About The Author
Zana Fraillon lives in Victoria, Australia with her husband and three sons. She worked as a primary school teacher before having children, and has written picture books as well as another novel for children, No Stars to Wish On.
Her new book is The Bone Sparrow: a Refugee Novel, a vivid and moving story about a refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre. All Subhi knows of the world is that he's at least 19 fence diamonds high, the nice Jackets never stay long, and at night he dreams that the sea finds its way to his tent, bringing with it unusual treasures. And one day it brings him Jimmie. Carrying a notebook that she's unable to read and wearing a sparrow made out of bone around her neck - both talismans of her family's past and the mother she's lost - Jimmie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Subhi beyond the fence. As he reads aloud the tale of how Jimmie's family came to be, both children discover the importance of their own stories in writing their futures.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Zana about why all of us, and especially children, need to understand more about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, why she wants to tackle the slave trade next, and having a garden gnome as a lifelong comfort object.
Questions & Answers
What inspired The Bone Sparrow?
The idea for the book had been floating around in my head for a long time now. The refugee crisis is an ongoing global issue and it doesn’t seem as though any country has found a solution.
In Australia, we’ve had a succession of governments who have implemented a series of increasingly inhumane immigration policies, resulting in children being kept indefinitely in detention centres. Their human rights and the rights of the child are being routinely denied, they are surrounded by mental illness and suicide, and there have been repeated allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
These conditions are mirrored in refugee camps and detention centres worldwide. Recent reports have suggested that over 10,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children have disappeared since entering the UK, and that the children in the camps are extremely vulnerable and at high risk of abuse and exploitation.
This is an issue we all need to be thinking about and discussing. For a long time I knew it was something I wanted to write about, but I wasn’t sure how. And then I came across an article about a baby being born into indefinite detention, and the voice of Subhi came to me immediately. The voice of a child who has never known any other world than the one behind those razor wire fences.
Was this a hard book to write?
It was harrowing to research. Those are images which I can never forget, and facts so hideous they almost seem absurd. However, the writing itself was not difficult. Subhi’s voice came to me very strongly, and I never felt I had to force it. Having said that, the story went through multiple edits and rewrites, but that is something I greatly enjoy, so it didn’t feel difficult at all.
Do you feel children need to know more about refugees and asylum seekers?
I think we all need to understand more. We need to see the people behind the numbers and statistics that flood the media. We need to find the courage and humanity to help people, rather than find excuses to turn them away. I think if children are able to understand and imagine the kind of world that refugees and asylum seekers are locked in, then when those children become adults, they will be far more likely to help. Children need to be aware of the issues in our communities, so that they can imagine a better world, the kind of world they want to live in when they become the grown ups to lead us into the future.
What would you tell Subhi if he was there with you right now?
To never give up hope. To keep imagining. The world won’t always be this way.
What is something your readers might not know about you that they’d find interesting?
Perhaps that I am (or at least, was,) an award winning close up magician. I still practise, but I don’t perform any more.
Or another one is that Jimmie’s garden gnome is inspired by my own garden gnome, who I used to cuddle in bed rather than a teddy bear, and who I used to take everywhere - even skiing. He still lives in our house, although he has had a few run-ins with death - being buried alive; having his head chopped off by a spade; being chewed by a dog…he is quite an adventurous spirit.
Having tackled some really important issues so far, what’s your next project?
I always keep a notebook of ideas whenever I am working on a story. Usually when I am researching one topic, I discover a whole different line of enquiry that I hadn’t previously considered. While researching The Bone Sparrow, I came across a series of articles highlighting the modern day slave trade. This lead to the discovery that a whole lot of unaccompanied refugee children are suspected to have been trafficked into child slavery. It seemed a logical next step to explore, and like The Bone Sparrow, it is a story which won’t stop niggling at me until I write it. Interestingly enough, recently I was going through some old notebooks and I came across an article I had cut from the paper years ago, before I started writing The Bone Sparrow. It was about 14 children who were being kept in an immigration detention centre in Australia, and who disappeared from the centre. There were fears that the children were part of a trafficking ring and had been sold into slavery.
I am also working on a couple of picture books. I love the different ways one can use language in a picture book, and how the story is told through that beautiful combination of language and images.
Finally, will you be writing more about Subhi’s story?
Not at this stage. Mostly because I don’t know what the rest of Subhi’s story is. But perhaps he will come back and whisper in my ear again. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did.