Students, faculty, and members of the Penn community packed the Penn Book Center Tuesday night to hear Helen Zia read parts of her new book, “Last Boat Out of Shanghai."
Zia, an activist, writer, and former journalist, has spoken out on a variety of social issues, including LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and countering hate and violence. Her new book, published in January 2019 after 12 years of research, tells the stories of four individuals who left Maoist China following the Communist Revolution in 1949.
The author said one of the characters in the book was inspired by her own mother. Left to fend for herself in Shanghai, Zia's mother ultimately found herself on the last boat that left the city before Mao's forces took over, bound for America at age 19.
Zia said once her mother arrived in the United States as a refugee, she faced xenophobia and threats of deportation.
“What they experienced is true seventy years ago and true today,” she said, drawing parallels from her mother's story to today's political climate.
Zia said her parents arrived in the United States legally but overstayed their visas and hid for years because they feared deportation. When Zia filed a Freedom of Information Act request, she discovered her parents were nearly deported, but the court granted them residency as displaced persons because they had two American-born children. To separate the parents from their children, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service files, would be “an extreme hardship and unusual cruelty.”
For Zia, this a lesson for society today, in a time when the Trump administration has separated families and locked children in cages.
“There’s a lot we can learn today,” she said, “that includes compassion and humanity.”
The event was organized by Penn Book Center, the Pan-Asian American Community House, the Asian American Studies Program, the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, and the Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board.
APSC Vice Chair and Engineering junior JingJing Zeng said she was impressed by the parallels between Zia's novel and today’s immigration crisis.
“In moments like these we really see that history repeats itself,” Zeng said.
ASAM UAB Co-chair and College senior Luke Kertcher said Zia's discussion was especially relevant in light of the Trump administration's recent deportation of some Southeast Asian Americans.
Engineering senior Wenting Sun, who attended the event, said Zia’s talk struck a personal chord. Growing up in China, she never learned about the Mao-era Shanghai exodus, although she had heard about her grandparents’ struggles in the era. She added that Zia’s new book illustrates the importance of diverse, accurate representation in literature.
As a nation of immigrants, Zia concluded, people should seek to learn more about their families’ histories to understand what their ancestors went through to live in America. If people better understand the effects that aggressive policies have on vast groups of people, she added, more people can be empowered to speak out against them.
“We are now at a point where we need to take all that we know and do the best with it,” Zia said.