Book Review: The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley
May 6, 2013
Ai Lian, Intern, Uyghur Human Rights Project
The Vine Basket is a young adult fiction novel that tells the story of a Uyghur girl – Mehrigul – who comes from a small village in East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang) and faces challenges to finish the one task that could change her life, making a vine basket.
The story could better be described as the struggles of a young Uyghur girl who lives in an occupied land. This occupation affects her family on multiple levels, including their relationships with one another, living standards, education, and psychologically.
The catalyst for an extreme change in her family dynamic occurs when Mehrigul’s brother disappears to participate in a demonstration and later escapes from East Turkestan. Because her brother attended a demonstration, her family must pay the consequences even if he is not imprisoned. Mehrigul stops attending school in order to farm and sell at the market. Her Ata (father) develops serious drinking and gambling problems and her Ana (mother) recedes into a reclusive manner. Mehrigul’s parents are not weak so much as tired from living a strenuous life and constantly worrying about their children under occupation.
Mehrigul’s little sister, Lali, represents hope as a bright and somewhat naïve young girl. Lali, however, has learnt fluent Mandarin at school and sometimes speaks it at home. This represents the danger of Uyghurs losing their heritage and culture, especially since they must possess strong Mandarin to succeed in the job market. China’s government threatens to erase this part of the Uyghur identity by forcing Uyghurs to learn Mandarin in order to survive economically. Uyghurs’ efforts to maintain their culture counters this difficult reality, and resistance to oppressive Chinese policy also creates an external force which strengthens their identity.
Pati and Hajinsa, Mehrigul’s classmates, represent wealthy Uyghurs in East Turkestan. Both of their families also face oppression but have the financial capabilities to bribe cadres into letting their children stay with them. Since government cadres must fulfill worker quotas for their factories, they take children, like Mehrigul, who do not have the financial means to stay in school and must work on the farms instead. Despite an age restriction, many parents lie about their children’s age so that they will go to the factories and earn money to send home.
Mehrigul’s Ata remains a prominent obstacle to her ability to make a vine basket until the very end of the story. He thinks that Mehrigul is wasting her time on a dream and that women traditionally should not weave and sell baskets. Ata’s values are presented as patriarchal but also part of the Uyghur identity that is under threat. Although traditions change with history, this shows how the development of Uyghur culture is affected by Chinese oppression. On the other hand, Mehrigul’s Chong Ata (grandfather) encourages her to make baskets and supports her decisions, proving that traditional communities constantly change and that women can find a place of value. Furthermore, the book demonstrates that Uyghur women assume a prominent role within the family and social structures. When her mother realizes the gravity of Mehrigul completing a basket, she finds it within herself to help without obtaining Ata’s permission.
The plot is bookended with visits from Mrs. Chazen, an American woman who is willing to pay a high price for Mehrigul’s basket. Her character mirrors a larger narrative that the United States must push China and help the Uyghurs on a humanitarian level. Mrs. Chazen’s financial assistance for Mehrigul’s family and education also falls into the trope of a privileged, white character “saving” minorities that is typical of American literature and film, but in this case it occurs within the unique political and social environment of East Turkestan. Mrs. Chazen’s identity as an outsider to East Turkestan affords her the leeway to help Uyghurs in a way that those in China and East Turkestan cannot. It is important to recognize Mrs. Chazen’s privileged position and understand her efforts to bond with Mehrigul in this context to derive the story’s full merit.
Mehrigul is the true hero of the story, and La Valley shows that her hero can overcome large obstacles, and will continue to face them. Mehrigul is the one who keeps her family together, fights physical and mental fatigue, and has the skills to empower not only herself but also her family. Mehrigul represents the strength of the Uyghur people, who can overcome hardships and find the strength to continue struggling against oppression.
Mehrigul speaks the novel’s main lesson in a comment to her Ata near the end: “We [the Uyghurs] can’t let them take from us what is ours. Our soft hearts must not betray our spirits.” The lesson is that the Uyghur people will prevail.
More on the book:
The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley
Published April 2013, Boston: Clarion Books
Available Online: http://www.josannelavalley.com/