Zana Fraillon's The Bone Sparrow is an exceptional book for young adult readers, and this interview is an in-depth discussion of the themes and structure of the work.
The Bone Sparrow was awarded the Amnesty CILIP Honour Award, the ABIA Book of the Year for Older Readers, the Readings YA Book Prize, the IBBY Australian Honour Book and was listed on the the CBCA Honour Book. The Bone Sparrow was also shortlisted for the Carnegie Award, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, the 2017 Prime Minister's Literary Award, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award and the INKY Awards.
ASTRID: Zana Fraillon, welcome to The Garret.
ZANA: Thank you very much for having me.
ASTRID: Now, we're here to talk about The Bone Sparrow, your 2016 beautiful work of fiction. Now The Bone Sparrow was listed for and awarded multiple awards, including the prestigious Amnesty CILIP Honour. Now, that is an international award done by Amnesty International and the Chartered Institute of Library Professionals to celebrate human rights in children's literature. That is not an award I have seen awarded in Australia before, so congratulations.
ZANA: Thank you.
ASTRID: And my first question. Why is children's literature a vehicle to talk about human rights?
ZANA: I think one of the wonderful things with kids is that they are so open to imagination. And I say this a lot but I really strongly believe it, that kids want... kids' minds are wired to imagine. So, from the moment they're born they are constantly taking in, sucking in all this new information and everything we say and everything we talk about with them, they're imagining what that must be like. And so, when kids are given books and when they read them, they read them I think differently to the way adults do. And I feel that myself, that I've lost this layer of imagination when I read books now in our busy lives. But kids haven't done that. So, when they read a story they deeply, deeply imagine what that's like for the characters and the kind of... they delve into the world. They dive into the world, which is harder and harder to do I find as an adult reader.
And so, it's the perfect vehicle for exploring what our world is like. And especially for The Bone Sparrow, which is aimed at kids who are... they're beyond being little kids, they're beginning to think about the kind of adult they're going to become and the kind of world they want to live in. They are the future and they they know it, you know. Their future is spread out in front of them, and they can imagine all the different roads they can take and all the different worlds that they could live in. So, I think it's a really powerful way of showing what our world is like, and also allowing them to imagine what our world could be as well.
ASTRID: Give me the overview of The Bone Sparrow.
ZANA: So, The Bones Sparrow is a story of a young boy who was born inside an Australian immigration detention centre, Subhi. And when we meet him he's 9 years old, but because he was born inside the detention centre the only world he knows is the one inside the razor wire fences. And his thirst for knowledge about the outside world, and he really... he's desperate for stories about what it's like outside and he imagines himself exploring that world and experiencing it himself someday. And through his eyes we see the sort of horrors and traumas of the camp. But because this is the only world Subhi has ever known, he has this sort of amazing sense of hope about the world. He doesn't see how bad it is because it's all he knows. And so, we get this this sense of optimism, which the other characters are lacking.
And then one night, Subhi goes outside the tent where he lives with his mum and his sister and a whole lot of other families, and he sees a girl waiting outside and he knows that this girl is not a girl from the camp and that she has come from the outside world. And the girl is Jimmy, and they strike up this beautiful friendship and despite everything all their differences and everything that divides them they manage to be there for each other when they both need them to be.
ASTRID: Now, that's a beautiful overview. It doesn't quite tell us what happens at the end. We will have spoilers in this interview, but they will be towards the end of the interview so people can stop listening if they haven't got to the end of The Bone Sparrow yet.
Now, the novel opens with a beautiful sense of place. It's from Subhi's point of view, and it's at night, and it's this beautiful ocean - the Night Sea. But very quickly we find out that there is no sea, and this is not a beautiful place. This is a detention centre in a very hot, arid, dry part of Australia. And I'm wondering how you create... well, for me as a reader it was almost two senses of place. It was the very harsh reality that he is living, n the camp, but it is also this world of the imagination and storytelling that is a happy beautiful place, and does bring him and his family pleasure. How did you do that?
ZANA: I don't know. [Laughter] It is a big question.
So, when I first wrote The Bone Sparrow I actually wrote an entire first draft from the point of view of Queeny, Subhi's oldest sister, who's a teenager and who has lived outside the detention centre. And it was a very, very different book. And I sent it to my editor who said, 'Yep, just put it in a desk drawer and, you know, aybe come back to it another time. No one wants to read that.'
ASTRID: Was that because it was too distressing or just not well written?
ZANA: No, it wasn't it wasn't distressing. The writing was probably the same as my first draft of The Bone Sparrow. It was it was because it was I guess too dark in a sense that Queeny didn't have much hope. So, she didn't have the imagination Subhi has and she didn't have that that sense of optimism and hope that he had. So, it was much more of a YA dark, internalised book rather than a more hopeful one.
And so after I was told to put that aside I knew it was still a story I really wanted to tell, that I sort of had to tell and so I spent a long time trying to work out how I could do it and who would carry it. And then I read an article in The Age about an asylum seeker. She'd been granted refugee status and was living in community detention and she had two young kids and had remarried. And as part of the community detention she had to go in for regular meetings with the Immigration Department. In one of these meetings she was told to bring her kids and she did that. And they said, 'We are putting you back in the detention centre'. And she said, 'Why?' And they said, 'Well, ASIO has done a risk assessment and it's been... you've been given an adverse risk assessment'. And she went, 'What does that mean?' And they said, 'Well, we can't tell you that. That's it, this is it. You've been given adverse risk assessment'. She said, 'Can I see the assessment?' And they said, 'No, it's confidential'. And she said, 'Well, what am I supposed to have done?' They said, 'That's confidential'. And so they put her and her two kids immediately back in detention and for an indefinite period. And this was before the whole policy was that everyone was there for an indefinite amount of time. And the very final sentence of the article said, 'two days later she discovered she was pregnant'.
And I read this and it was devastating, it was like a kick in the guts. But I also went, that is my character and this is how I can make a kid growing up in this horrible place - I mean, the UN described the Australian detention centres as torturous and likened them to World War II concentration camps, so it's a hard place to try and make palatable.
But as a... before I was a writer I worked in schools as an integration aide, and one of the things that really struck me was that these kids who were living in pretty horrific conditions didn't realise how horrific the conditions were. And so, they were sort of happy in themselves and could find joy in small things. And so, I realised that was what I had to do with Subhi, to allow him to have this huge imagination and to allow him to find the joy in the small things that other people might not see.
ASTRID: He does find joy and in a way manages to find little ways to share that with his sister, with his friend, with his mum, with Jimmy when he meets her. But he's also a child and has a limited understanding of the world because he hasn't been beyond the razor wire. Now, early on there is a sentence and this is Subhi talking about his mother or thinking about his mother. And quote, 'the last time she ate a full meal and didn't just peck at her food was when I was only 19 fence diamonds high'. That broke my heart. It's also an exceptional piece of writing. There is so much in that sentence. So, you have mental and physical health, you have incarceration, you have you know the childhood family ritual of measuring height on a birthday. It's extraordinary that you were taking on... I don't even have the words. You were taking on mandatory detention and Australia's immigration policy from the eyes of a 9-year-old child. Tell me how you brought mental health and the trauma that his family and everybody else in the camp is experiencing on a daily basis, sometimes on an hour to hour on minute to minute basis, to a story for teenagers?
ZANA: Well, I started off just writing and then and then I went and I stopped and I did a good sort of three months of pretty deep research. And it was a tricky thing to research because of course there's not a lot out there, and what is out there is heavily redacted. I did manage to find very early on, sort of probably a good four years before I ended up writing the story, because I'd had the idea about it when I first heard about kids being kept in detention, and then of course we were all told that 'No, there are no children left in detention, they've all been freed'. I was like, ‘Oh well, there goes that story, I'll move on something else'. And then I kept coming back to it.
So, the first time I researched it I actually found a whole lot of redacted incident statements online. When I went back to find them, you know, four years later though of course being taken down. But I did have a printout of them. And it was... even though you couldn't read everything that had happened, what was there was really powerfully horrific. And it was very, very clear from those and from the other research I did that the main problem, or one of the many main problems, was the mental health of the refugees and asylum seekers. So, that was always going to be part of the story. And I also felt it was really important because even outside Australian immigration detention centres, mental health is an issue that we deal with on a daily basis. And lots of kids in schools, you know, have parents or siblings that are struggling with mental health issues or themselves. So, it was something I really wanted to touch upon.
And it's also a really good way of talking about it within the classroom and a very safe environment. I had a school who contacted me - the kids would've been bet Year 6 I think - and they said their question was, 'Why is Subhi's mum... why can't she be a better mother? What's wrong with her that she can't be a better mother?' And it was really interesting because I was going no, that's not what I want you to take from this story. [Laughter] It was there is a school in the UK, and I was really horrified. But it gave me the chance to write back and say this is what's happening, here are all the issues, you know, how do you think she could be feeling? And also, to give them a whole lot of links to mental health websites and various other resources that they could look at. So, you know, it's a way to talk about these issues which are which are there anyway, which I didn't think about when I was writing, to be fair it was just that's what was part of the story.
ASTRID: Very early in the work Subhi thinks, and I quote again, 'I hate days like this. Days like this only get worse'. Now, for a 9-year-old to have that much awareness and to kind of know that some things symbolise bad things about to happen, and those bad things might just be in somebody's personal experience, internal experience, but are so very real. And he's, you know the book gets kind of progressively more distressing. Early in the book it's too hot, you know, well into the 40C. Water is rationed. You can't have a shower. You can't even get enough toilet paper. People are dehydrated. They have heat rash, they have other, you know, undiagnosed kind of camp illnesses for want of a better word. And then of course, this escalates through the novel. So, there's the physical health and the mental health, and you know, Subhi is looking at his mum. She's traumatised. She's a mother in a camp, she can't look after her children probably because she's not given anything to look after them. You know, she's had her husband taken away and she doesn't know for a long time what happened to him, which is of course is distressing. And then of course, there's Jimmy the girl outside the camp and in a very different way her family is also traumatised. They are deep in grief and not really highly functioning. As an adult I would suggest at a minimum it's benign neglect, she's just left to fend for herself.
I guess I'm trying to formulate a question here, but Jimmy and Subhi are foils of each other in many ways, both are pretty abandoned and unhealthy. When you think about your reader - I mean, you don't want any child to see themself in it, but I think some children would or they'd see their family - talk to me about the little ways you use your writing to bring out these experiences.
ZANA: Yeah. I guess it goes back again to my work in schools working with kids who did have families similar to these, if not in harder circumstances. And what I wanted to do with the story - and I don't even think I've thought about it really during the writing - is that it's always for kids it's always so important to show that that sense of hope, and that that you know that the future can be different and that it's not always going to be this way. So, whatever you're feeling at the moment, it won't always be like this. And that's that's really important for all of us, I think. So, that was that was a really important thing that sort of came through the story.
And I mean, when I was writing it I didn't actually... I'm not a plotter, as you may have been able to tell. So, I write very much by feeling at least the first couple of drafts, and then I go back and find the flat points and fix them up. But a kid at a school recently said to me that they noticed that Jimmy and Subhi mirrored each other. So, while Subhi had his mum Jimmy had her dad, while Subhi had his sister Jimmy had her brother. And you know, was this deliberate? And it wasn't at all deliberate, but you know, it's obviously there now that I read it.
ASTRID: It's a very effective device. And of course, there are other similarities or mirroring. So, Subhi can read, Jimmy can't.
ASTRID: Jimmy has a degree of freedom, Subhi obviously doesn't. But they also both come together. They both choose to break the rules that adults would obviously tell them not to do if adults knew what they're about to do. And they do it for really lovely reasons. When you have a child character and, you know, the main protagonists of The Bone Sparrow breaking rules and breaking pretty significant rules, you know, leaving a detention centre, how do you want your readers to interpret that?
ZANA: These are hard questions. [Laughter] I guess it is the idea that every choice you make is a choice. If you choose not to do something that that's still a choice. And so, the rules they were breaking, they were for the right reasons. And I think that's the important thing, you make choices and if they're for the right reasons - even if it all goes really wrong - you still made it based on the information you had time and for good reasons. And I think they really made those choices because that was true to their character. And so, it was sort of the only choice they could have made, really.
I didn't even think about the rule breaking when I was when I was writing it. I mean, another student asked me recently who I saw myself as, which character. And I really wanted to say Eli, because I would love to be Eli. But I was much more like Subhi, you know, I was good and I really liked stories. You know, I didn't want to I don't want to upset anyone. And that's that's much more the way I see myself, and I guess that's how you become through as well. But that idea of him I don't even think he would have thought about breaking the rule... apart from the fear of getting caught, it was his friend needed him and she had no one else and so he had to be there.
And going back to what you said about them being foils about each other and Jimmy having freedom and Subhi not, there is also that really strong sense that Jimmy doesn't have freedom, you know, she's pretty stuck in her life as well. And Jimmy's story was an interesting one, because that came out of another article I'd read about a community in remote regional Australia that was near the Curtin Detention Centre. And this community had the highest rate of suicide of anywhere in Australia. It was a massive, massive rate of suicide and it was right next to the Curtin Detention Centre, which at that time had schools, it had teachers, it had doctors, it had psychiatrists, it had all these facilities that the local community weren't getting. And the disparity between them was just incredible. So, I wanted to bring that into it as well.
And also I feel that, you know, the refugees and asylum seekers are a very hidden part of our community and we put them way out of sight out of mind on these offshore detention centres. But again, the mirroring is the regional remote communities in Australia, which are also unseen and listened to. And you know, we need to put a lot more resources into remote regional areas as well.
ASTRID: I would like to come back and explore more fully the idea of, you know, what is unseen and what stories we don't tell, including those not only from detention centres but any regional and remote location in Australia. But before we go there, I'd like to come back to the world that's inside the detention centre. Now of course, this is shown to us through Subhi's eyes. He is 9 years old, it's the only world he has known, but there is a really complicated social structure inside the detention centre.
So, there is the Jackets. Now, that's what he calls the wardens and their positions, you know, those who hold authority and can come and go to the camp. There's the Outside, you know, which is always capitalised and that's just everything, that the entire world, you know. So, he's a kid who can't even imagine having a poster on his own bedroom wall because he doesn't even have a bedroom, let alone a bedroom wall. He has a tent. There is the Family Block which is relatively safe, relative being the key word in that sentence. Then there is the place where the teenage males and men are kept, which is very much has a different dynamic and is less safe. There are the Limbo kids, who have a different category to everybody else here. He's born there, didn't come to Australia. For a very small place it's a complicated world. But as an adult reader I thought, well that's kind of how I would maybe if I ever found myself like... that might be the social structure of how I interpret it.
How did you learn so much about what would happen inside a detention centre? And did you learn from other detention centres or camps around the world that maybe have more information written about them?
ZANA: It was.. everything that was in The Bone Sparrow is based on events and circumstances of Nauru and Manus Island. So, all of that was taken from... there were quite a few aerial photos. There were a few interviews done early on before we had a ban on people interviewing refugees and asylum seekers, and people reporting about the camps.
There were pictures drawn by kids, which were by far my best resource because they showed... they really gave me Subhi's voice because they showed very clearly what it was like from the point of view of a child. One of the pictures that influenced me the most was of a sun. It was a kid behind a wire fence and they were crying tears of blood, which was so so sad, and the sun above them was this angry, angry sun. And it just struck me that, you know, every kid's drawing you see now who's not in detention centre, the sun is always either smiling or just a sun. But to think of this sun being angry really struck me. And so, I kind of just piece it together as a puzzle. So, everything I gathered I put onto my desk and would just insert little bits here and there until it formed this overall picture.
So, there was there was quite a bit of guesswork early on, but then actually after the book had been published there was a fantastic documentary and the name of it has now left my mind... Which showed, they got they got a camera inside, I think with Manus Island, and it was it was spot on. It was like, you know, I had managed to somehow piece together this puzzle which gave a very accurate description of the different compounds, the situation, the circumstance and the conditions inside the camps. So, it's kind of lucky guesswork, I guess.
And the compounds are really intriguing, and I can't remember exactly where they came from. I think it was possibly an interview with someone early on that talked about the different compounds, and I think they were called.... I think it was Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta. It was sort of, you know, following that standard. And they were just... that's how they were. And they described the conditions in there. So, I just seeded the information as I went along.
ASTRID: Now, Subhi can read, even though he doesn't really have access to a school or schooling in the camp. His friend Jimmy cannot. She doesn't even make it to school most days. It's a 45, 50-minute drive, which you obviously can't do herself. And at the core of their friendship is the written word. Subhi reads the stories of Jimmy's mother to her, and that's one of the several ways that they bond.
And I read that as a metaphor for the importance of reading and writing and storytelling throughout the novel. You know, in other kind of obvious ways it's come through, so Subhi's lost father was a writer and eventually part of Subhi's emotional healing comes from getting his dad's poetry and realising that his dad had written a poem about him. Jimmy's mother obviously wrote stories that then get read to her, and perhaps most importantly everybody in the detention centre is aware that they have been forgotten, that they are unseen, that their stories aren't understood and are certainly not being told or acted upon. And there is an attempt by several people who live there, including to be sister Queeny, to get their story out into the world, get photos, and we do find out that the photos make it to the front page of the newspapers. And so this goes back to your idea of, your discussion, of people being forgotten and the importance of telling these stories, which of course you're doing in The Bone Sparrow. Can you talk to me about reading and writing and storytelling as a fundamental theme in The Bone Sparrow?
ZANA: Fairly early on in my writing career I was at a lecture where the author said, and he was a journalist, but he said an editor had told him that his job was to shine a light on all the dark places. And that really really resonated with me. And I thought that's, you know, at this moment that's what I want to be doing with my writing, to be telling those stories that we're not hearing.
And the thing with The Bone Sparrow is that, you know, we've had a series of immigration policies which have just got progressively more inhumane and progressively worse. And I think the turning point for me was the children overboard affair, which I realised was 2001. I thought was much more recent that that.
ASTRID: We're getting old. [Laughter]
ZANA: And that was an incident where there was a boat full of I think 217 asylum seekers, and the navy came to intercept their boat, and they threw a handwritten note onto the boat which told the people to turn back. When the people didn't turn back they then fired ammunition, allegedly very close range, at the boat at which point at least one person held their baby in the air to say, 'there are kids on board'. And a photo was taken at that point. The navy then attempted to tow the boat back into international waters and the boat fell apart. The navy were then bound by Law of the Sea to rescue these people. So, there were then children in the water with their parents and more photos were taken. The navy managed to save everyone, no lives were lost. But there was a... the government instructed the Navy to dehumanise the people and to not... I can't exactly remember the exact words, but it was effectively ' dehumanise the refugees'. So, it was said and the media reported that the parents had thrown their children overboard as a way of forcing the navy to rescue them.
ASTRID: And has since been known as the children overboard affair.
ZANA: Exactly. Exactly. And at the time I was overseas and I thought, 'Well this is this is ridiculous, you know, there is international condemnation. It's the Government's... you know, a stupid thing to have done'. But instead it just got progressively worse and worse. You know, all parties have done this. So, when by the time it got round to writing The Bone Sparrow, I think I started 2014, 2015 maybe, what I was noticing was that when the media was now reporting - you know, 15 years after the children overboard affair - we were reporting on policies and statistics and papers talking about hordes of asylum seekers and refugees flooding our shores. And I thought what's missing from all of this are the stories of the people. So, we're seeing the numbers and the government's directive has worked. You know, they've been completely dehumanised.
So for me was really about humanising the statistics, because I think for an adult we see the numbers and we go, 'Yeah, that's that's a lot of people'. But if you can... as a kid, if you hear that there are 75 million refugees and asylum seekers it becomes this sense of, you know, this greater sense of there are 75 million people whose stories aren't being heard and whose stories aren't being told. And that's what I wanted to really get across was that every one of these numbers is a person with so much promise and potential and so much to give us and our community, and you know, so much to share and so many stories. That was to me the main thing was that these are people with stories and songs and promises and dreams.
ASTRID: What struck me in my reading is you are telling the story of Subhi's family. They have left Myanmar, left Burma. They are Rohingya refugees. When Subhi is reading the story that Jimmy's mother has written down of their family history several generations before, they also fled. You know, having to flee your homeland regardless of your race or your religion or your ethnicity happens everywhere in history at various points. And so while Jimmy's family is not in a camp and they are free Australian citizens at this point in the narrative, several generations before they also had to flee.
ASTRID: That was quite an interesting extra layer in The Bone Sparrow.
ZANA: Yeah, well I mean it's that thing, especially living in Australia that apart from the First Peoples we all came here from somewhere else, however many generations back. So, there's this ridiculous irony that now we're saying, 'Well you weren't born here, your family didn't start here, you don't belong'. So, I mean to me that was just sort of a an obvious link between the way we're treating people now and the way we were treated however many generations ago.
And I also... The Bone Sparrow and those stories of Jimmy's mum, I really wanted to have as a link to show that Jimmy and Subhi were connected not just now but that there was this fatalistic sense that they were supposed to be connected, that Subhi and his family were meant to be here. And that that idea of your feature is written already and that everything is there... everything that's happening is meant to be.
ASTRID: And everybody deserves compassion and love and acceptance and welcome.
ASTRID: Tell me about Shakespeare the Duck.
ZANA: So, he snuck up on me by surprise.
ASTRID: So, we should explain that Shakespeare the Duck is essentially an imaginary friend of Subhi. There is a little duck, but you know, this duck talks to Subhi, he has dialogue with it, it's his friend to the point where, you know, he moves the narrative along. And of course, is named after Shakespeare. Tell me about Shakespeare the Duck.
ZANA: So, Shakespeare the Duck. He was never intended to be a part of the story. I couldn't remember why he popped into it initially. I think maybe my kids were given him. He is a real physical duck who is actually on the table with us at the moment.
ASTRID: We have a photo on the website.
ZANA: We do. He insisted on coming today. So that's why I brought him along.
But my sister in law gave him to my kids, and he very quickly inserted himself into the story as a friend for Subhi. And I mean quite honestly the stuff that comes out of his beak was just very much him. So, you know, I hear authors talking about how their characters write themselves on the page, and I wish a main character would do that for me. But instead it's this stupid little duck who is like a wisecracking duck. Yeah, that's just him.
ASTRID: He does offer an element of relief for the reader. There's a bit of humour in what is otherwise a beautifully written but quite distressing story. He is also a vehicle for Subhi's imagination, because you know, it's a friend in his pocket that he is talking to and that moves the narrative along. And of course, you have named him after Shakespeare, you know, a guy who was good with words. I'd also like you to... you know, moving on from the lightheartedness of Shakespeare the Duck, talk to me about the bone sparrow and the imagery of the sparrow that repeats throughout the novel.
ZANA: So, I mean it was... I knew I needed a talisman of some sort to link Subhi and Jimmy's stories, and birds were an obvious choice because they're migratory creatures. There are no fences for them, they can they can be free, they're a symbol of freedom. But there was also... I'm very drawn to folklore as well. And so, when I started looking up birds symbolism, I discovered that sparrows - I can't remember in which culture it was - they are thought to carry the souls the dead to the afterlife. So, as soon as I read that it was it was an easy link and an easy choice to make. And then I discovered, which is also in the book, that there are the two conflicting theories about a sparrow in the house. One is that it's a sign of death and the other is that it's a sign of new beginning and hope, and they just fit very very easily and perfectly into the story.
ASTRID: So, the bone sparrow is that symbol of hope, and it's very much needed particularly by the time we get to the end of the story and the events that happen in the detention centre. There is a protest, which does involve people in the detention centre - adults - sewing their lips together, which would be traumatic and Subhi finds it traumatic when he sees. And here are people many people on a hunger strike, and eventually this culminates in a riot, really dangerous riot. Now, riots in detention centres - and for that matter all types of prisons - do happen in Australia and around the world. And it's a loss of authority and control and it's human instinct and it's injustice. And a lot of the things that happen are really difficult and hard to communicate, regardless of your age.
So, tell me about Harvey and Beaver. Now Harvey and beaver are two of the wardens. Harvey has always been the positive one, the friendly figure, the role model, the uncle figure for Subhi. Beaver has always been the scary one, really dark and dangerous for the children. But neither one ends up really protecting anyone at the end.
ZANA: Yeah, I mean the the riot situation was based on what happened at Manus Island, as is what happened to Eli. And I had to put that in there because although it was obviously a fictional account, it was important to me that I had to do justice to the actual people and the actual stories.
ASTRID: So, can you tell me what happens to Eli in the narrative?
ZANA: So, during the riots Eli is killed by Beaver. And he's killed by having a rock dropped on his head, which is what happened to Reza Barati, who's a man, an asylum seeker on Manus Island. And when the riots on Manus Island came out, the first thing that was reported was that it was the fault of the refugees and asylum seekers. And they were demonised, and Scott Morrison came out and said, 'Well, this is what happens if you try to escape. You know, we can't protect you outside the compound'. It turned out that Reza Barati was inside the detention centre when he was killed. He was killed by one of the workers. And there had been people who were hiding under their beds who were dragged out and beaten up. Like it was... It was a horrific circumstance and situation. Locals had come from outside, police officers had come from outside into the detention centre, and the riots had been started because there was this growing feeling of unrest.
The asylum seekers had been told that a whole group of them were being sent back to their countries that they come from, that they were being sent to other countries that everything they had fought for was going to be for nothing. And these people know that if they are sent back home they'll be killed. And they weren't getting any help, they weren't being heard. And so there was escalating tensions, which the government had been warned about. You know, they'd been two months before the riot. They said, ' This is what's happening, this needs to be dealt with. We need to be changing something'. And nothing happened, and this was the result. So, that was always going to be part of the story and I knew that it had to be part of the story.
What happened to Eli was really hard and it was... People often ask me if there's anything I could change about the book, and I say no quite honestly. But when I was going through my very final edit where I'm, you know, checking for full stops and missing commas there was a point where I thought, 'I can save Eli. I can still save him. I can make it that he doesn't die, that he has a happier ending'. And I must have hesitated for a good five minutes poised over the keyboard thinking I can still save him, but I knew that wouldn't be true to the story. So, I didn't. But that was that was really hard but also true to the people.
ASTRID: Subhi witnesses Eli being killed, and I have a potentially unanswerable question for you. I n the narrative, you know, what does it mean that Harvey didn't stop?
ZANA: Yeah. Harvey's a really interesting character, because I didn't want all the Jackets to be these sort of horrible faceless people. And even though I knew a lot of the people who are the wardens and the guards are these horrible people, I also knew that there'd be some people who were doing the job because maybe it's the only job they can get, or maybe they actually thought they were doing the right thing and wanted to help, or for whatever reason. So, I didn't want to make them black and white characters.
And so Harvey has always been the good one, but he's also he's also kind of weak. He doesn't necessarily stand up for the kids when he could. And he he shows that here. And it's not... I mean, I sort of don't blame Harvey in some ways, because there's not a lot he could have done really. Perhaps he could have changed, things perhaps not. But it's that sense of... quite often we do things that we wish we'd done them differently. And I don't think you can always blame people for that. It's sort of what you do next that matters. And so for Harvey, he didn't report Beaver and he let it go, which was really where he he went wrong, because at that point he could have then stood up for what was right. And so instead Subhi does. Yeah, me it was important to show that that we all have weaknesses and we can all do things we are really deeply shameful of.
ASTRID: And we all have a responsibility to do better the next time.
ASTRID: Was there anything too dark to put in like the final version?
ZANA: Yeah. There's a small sentence where I talk about Beaver taking Eli into a room. And nothing is said about except that Eli comes out he says to Subhi, ‘Don't ever let yourself be in a situation where Beaver can do that'. And the first time I wrote it I did have a stronger sense of sexual abuse that went on, because that does - or did - happen in the camps, and it does happen in the camps. And so, I thought that was important to put in there.
But then I spoke to my agent about it, she was the first one who read it and sort of did the first editorial sweep with me. And she pointed out that while we could certainly keep it in there, it would mean that it was inaccessible for some people. And I thought actually this the story I want to be accessible to as many people as possible. And so, I didn't take it out but I left it ambiguous so that if kids already know about the sexual abuse that goes on they can infer that and they could look into it more, and kids who don't they just see it as he got in trouble and didn't want Subhi to get in trouble too.
ASTRID: This is very much a story of Rohingya refugees in Australia, and it is a story that has also played out around the world. In my reading of it I also saw parallels to Australian history. So, we are in some ways witnessing the deliberate erasure of a culture within the bounds of the camp. And so, for example, we know that Subhi's mother stops speaking to him in her mother tongue and encourages him to only learn and speak in English because she thinks this will give him a better future, it will help him assimilate if he ever gets to the outside. And that it is clearly showing what institutionalisation and incarceration can do at that very micro, personal level to a culture. Were you drawing parallels to the Stolen Generations and the mission camps?
ZANA: Yeah, absolutely. That was that was a very deliberate choice with the way Subhi's mum responds to being here. And I think it's a fairly common response for some cultures, when you are trying to make it in a new country as well that you need to assimilate. Perhaps not so much now, certainly when I was growing up, and friends of mine who were migrants had that that sense.
And you know, the first sort of serious novel I wrote was about the Forgotten Generation, which ran parallel to the Stolen Generations. So, while I was researching the Forgotten Generation I came along a whole lot of stuff about Stolen Generation as well, and why I didn't want to tell that story, I felt the parallels were definitely there to be drawn.
And the Rohingya migrants or refugees are a really... what's happening to them is so horrendous and horrific and at the time I wrote it no one was talking about it. So, the Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in a predominately Buddhist majority in Burma, or Myanmar, and the government of Myanmar has been accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya people, even though they've been there for centuries and centuries. They're not recognised. They're stateless people. They've been run off their land. They have no access to education. They have to ask for permission to marry to have children. All of these things that stateless communities around the world face.
And at the time when I first wrote The Bone Sparrow, I originally had Subhi as s having no cultural background at all, so I wrote him initially genderless. I think he was even nameless and cultureless. And I did it because there was so much prejudice against people from different cultures, and I just wanted to have him as himself and as a character. My editors quickly told me that I wasn't going to work and I needed to give him something. So, I thought, 'Okay, let me think about this. What can I do?' And what culture should I choose? And what suits Subhi?'
And at that point there was a boatload of Rohingya refugees who had been taken out to sea. They'd been... Al Jazeera reported that they'd been put on the boat, forced onto the boat by gunpoint, taken at sea, food and water had been taken, petrol had been released into the water, their engine had been cut and that was it, they'd been left to die. And that boatload of people sat out in the sea in international waters for weeks and weeks and weeks, people were dying, being thrown overboard, and all of the international governments knew about it. Everyone knew about it but no one was claiming responsibility. They were all saying, 'No, they're your problem, they're your problem'. And in the end it was I think six Indonesian fishermen who saw what was happening and went out and save these people. You know, those six very poor fishermen from very poor communities had more humanity than all the governments of the world combined, which is a sad indictment on the world we live in. And so, once I saw that in the paper it quickly became Subhi's cultural background and his heritage. And then I sort of seeded it through.
As part of my research into The Bone Sparrow I looked at the immigration policies and the kind of things that people were subjected to when they arrived in immigration detention centres. One of the more horrific things was that any medication they had, any sort of medical aids they had were taken from them. So, hearing aids, artificial limbs... there was someone whose job it was to sit over a tub and pop out the medication pills as as people came in. Any doctor's notes they had, medical histories, it was all taken and destroyed. So, you know, that obviously leads that the physical and mental health within the camps.
And another thing I discovered was a video message that was played to all new arrivals as they came into Australia in the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. And it was spoken by the then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. There might still be video of it if you look online. Anyway, this is this is what it said.
"You have been brought to this place here because you have sought to illegally enter Australia by boat. The new Australian Government will not be putting up with these sorts of arrivals. If you have a valid claim you will not be resettled in Australia. You will never live in Australia. If you are found not to be a refugee, you will remain in this camp until you decide to go home. If you choose not to go home then you'll spend a very very long time here."
ASTRID: It's not clear to me how many Australians know that kind of language is being used to deliver messages to people who come to Australia. And that is something that you explore throughout The Bone Sparrow. You know, what it means to... what it feels like to hear that message and then to be in a camp knowing that's the message of the government.
ZANA: Yeah. And I think that's something that Subhi comes to towards the end of the book as he realises that actually no one wants them. So, his home government doesn't want them, the Australian Government doesn't want them, there's no country in the world that actually putting up their hand and saying we want these people... New Zealand now.
ASTRID: Bless New Zealand. We talk a lot about who has the right to tell different stories. And so, I wanted to really explore this with you. You are not a refugee yourself, and you are not Rohingya. How did you feel about taking on that voice?
ZANA: I did question it, I questioned it quite deeply. And in the end I decided that the people who are in detention at the moment don't have a voice that's being listened to or that's being heard. And so, all I can do is try and create a kind of bridge and awareness so that when they are free, then they can tell their own stories and we can listen to them. I kind of felt it was okay with Subhi in the sense that he was being brought up in this very unique situation where his cultural background was erased. So, I kind of felt I had more freedom and leeway doing it that way.
But yes, I was at a wonderful concert last night of this political folksinger Grace Petrie, and she sang a song and one of the lyrics is, 'You build a wall, we'll build a bridge'. And when she sang it I thought that's what I'm trying to do with my writing. You know, the more walls that come up the more bridges I want to build and create that link to the voices and to the people who were not listened to and we're not seeing, so their voices can be heard.
ASTRID: What would you like to leave your readers with?
ZANA: A sense of hope, and that idea of looking forward to a someday and imagining what that someday could be for all of us - for the reader themselves but also for the world and the future of this country. And I think, you know, if we can imagine it then we can work towards it, and hopefully by the time that the young readers who are reading The Bone Sparrow now are my age the world will be a much better place than it is now.
ASTRID: Thank you so very much.
ZANA: Thank you for having me.