I was super proud (read, relieved) when I finally finished that first draft of Freedom Swimmer. The epic tale based on my father’s experiences growing up, not to mention the countless hours of research and examination finally had a shape. I had characters that I loved, historical points to anchor them to and all-in-all I felt I had a fairly believable story of why two boys would risk everything for a better life and the promise of freedom. Why a village boy like my father would take that chance and why a formerly loyal Red Guard would abandon the beliefs he held and make the swim.
I told my father about this and I could hear him smile over the phone. ‘You know it’s funny. With the Red Guards, they pretty much all left.’
I stopped. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, the first year, they sent a bunch of Red Guards for re-education, and within twelve months more than half of them had gone to Hong Kong. The second year, another group came and they lost another majority. They stopped sending them the third year,’ he said with amusement.
My jaw dropped. Of course, I had known many of the freedom swimmers were former Red Guards (that was where I had come up with the story line for Li) but I hadn’t realised the proportion of swimmers to stayers was that great. Because I’m a first generation Chinese-American who goes into a state of rage and panic when her WiFi drops out, the idea that so many Red Guards would have made that decision to leave their lives and their families behind and risk the water was still hard for me to personally fathom.
I shouldn’t really have been surprised, after all this is a ubiquitous story. The tale of Li and Ming’s quest for freedom isn’t unique to their time or their situation – it is the story of every person, who has ever looked at terrible circumstances, wanted to make a change and found the courage to take the plunge. It is the story of so many refugees, from past and present, who are fleeing from war, poverty, famine and a range of other conditions.
My conversation with my father reminded about the resilience of the human condition and our incredible capacity to adapt and be ever optimistic about the future.
And in case you’re wondering, after an initial author-y panic, some limb flailing and finally some rational thinking, I decided to keep the character of the Red Guard the same and I didn’t send half of his counterparts into the water with him either – it’s fiction after all and I’m allowed to take some liberties with the absolute ‘facts’. ;)
Wai Chim is an US-born children's author living in Australia. Her previous books include the junior fiction Chook Chook series published by UQP. Her latest book is her debut YA novel Freedom Swimmer, published by Allen & Unwin. Visit Wai Chim's website and Facebook page for more information about her books and writing including a collection of Asia Literacy Resources for the Australian Curriculum.