Interview / Writing

Zana Fraillon on The Bone Sparrow, Refugees and Representation

Our Blogger in Residence, Nalini Haynes, sat down with Zana Fraillon to discuss her hauntingly beautiful, timely, heart-wrenching novel, The Bone Sparrow, about a refugee in an Australian detention centre. 

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What can you tell us about The Bone Sparrow?

A young boy, Subhi, was born in an Australian detention centre. He imagines the sea comes up to his tent at night, whales sing and birds tell stories. One night he goes out of his tent and meets a girl from the other side of the fence.

Why did you decide on a children’s point of view?

Children are kept in detention centres. Children are born there and grow up there, much like the character in my story. This is something that should be discussed by children and adults so we can imagine a better way forward.

How did you research The Bone Sparrow?

Largely over the internet, through media reports and documentaries. I didn’t go out to a detention centre because I’d find it very difficult not to write real stories into my fictionalised account. After researching, I stepped back and let my imagination take over.

Why write about refugees?

I have notebooks filled with ideas. The voices that keep nattering in my ear are the ones I have to write.

It wasn’t deliberate, although I’m glad, because it’s such an important issue, and not just for Australia; it’s a global issue and it’s getting worse. The UN said there are now more forcibly displaced people than at any other time in human history.

Your novel has two main characters, Subhi, a refugee, and Jimmie, an Australian girl. You link their ancestors, emphasising that white people are immigrants. Why?

We are all immigrants to this country. Why should immigration be any different now to how it was a millennia ago? We’re all connected. We’re all from the same tribe if you go back far enough.

Jimmie’s family is doing it tough in a rural area; what inspired this?

There are high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy in rural communities in Australia. Much like the detention centres, rural communities are out of sight for most of us, so we don’t think about them. I wanted to show the lack of facilities available in rural communities: education, doctors… and how we’re not doing enough to support them. The parallels between the two worlds fit.

In your novel, a lot of refugees suffer mental health issues.

Our immigration policy is horrific. The way we’re treating asylum seekers and refugees contravenes the torture convention and the declaration of human rights. It’s not illegal to seek asylum. We are signatories to the UN Convention on Human Rights that allows people to seek asylum. Yet we lock these people up and, in many cases, treat them worse than criminals.

So of course they’re going to have mental health issues. It was something that had to be written because it’s so prevalent in these centres.

How do you feel about The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, and did it influence you?

I love the Boy in Striped Pyjamas but didn’t draw parallels between the two until a few people mentioned it. I’m honoured.

We’re repeating history, aren’t we? We signed the declaration of human rights that includes the right to seek asylum after the Second World War when people hadn’t let Jews into their countries. We all said, as the human race, “This is wrong, it can’t go on”. However, many years later, we’re still doing it.

There were many things in The Bone Sparrow, horrendous things that were so much a part of the refugees’ day-to-day lives that I already knew from media reports, only remembering as I was reading.

It’s so easy to forget: out of sight, out of mind. It’s one of the reasons detention centres are so far away. We put them as far away as we possibly can. We say it’s not our responsibility; it’s the responsibility of other governments. We try to forget.

The previous book you wrote, No Stars To Wish On, was based on the Forgotten Generation; what is the Forgotten Generation?

The Forgotten Generation is something not many people know about. It’s very similar to the Stolen Generation in Australia, except children were taken from their families based on socioeconomic instead of racial means. No Stars To Wish On is about a boy who was taken from his family and put in a care facility as many children were. I read many of the real stories, then I let my imagination take over.

So, what’s next?

My next book is on modern-day child slavery. Kids who are asylum seekers and refugees don’t have families to look after them, so they’re being taken and trafficked into slavery. It’s not just third-world countries, it’s Australia, it’s the UK, it’s America…

A newspaper article reported some asylum seekers from Vietnam were in an Australian detention centre, then vanished. There was just one article saying they’d gone missing, voicing concerns they were trafficked and that was it. I thought that makes a good continuation on from The Bone Sparrow. It’s relevant to us here in Australia now.

What are your thoughts about representation in literature?

My  books have been for pre-teens and teenagers. They’re at a wonderful point in their life where they’re working out what kind of adults they will become and their place in the world. They’re looking into issues and asking questions that other people—older people—might not ask. And they’ve still got that wonderful ability to imagine. It’s really important that they see the world we live in now and imagine the kind of world they want to live in, so they can fight for that as they get older.

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Find a copy of The Bone Sparrow to purchase here.


Nalini Haynes s34355869@student.rmit.edu.au-3“When I was 4 years old, I discovered a large hardcover book of poetry in a corner store and my father bought it for me. Later he wanted me to read ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ by CJ Dennis. I said the poem was silly; I couldn’t possibly read a word THAT BIG so the trees and grass being purple was a great excuse. My father challenged me to think about possibilities in this strange world. I knew my disability separated me from others so I asked ‘Could I be normal in a world like that?’ He said ‘Yes’. Thus my love of genre and my passion for social justice were sown with the hope of changing the world.”
Nalini Haynes.
You can find Nalini at: her website, Dark Matter Zine,Twitter as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Facebook as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.

One thought on “Zana Fraillon on The Bone Sparrow, Refugees and Representation

  1. Pingback: The Ones That Disappeared by Zana Fraillon

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