Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Sentence: China Dreams

Another Sunday in which I participate in the Sunday Sentence Project (#SundaySentence on Twitter)

"I sat on the floor [...] feeling unfathomably happy at having known a sad man, at having seen him smile, ..."

from China Dreams - Growing Up Jewish in Tientsin by Isabelle Maynard

I am enchanted by this book that I haven't even finished yet. This quote is from the story "Braverman, DP" and it is the best story I have read in a long time, and I read a lot.

I came upon this book by chance while browsing the memoirs published by the University of Iowa Press, and I fail to understand why this memoir has not become one of the stars in the memoir pantheon. It is the poignant story of the daughter of Russian Jews growing up in the Chinese port city of Tientsin (south of Beijing) in the 1930s and '40s. It is an excellent example of memoir written as a collection of stories, rather than as a cohesive narrative. Maynard presents beautifully wrought nonfiction stories, usually centered around a particular character, that bring that unique time and place to life: A city with foreign concessions and Jewish refuges living inbetween, its Chinese sections largely ignored, the Japanese occupation, Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II when suddenly all Western foreigners disappear, and then the need to flee again as the Communist Revolution in China gains force.

With each of her stories, Isabelle Maynard created a little monument for those characters, who tried to preserve their humanity, tried to survive, in an increasingly inhospitable place. She doesn't pay them homage with any nostalgia or sentimentality, but rather with sharply etched portraits, capturing an interaction, or a pivotal moment. To all this she brings the often funny interpretations of her child self, who tries to make sense of the confusing world of the adults that she nevertheless has to learn to navigate.

China Dreams is Isabelle Maynard's only published book, and I was saddened to learn that she has passed away since. I would have loved to write to her about her book and tell her how very moved I was by it, and how I hope her stunning writing will find more readers. And I would have wanted to thank her for writing it in the first place.


  1. I'm startled by the fact that there were Russian Jews in China of all places.

    1. William, the Russian Jews were among the many Russians who fled the Russian Revolution and Communist takeover after 1917. There were established trading posts already, mainly along the train lines, so many of these people established successful businesses in China, particularly in cities that had foreign concessions like Tientsin or Shanghai.