River East River West

River East River West Aube Rey Lescure

“I wrote my first short story at age six in French, about a child who goes to an island, rescues a bird called Cuicui and is rewarded with a cup of hot chocolate. It was shameless wish-fulfilment – look at me, animal saviour and sugar-receiver. Later, I was in Chinese middle school,and my friends and I became enormous anime-nerds and what better pas- time than drawing endless fan-fic of One Piece and Naruto? To me, writing or storytelling has always been about exploring the Id and extending imaginary worlds, ones we love or others of our own creation.”

Aube Rey Lescure, author of River East River West, an anti ‘expat novel’ bares her soul and thoughts, delving into the premise of this unique book. Aube was reading a lot of expat literature set in China and Asia that was either squarely in the historical colonial era or relied on tropes such as Shanghai’s triad or cabaret traditions or were contemporary works that still displayed colonial sensibilities in their near-total lack of interest, in Chinese or Asian characters. She now writes in English, which is her third-language – “it’s my dominant one in everyday life, but doesn’t necessarily flow naturally from my brain and earliest memories. I think the lens of multiple languages will always, at least sub-consciously, mediate my relationship to writing and foster a kind of outsider-looking-in curiosity towards cultures I consider even partly my own”.

“It is, in part, the story of Alva, a biracial teenager growing up in 2000s Shanghai, with her expatriate mom. Alva has never been outside of China and her image of ‘abroad’ is shaped by a steady diet of pirated DVDs and American entertainment; meanwhile, she is navigating an increasingly suffocating Chinese public school system and scheming to attend the Shanghai American School, which turns out to be less heavenly than she thinks. The book’s other narrator is Lu Fang, a Chinese businessman who Alva’s mom marries out of the blue after mother and daughter rent his spare apartment.” There seems to be a lot more there than meets the eye. We follow their epic love story, full of illicit choices and betrayals, as it unfolds over decades, set against the backdrop of China’s reform and opening.

“I spent most of my life, up to age sixteen, growing in Northern China and Shanghai while attending Chinese public schools. At the same time, being half Chinese and half French, I had a foreign passport and was raised predominantly by my single mom, an expat who’d lived in China since the 1980s. I always straddled these dual realities – on the one hand, my Chinese family and the Chinese school system, my Chinese peers and friends; on the other hand, the existence of an expat bubble I rarely partook in but knew took the form of embassies and international schools and business communities.” Aube’s novel is driven by the shock she felt while observing the attitudes and condescension towards China that many expats exhibited and how neo-colonial many of the racial and power dynamics remained.

“As a white woman who chose to emigrate and a half-Chinese girl born and raised in Shanghai, they inhabit different versions of society, a gap they’re not always able to bridge. They are both drifters and grifters, influenced by the worst of impulses it takes to survive in a booming metropolis. The mother, Sloan, is an alcoholic, coasting as a half-hearted English teacher; the daughter, Alva, is a survivalist, who learns to play different roles to get what she wants from people – to get out of school, to social-climb into social bubbles she thinks promise a better life. Then, there is Lu Fang, the Chinese stepfather whose past is unknown to his new stepdaughter. Little by little, Alva realises Lu Fang is genuinely watching out for her and that there is this incredibly complex past he shares with her mother.” Despite the cynicism, assumptions and calculations that entangle this family, the story is about forging a space for what is unknowable about other lives and developing compassion and genuine connection.

This is an all exclusive excerpt from our Bookazine. To read the entire article, grab your copy here.

Words Neeraja Srinivasan
Date 09.03.2024