There’s a scene in my new nov­el, Some­day We Will Fly, in which Lil­lia, my scrap­py hero­ine, comes across a wall of books in her friend’s house. Lil­lia is a Pol­ish Jew­ish refugee who has fled Nazi-occu­pied War­saw and is sur­viv­ing the war in Shang­hai — the only place left in the world that will let Jew­ish cit­i­zens land. Lil­lia has man­aged to bring only a sin­gle book with her, and hasn’t seen any­thing near­ly as lux­u­ri­ous as her friend’s shelf of books since arriv­ing in Shang­hai. The city is excru­ci­at­ing­ly unfa­mil­iar, and Lillia’s moth­er van­ished before they were to sail, so Lillia’s life is almost unman­age­ably dif­fi­cult. The sight of so many sto­ries cre­ates in her a jolt of sor­row at her own sit­u­a­tion, and embar­rass­ment of want­i­ng some­thing as bad­ly as she wants to read and escape. But it also offers her what books so often offer us: sto­ries oth­er than the ones we’re cur­rent­ly liv­ing, tem­plates for how our lives might ulti­mate­ly be okay, and hope.

But it also offers her what books so often offer us: sto­ries oth­er than the ones we’re cur­rent­ly liv­ing, tem­plates for how our lives might ulti­mate­ly be okay, and hope.

Lil­lia gets to bor­row as many books from that shelf as she likes (her friend Rebec­ca is gen­er­ous and sees Lillia’s need), and I wrote that moment for Lil­lia because my book is about how we hang onto the pos­si­bil­i­ties of hope, love, and child­hood in con­texts as hideous as war. How do refugee fam­i­lies help their chil­dren come of age with any sense of nor­mal­cy or safe­ty? One way is through sto­ries. This scene is both opti­mistic and true; libraries were life­lines for the real-world Shang­hai Jews I met and talked to, and whose own books I read while I was research­ing Some­day We Will Fly. I spent sev­en sum­mers in Shang­hai, where I read, wan­dered the neigh­bor­hoods, and sift­ed through pho­tos and objects at the Shang­hai Jew­ish Refugees Muse­um. But it was at home in Chica­go that I had the almost mirac­u­lous for­tune to meet Dr. Jacque­line Par­do, whose moth­er Karin Par­do (née Zacharias) was a Shang­hai Jew.

Jacque­line saved an aston­ish­ing­ly com­pre­hen­sive archive of belong­ings from her mother’s girl­hood, and also hun­dreds of the more than 3,000 books her grand­fa­ther, Leo Zacharias, man­aged to car­ry from Ger­many to Shang­hai with him. Get­ting to see and feel and, in some cas­es, flip through the actu­al books Leo Zacharias car­ried to Shang­hai allowed me to imag­ine what their pages must have meant to refugees who oth­er­wise would have had no way to read. For years, Leo Zacharias lent his books out, which I imag­ine not only formed a com­mu­ni­ty, but also allowed that com­mu­ni­ty to be in a lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tion. Books let the refugees feel con­nect­ed not just to each oth­er, but also to human beings across eras. James Bald­win writes: You think your pain and your heart­break are unprece­dent­ed in the his­to­ry of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tor­ment­ed me most were the very things that con­nect­ed me with all the peo­ple who were alive, who had ever been alive.” I want­ed Lil­lia, whose moth­er is miss­ing, whose baby sis­ter is almost inca­pac­i­tat­ed, and whose life is excru­ci­at­ing­ly dif­fi­cult, to have access to the simul­ta­ne­ous­ly imag­i­na­tive and very real hope that books can offer.

Orig­i­nal­ly, I was inspired to write Some­day We Will Fly by some pho­tographs I hap­pened upon in the Shang­hai Jew­ish Refugee Muse­um one sum­mer when I was in Shang­hai work­ing on a con­tem­po­rary project. The first pho­to was of a group of teenage boys, war refugees from Europe, like so many of the Jew­ish set­tlers who found them­selves in Shang­hai between 1939 and 1945. These boys were star­ing into the cam­era with the soul­ful, hol­lowed-out look of kids grow­ing up in the dead­en­ing con­text of war. They also looked sim­ply like boys, mis­chie­vous and sweet. Stun­ning­ly, they were dressed in polo shirts with school insignias and lit­tle ten­nis rack­ets print­ed on the chests. These were teenagers who had arrived in Shang­hai hav­ing fled both unspeak­able ter­ror and every­thing that was famil­iar to them. Yet their grown-ups, on top of man­ag­ing to keep them safe and feed them, had made a school, a table ten­nis table team, and shirts for them. Those tiny insignias seemed icon­ic to me of how human beings save each oth­er and their chil­dren. Of course they were also a very lit­er­al sym­bol of the resilience refugees demon­strate — in ways both too small to be seen and too vast to be measured.

Next to that image was one of two tod­dlers, girls hold­ing rag dolls. The girls were in rags them­selves, but some­one who loved them, their par­ents, maybe, or friends, or aun­ties, or Chi­nese neigh­bors, had sewn dolls for them, and paint­ed on those dolls love­ly, expres­sive faces.

The records of these children’s lives, and the objects that revealed their community’s devo­tion to them, inspired Lil­lia. And she let me ask, in as many and com­pli­cat­ed ways as pos­si­ble, the hor­ri­fy­ing ques­tion of how fam­i­lies sur­vive the chaos of war. Who loves us enough to keep us safe in the face of stag­ger­ing dan­ger and vio­lence, and how can chil­dren come of age in cir­cum­stances as un-nur­tur­ing as those of occu­pied cities? How do we fig­ure out how to live, to use lan­guages both famil­iar and unfa­mil­iar to tell sto­ries that make our lives endurable? How do we read or imag­ine our ways back to hope, even when we feel the con­stant pulse of its twin force, dread?

And she let me ask, in as many and com­pli­cat­ed ways as pos­si­ble, the hor­ri­fy­ing ques­tion of how fam­i­lies sur­vive the chaos of war.

For the wartime Shang­hai Jew­ish refugees, sur­vival itself relied on numer­ous con­verg­ing fac­tors, rang­ing from com­plex glitch­es in pass­port con­trol to acts of stun­ning hero­ism and self-sac­ri­fice by human beings (Japan­ese con­suls; unsung Chi­nese cit­i­zens; Euro­pean par­ents and chil­dren will­ing to take astro­nom­i­cal risks on behalf of one anoth­er). It also required and inspired the cre­ation of impres­sive amounts of art, music, and lit­er­a­ture. Books played an essen­tial part in their abil­i­ty to build a com­mu­ni­ty in which their chil­dren could grow up with an under­stand­ing that the world was a place elas­tic enough to con­tain both bru­tal­i­ty and beauty.

Of course Lil­lia reads and reads. She is an artist her­self, and makes pup­pets who con­vey some of the ways she under­stands both books and the world. In one such moment, she has her pup­pets speak like the char­ac­ters in Gats­by, who believed they had trou­bles but actu­al­ly lived in lux­u­ri­ous Amer­i­ca. Daisy, Jay, and Nick were free, such lucky pup­pets. I tucked them away, talk­ing of par­ties, mon­ey, and love. They stayed safe under my cot while wind howled up Ward Road, our win­dows rat­tled and the riv­er tantrumed: anoth­er flood. Tomor­row I’d make my pup­pets orphans from Oliv­er Twist. Like Wei and Ayli. I thought of the refrain of beg­ging chil­dren in the streets: no mama no papa no whiskey soda. My pup­pets sang it. When I slept, I dreamt their sto­ries, the show we would make for my moth­er when she arrived.” In this moment, Lil­lia goes from anger and envy to dread and real­i­ty, and from there, to hope. She does so by way of the books she’s read­ing, and the art they’re allow­ing her to make.

Nat­u­ral­ly, this is part­ly a meta con­ver­sa­tion; I could­n’t have made Some­day We Will Fly (or my own characters/​puppets!) with­out books, those I read in hon­or of this project, and also those avail­able to me my entire life. Books have shaped my imag­i­na­tion and syn­tax, mak­ing me who I am as a writer and a per­son. Some­day We Will Fly has a long bib­li­og­ra­phy at its end, because it’s impor­tant to me to be clear that what dri­ves my nov­el is won­der. And that won­der leads me to oth­er people’s books, and from there onto my own. This is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, so I don’t mean to sim­ply won­der about what hap­pened,” but more pro­found­ly about why peo­ple do what they do, and what that says about who we are and who we must be.

This is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, so I don’t mean to sim­ply won­der about what hap­pened,” but more pro­found­ly about why peo­ple do what they do, and what that says about who we are and who we must be.

There is so much read­ing that goes into writ­ing, and it meant an inex­press­ible amount to me that so many peo­ple wrote care­ful accounts of the era I want­ed to explore, in many cas­es the sto­ries of their own and each other’s lives. The books in my bib­li­og­ra­phy are a tes­ta­ment to the kind of resilience that was my orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion. When I think of my own read­ing, I can’t help but feel the grat­i­tude Lil­lia feels when Rebec­ca loans her books – for all the writ­ers whose work sus­tained me, and also for Leo Zacharias. Because he had an ines­timable for­tune in those books he man­aged to car­ry to Shang­hai, and he gave to as many oth­ers as he could the pos­si­bil­i­ty of read­ing (and in some cas­es writ­ing) their ways toward hope.

Rachel spent her twen­ties in Chi­na as a con­sul­tant, writer, and the unlike­ly star of a night­time soap opera called For­eign Babes in Bei­jing.” Her mem­oir of those years, For­eign Babes in Bei­jing, has been pub­lished in six coun­tries and is being devel­oped as a tele­vi­sion series by HBO. Her nov­el Repeat After Me, about a young Amer­i­can ESL teacher, a trou­bled Chi­nese rad­i­cal, and their unex­pect­ed New York romance, won a Fore­ward Mag­a­zine Book of the Year award. Her third book, the nov­el Big Girl Small, is forth­com­ing from FSG in 2011. Rachel has a BA in Eng­lish from Colum­bia and an MFA in poet­ry from Boston Uni­ver­si­ty. Rachel divides her time between NYC, Chica­go, and Bei­jing with her hus­band, play­wright Zayd Dohrn, and their two lit­tle girls.