Our Teen Advisory Board interviews Zana Fraillon
The Readings Teen Advisory Board is a volunteer group of teens that meet once a month to chat about young adult books, learn about careers in the book industry and give us advice.
The Board recently read The Bone Sparrow, a moving story about a Rohingyar refugee born in a detention centre. Here, they ask author Zana Fraillon their most pressing questions.
How hard was it to maintain a balance of the sad reality of Subhi’s life as well as a sense of childishness/childhood?
Not difficult at all. It felt to me from the very beginning that Subhi would naturally have that sense of childlike wonder, because he had never known anything else. The first time I wrote The Bone Sparrow, I wrote it from the point of view of Queeny. Unlike Subhi, she had known a world outside the detention centre, and she had lost that hope and sense of joy that Subhi has. As a result it was a very different book. Once I realised that what I needed was a character who knew nothing else, and who didn’t understand that children weren’t supposed to live this way, the whole outlook changed. I think this is very common though – quite often as kids we don’t know that our world is different from any one else’s.
Kids also have an amazing sense of resilience – perhaps because they know that the world they will grow up into will be different to the one they are living in now. Kids can hold onto the hope of change, which is something that many adults have lost. During the research stage, it struck me that no matter how deplorable and horrific the conditions were that children were living in, they were so often quick to smile or laugh or play games. It was this I held onto when writing Subhi’s story.
What would you like young readers to learn and experience in reading The Bone Sparrow?
One of the things I love about reading, and about books, is that the experience can be so different for different people. We all read the same words, but those words can touch us in completely different ways. And sometimes we can re-read a book and have it touch us differently to the way it did when we first read it. So I don’t necessarily want my books to teach readers anything – I want my books to create an experience for the reader. Hopefully one full of strong emotions. I would love if a book I wrote was grasped to a reader’s chest when they finish reading in the way I do when I come to the final page in a book I love.
With The Bone Sparrow, I particularly wanted to make Subhi have an emotional impact on the reader. I wanted him to remain real and alive, so that when that reader heard about asylum seekers and refugees in detention, they remembered Subhi, they remembered that all the statistics and policies reported in newspapers and on the radio were talking about real, actual people, with actual lives. I wanted to make the issue relatable to the reader, so we all sit up and take notice of what is happening. So we remember to care.
The situation of these characters is heartbreaking, and there are powerful moments in the book. Did you ever get emotional when writing those parts, or even choose to not include certain elements because they were too intense?
I did get emotional. Sometimes when I write, it is almost like I go into a trance, and the next day I can hardly remember what it is I have written. This happened a couple of times, and I honestly felt a sense of horror and shock reading over my words. I wanted to change some of the scenes to make them easier, to make life happier for the characters, but I knew that this would be an injustice to all the people currently suffering in refugee camps and detention centres around the world.
The hardest scene was the incident with Eli. I almost deleted that scene. In the very last chance I had to change the manuscript before it was sent off to the printers, I had my pen poised over the paper and was a second away from removing it. ‘I still have a chance!’ my brain was screaming. But I also knew that I had to keep that scene in there, because it was true. True in life, and also true to Subhi’s story.
This book really made me appreciate how lucky I am to have been born in Australia, with a roof, a bed, food, clothes and so many things that people like Subhi couldn’t even imagine. What is one of the main things that we can do to help people refugees and the communities in detention centres?
There is so much we can do to help. We can advocate on their behalf. We can make other people aware of the situation and what is happening – we can make people care about it, because it is so easy to ignore and forget about issues that aren’t directly impacting us. We can hold fundraisers. We can support asylum seekers and refugees living in our communities by donating food to organisations such as the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. We can let people know that we do care, that we don’t agree with the way refugees and asylum seekers are being treated. Knowing that people are listening is so powerful. It can give someone hope, and that is the most important thing to hold onto.
Have a look at the resources listed on the ‘For Readers’ section of my website. There are links there for a number of organisations, and all of them have suggested ways to support asylum seekers and refugees.
What do you think that the government should be doing for the refugees, or what are they doing wrong now?
I think we need to stop seeing asylum seekers as a problem. Seeking asylum is a recognised human right. Instead of imprisoning people who have committed no crime, we need to be welcoming them into our communities and providing them with the support they need. People do not travel on dangerous unseaworthy boats unless they have no other choice. We are able to provide a safe place for these people in our country. We are able to prevent deaths at sea by dramatically increasing our refugee intake and helping these people find safety before they have no choice left but to submit to the demands of people smugglers.
Look at the situation in Myanmar at the moment – the military are systematically murdering, raping and torturing the Rohingya people in what is being described as acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people are fleeing Myanmar, and what is our government doing? We are funding the military. We are offering Rohingyan asylum seekers thousands of dollars to return to Myanmar to almost certain death. And we aren’t offering to help the refugees who have made it to the relative safety of the refugee camps in neighbouring countries, and who are slowly dying of preventable disease. Instead, we are sitting back and watching the humanitarian crisis unfold. We are waiting until the people are left with no choices, and then we are condemning those choices.
What the government should be doing is remembering their humanity.
Why was it important to have sarcastic, witty characters like the Shakespeare duck in the book?
The Shakespeare Duck wasn’t planned! He snuck into the book and took me by surprise, but I really enjoyed his company. I smiled when I wrote down his conversations, and I enjoyed writing those scenes. So perhaps he was more important for me than the book! I think if as an author, you enjoy writing, then that joy comes through to the reader. For Subhi, he needed someone to talk to. I often talk to inanimate objects, and I am always conversing with my dogs. My husband talks to himself ALL the time, and one of my favourite things when my kids were little was watching them completely involved in imaginative play. The Shakespeare Duck is no different – he’s just a little louder…