The Uyghur people, a predominantly Muslim people located in far northwestern China, have been spotlighted internationally in recent years due to their persecution by the Chinese government. In addition to repressive police surveillance, more than a million Uyghurs have been placed in “re-education camps” where they have been tortured, their children are being forced into government-run boarding schools for indoctrination, forced sterilizations are taking place, and mosques are being destroyed. Numerous governments are calling what is happening a genocide against the Uyghur people. For an in-depth report including interviews with formerly-detained Uyghur people, adults can listen to this excellent, yet disturbing broadcast from the BBC.
Because of their plight I was pleased to discover this novel based in this region and featuring a young Uyghur girl and her impoverished, politically-oppressed family. The book does not discuss the most extreme forms of persecution occurring in their homeland, but does showcase in part the surveillance, the control that the government exerts over people’s lives, the fear of reprisals against any attempt of self-determination. For families with a particular interest in China or in the Uyghur people, for those seeking to help children engage in human rights issues, or for those looking for a story showcasing female empowerment through art/craftsmanship — this unusual title fills that gap.
The Vine Basket, by Josanne La Valley
published in 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Mehrigul, age 14, longs to be in school but with a mother struggling with deep depression, an older brother who has fled from home to evade arrest for participating in an antigovernment demonstration, and a father addicted to alcohol and gambling, the responsibilities for both farm and household have fallen heavily on her shoulders. Beyond her grief at not being allowed an education, Mehrigul harbors a deep fear — Uyghur girls ages 16 and older who are not in school are being sent far from home to work in Chinese factories. Mehrigul knows the local government officials are watching her, noting her absence from school, knows too that her father covets the paycheck she would provide the family with that factory job and is willing to lie about her age.
Then, a fortuitous meeting at the market gives Mehrigul hope for a different future. An American woman touring the area to purchase local crafts for her U.S. shop sees a basket Mehrigul has woven. To Mehrigul it’s a worthless item, something she wove for pure pleasure unlike the sturdy baskets her grandfather weaves for heavy household use. Yet this woman sees an artistry in it that she much admires. She pays handsomely for it and says she’ll buy more when she returns in a few weeks if Mehrigul can make them. Many challenging obstacles emerge to prevent Mehrigul from weaving, however, foremost her father’s disdain for such flim-flam and his harsh unwillingness to allow her the time for weaving. With the clock ticking, can Mehrigul save herself from factory work and provide for her family through artistry instead?
I approached this book with some hesitation due to the fact that it’s a white American author telling this Uyghur story. She seems to have used Uyghur insiders to vet and edit her text, yet fully inhabiting the perspective and voice of this young girl is, of course, not possible. I was also concerned that she presents a white American woman character as Mehrigul’s savior, an unfortunate propensity for majority-group authors. However, after reading it I will say that Mehrigul is a strong, persevering, and empowered young teen, her grandfather-mentor is a wise, keen artisan, and a Uyghur translator accompanying the American buyer plays the key role in negotiating the challenging interactions with Mehrigul and her father, all of which allayed some of my concerns.
As I said, particularly for those interested in this culture or these kinds of human rights issues, it’s a rare opportunity to explore them via fiction. Mehrigul’s father is frequently verbally-abusive and is a harsh taskdriver. Therefore I’m suggesting this for readers ages 12 and up.
Later this week I’ll post my first batch of fascinating titles for Women’s History Month.
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