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11/11/2022 | Literary criticism

"What We Dream About" by Lin Hierse: A novel about dreams, identity and family

by Sabrina Siebert

In her 2022 debut, "What We Dream Of," journalist and author Lin Hierse follows the protagonist as she searches for her own identity.

The plot begins with the young woman traveling to China to bury her grandmother. Next to her is her mother, who left the country many years ago, but not for a better life, but for another. The novel is set against the backdrop of this German-Chinese migration story, but offers many other facets: it poses questions of closeness, distance, demarcation, not least of origin, and is ostensibly the story of a mother-daughter relationship in which all these themes find a place of negotiation.

The funeral of her Chinese grandmother prompts the protagonist to ask herself questions about the life of this woman as well as that of her mother before she left China. The search for a fixed place in the world always resonates, both in the look back into the history of her family and in the look at her own life. There is a search for traces in the memories from the mother's earlier life, which also tell of the painful parting from her homeland. In her relationship with her mother, the daughter moves between rapprochement, the "wanting to do everything right," and conscious demarcation, the need to be different from her. Thus, a visit to the hairdresser or the cooking of rice becomes more than an everyday act - rather, they are a confrontation with expectations placed on oneself and expectations imposed from the outside. In the relationship with her mother, she negotiates her belonging, her own identity.

"Now I wonder if there can ever be a balance between the desire to belong and the desire to be unique."

With its clear, pared-down language, coupled with vivid and poignant imagery, the novel creates a dreamlike atmosphere that envelops one as a reader:in. Moreover, the motif of the dream runs throughout the story, in the form of dreams of life, dreams fulfilled and shattered, or illusions truly dreamed.

"A dreamer is not something you just do, you have to make it happen, and that takes strength. You know that, maybe better than anyone else. You've done so much to allow me to dream."

Lin Hierse treats the theme of the search for identity with poetic and sensitive language, sketches a complex and emotional mother-daughter relationship, and manages to tell the story of a young woman's search for her place between cultures in a poignant way, while at the same time linking it to a chapter of German-Chinese history that has been little discussed until now.

"My name is supposed to be Chinese, and yet make it easy for people. As we prance around puddles, I think that's possibly why I am the way I am. One who tries to be Chinese while still being easy to digest, though the two together are rather futile."