Review: The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 2nd 2013 by Clarion Books
Source: Publisher

The Vine Basket is dedicated to:

The Uyghur (Weegur) people of East Turkestan in their struggle to preserve their language, culture, and religion and to live freely in their own land.

Josanne La Valley is an American author who lives in New York City. The Vine Basket is her first novel.

Before I read this book, I had no idea who the Uyghur people are and what atrocities are being visited on them. Though the novel is fictional, the events that play out in this novel could very well be reality. As such, though I will evaluate this novel as a fictional piece of work, I believe it is important to keep in mind that the setting and the people are real.

The Vine Basket is the story of Mehrigul, a young Uyghur girl who desperately wants to learn but after her brother leaves, has no choice but to stay at home and help her family with their farm. This, though necessary, puts her in danger of being sent to work in factories far away from home by the Han Chinese who have invaded their land and are steadily ensuring that Ughur culture, religion and people die out. Mehrigul sells vine baskets made by her grandfather in the marketplace. She sometimes helps her grandfather weave the baskets and once created her own work that hangs from the cart on which she lays out her wares. One day an American lady buys that basket and asks Mehrigul to make more. But in Mehrigul’s culture, women are not the craft-makers; that privilege belongs to the men. Her stormy relationship with her father, who spends whatever money they have on alcohol, and her mother, who prefers being numb to the harsher realities of life, also contributes to her struggle to create these baskets which have become an opportunity. Her relationship with her sister and the responsibility she feels for her are the only things that anchor Mehrigul. The work on the farm is difficult and without her brother, Mehrigul finds that she often has to do it alone as her father disappears for hours on end. Her only support are her infirm grandfather and her well-off friend.

Though the novel deals with heavy themes, it is not overwhelming in its depiction of Ughur life. Mehrigul is an easy to like character because young as her voice is, her anger at her parents who fail in their duty as adults and as parents make her easy to relate to. Oftentimes, in books written by North American authors, parents get a free pass whenever they act like jerks and in fact, are often forgiven in weepy scenes at the denouement of the novels but La Valley portrays the parents with a lot of sensitivity. While she does not shy away from showing them in a way that would seem cruel to someone raised in the West, she also is careful to keep Mehrigul in character as a Ughur daughter. She does not express Western rebellion and Mehrigul gives in at times and in situations that I, for example, wouldn’t

Mehrigul’s awareness of the graduation decline of her culture is expressed in her insistence that her sister speak the Ughur language at home and in the little traditions, especially song and dance, she pays attention to. There is a skein of unavoidable sorrow that runs throughout the narrative because the Ughur people have seen, understood and perhaps come to accept their own end.

I was afraid that the whole American lady buying the vine basket and offering great opportunities would be a chance for the dreaded colonial narrative to make an appearance but thankfully, La Valley avoids that by not giving the foreigner a major presence in the book. Though the American lady is important to the narrative, it is what she offers with her wealth that’s important. There is no “white saviour” (as they say).

I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the novel where La Valley narrates her experiences with the Ughur people and goes into some detail about the events that inspired her to write the novel. She talks about how important it is to spread awareness about what is essentially a genocide. I appreciated even more the note written by Mamatjan Juma, Ughur service editor, Radion Free Asia, who puts to rest any thoughts about misappropriation by his/her verification of the portrayal of Ughur lifestyle/culture in the book.

I cannot stress how important The Vine Basket is. It does not just inform readers about people they may not have known about but they also let readers experience for themselves what it feels like when your very identity is threatened. But the most wonderful thing about The Vine Basket is how it portrays a people who live such difficult lives but who refuse to give up on both themselves and on hope.