Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim

“Maybe in the nightfall, we will find the true light.”

A heart-rending story set in real-life dystopian history of China’s cultural revolution. A story of friendship, hope, and freedom.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom Swimmer, I was attracted to this book initially because there weren’t many books written in English on the cultural revolution in China. During the revolution period of 1962-1976 people living in China had to use ration tickets in exchange for food, clothing and furniture. This was a period where family members turned against each other, teachers and business owners publically whipped and shamed for being “exploitative”, and young students recruited to the Red Guard to spread the words of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao). Mao Zedong’s words and ideology brainwashed and manipulated a generation of young men and women, putting them through unimaginable suffering, separating them from their families and “re-educating” their ideals; in short, robbing people of their freedom to choose and think for themselves.

Freedom Swimmer is the first Young Adult (YA) novel I have come across that explores such a complex period in China’s history through the eyes of two 17-year-old boys (Li and Ming). Ming and Li questioned the suffering that they were made to witness and endure, coming to terms with the impact of the cultural revolution and famine on their family and friends. For a better life, they’ve decided to swim for freedom through shark-infested waters to Hong Kong. Ming and Li’s story is written with so much heart and soul; at times it was gut-wrenching. There were some truly heartbreaking moments that you just have to read for yourself. The themes of friendship, coming-of-age, love and hope contrast wonderfully against this real-life dystopian backdrop which made the characters highly relatable despite the story setting in a different time and culture. Freedom Swimmer was also inspired by the author’s father’s experience and his real-life freedom swim from China to Hong Kong. This is truly a notable and unique read if you’re after a book with depth and insight, or is interested in reading about a real dystopian period in recent history.  This book is highly relevant today given the issues concerning the plight of refugees/asylum seekers, as Ming’s father said to him in Freedom Swimmer –“it doesn’t matter where they’re from, all desperate men are the same.” I highly recommend this read!

– NJ

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One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

“It is not the voice of a girl dressed as a boy. It is even stronger. Invincible.”

One Half from the East is a great YA read that I would highly recommend for readers who enjoys a coming-of-age, slice of life story. It’s a story about a young girl who had to pretend to be a boy in order to change the fortune of her family. This superficial transformation is based on a longstanding Afghan belief that a “bacha posh” (girl who dresses and acts like a boy at home and in public) can bring luck to her family. This story is an interesting exploration of how boys and girls are treated differently in traditional Afghanistan, it examines gender inequality through the eyes of a ten-year-old Obayda (Obayd as a boy) and what girls can achieve when they get the same rights and freedom as boys. I really felt for Obayda throughout the story, especially her struggles in pretending to be a boy and also coming to terms with what would happen when she returns to being a girl. I also enjoyed reading about her friendship with Rahim. The story is well-written and profoundly perceptive. I liked that the story also focused on friendship, personal growth and family. It’s a compelling and thoughtful read that can also be enjoyed by adult readers.

– NJ