chim)

There are many true stories that make an impact on your life — and this is one that shouldn’t be forgotten. Freedom Swimmer is the true story as told by the daughter of one of the young boys in the book. It’s an inspiring tale of two young boys who swim from Mainland China to Hong Kong in search of freedom, and to escape poverty and oppression.

It’s set back in the days when China was enduring the famine that killed millions of its own people. It was China’s so-called “Great Leap Forward.” One of the main characters in the book, Ming, survived the famine; however, it killed his parents.

Author of the book Wai Chim took her time to answer some of our questions:

1. Can you give a brief introduction about yourself and the book?

I’m a first generation Chinese-American, born in New York in the U.S., and have been living in Sydney for over 10 years. My parents are both immigrants in the U.S., my mother is from Hong Kong, and my father is from the Dapeng area in Guangdong, China. In 1973, my father successfully completed the “freedom swim” from China to Hong Kong.

(Image Courtesy of Wai Chim)

(Image Courtesy of Wai Chim)

Freedom Swimmer is a Young Adult novel that is loosely based on the experiences of my father growing up in his village. The novel explores the lives of two boys “coming of age” in China during the Cultural Revolution, and some of the challenges they faced during this tumultuous time in history.

2. You were born in N.Y., U.S.A., and have been educated the Western way, so what made you want to write this story about China?

Growing up, unlike my mother who talked a lot about her experiences in Hong Kong, my father didn’t speak much about his childhood or his past.

I knew only that he had lost his parents at a very young age, and that he had made the swim to Hong Kong. In school, I studied very, very little about Chinese history, and our discussions around culture was mostly limited to food, art, and language.

I wrote this book in part because I wanted to understand a bit more about the period and the atmosphere of China during this time. I think that part of the reason my father didn’t talk very much about the past was because, as a Western-born and Western-educated person, I wasn’t asking the right questions.

I think everyone can agree that the Cultural Revolution was a very difficult and chaotic time in history. The power of storytelling is to be able to provide context and circumstance to something that is actually quite foreign and difficult to talk about. I hope Freedom Swimmer can do this effectively.

3. What impact has writing this book had on your life?

I think it brought me closer to my father in that I understand better what his generation has been through. More importantly, I am motivated to encourage more people who have lived through this time period to share their stories.

(Image: Wai Chim)

‘Freedom Swimmer.’ (Image: Wai Chim)

I understand that digging up the past is difficult and painful for many, but I strongly feel it will be beneficial for the greater global society if we can have a meaningful and profound discussion about the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong, and how we position the future of China in relation to these topics.

4. Recently in Australia, some Australian-Chinese have had a music performance in praise of the former Chinese leader Mao. What advice would you give to those overseas Chinese?

My understanding is that the concerts that were to be held in Sydney and Melbourne were cancelled, thanks to the successful petitioning of the Embrace Australian Values Alliance. Personally, I am pleased with this result, as I think that having the concerts “without frank discussion and examination” would have been profoundly traumatic for many individuals who had fled China during his regime.

More than anything, I want to encourage all citizens — Chinese, Australians, Americans, etc. — to have a discussion and dialogue about the events that happened during the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s regime, that we engage and listen to the stories of the individuals who lived through this time period. Only when we acknowledge and are aware of these stories can we have a meaningful dialogue about the events that transpired. At this point, we need discussions, not concerts.

5. Do you believe that since China is having reforms that the Chinese people will one day have freedom like we do here in the West?

With technology, the economy, and trade, China is taking a bigger role and center stage on international issues, I think there will be greater discussion and movement towards a more global society — where an individual nation will be held more accountable for their domestic conduct.

I don’t think having “freedom like the West” ought to be the desired outcome for China, or any other country for that matter (I point to Iraq as an example of where this hasn’t worked). However, I do think that the issues that affect the Chinese will take on greater importance in an international arena.

6. Do you expect to have any bad criticism of your book?

All writers need to be ready for some level of criticism of their work, whether it’s about the characters, the writing itself, the accuracy of the events, etc. Writers are always striving to improve, so if there is criticism, I hope to learn and improve. And if I haven’t done something correctly, I invite others to share and tell their stories as well.

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