Bookchat: Jane Mitchell

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Some months back I read A Dangerous Crossing, by Jane Mitchell, a moving story about a Syrian family fleeing conflict in their home country (you can read my review here). I found that when I watched the news at the time, which was full of refugee-related headlines, I felt even more empathy for the people forced to flee their homes. News stories create a spotlight on issues around the globe, but when the media turn their attention elsewhere, it can seem as though that particular ‘issue’ has resolved or is forgotten. This is, of course, far from true and for me, that’s why books like A Dangerous Crossing (endorsed by Amnesty International) are so important providing a more permanent reminder of the humanitarian crisis caused by conflict.

So I’m really pleased to welcome Jane Mitchell to the blog today for a bookchat about her novel A Dangerous Crossing. Thank you for joining us Jane!

A Dangerous Crossing gives a completely new meaning to the images we have seen on the news over the last few years. Why did you decide to write this story and how did you go about researching it? My publisher Little Island Books wanted a book about the Syrian refugee crisis, to bring it to life for young readers, and invited me to write a story about a young refugee. It was something that was very important to me. The crisis has galvanised me over the last few years and I was hugely interested in proving a glimpse into what it must be like for one boy, one family, caught up in this war. I undertook research in a range of areas:

  • I follow the Syrian Network for Human Rights on social media. An independent, non-partisan, non-governmental, non-profit organisation, it is registered in the UK and USA. Its mission is to work to protect the human and civil rights of Syrian citizens, regardless of their ethnicity and affiliations. It documents violations against the Syrian people—including the names of people killed in the war—on a daily This is where I obtained all the names and ages of the children.
  • I met with a Syrian family who moved to Ireland before the outbreak of the Syrian war. They told me about pre-war Syria, and provided great insight into routine life for Syrian children when their country was at peace, including education, food and life-styles.
  • I read travel books about Syria and Turkey, studied the geography, layout, and means of travel through the two countries by public and private transport. I traced out routes followed by many Syrian refugees today.
  • I read up on personal stories and experiences of refugees crossing Turkey and the sea to Greece, including reports and accounts from Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières, and researched the towns and cafés along the Turkish coast where smugglers meet with refugees seeking to get to Europe. I also read about how Turks arrange illegal crossings to Greece.
  • Finally, I volunteered in the Jungle Camp in Calais. In this unofficial camp, I saw first-hand the conditions in which illegal refugees survive, with bad sanitation, inadequate shelter, little medical support, and no washing facilities. I met and spent time with refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Apart entirely from the poor physical conditions at the camp, people there are socially isolated from mainstream society, with no access to education or employment opportunities, and no means of economic support. I was at the camp when French police launched a tear gas attack in response to a rush by the refugees to trucks stopped on the bridge leading to the port. These frequent attacks cause widespread panic, distress and anger, as well as physical discomfort and pain—an experience I recreate for Ghalib.

The story is so well-imagined and there are some heart wrenching moments. Did you find it difficult to write some of the more emotional scenes? It is always tough to write about something that’s emotionally distressing, particularly when the character is a child and someone I care about. I try to put myself into the character’s head and to imagine how they might feel, to make it as real as possible for the reader. As a result, I find it tiring and demanding to write emotional scenes and often find the scene replaying in my head long after I have written it.

The names of all the characters are real Syrian refugee children. What made you decide to use these names? I was looking for authentic Syrian names for my story, and I also wanted some way to remember the hundreds of children whose lives have been needlessly cut short by the war in Syria. Early on in my research, I found on the Syrian Network for Human Rights the names of children who had been killed in the war, and this seemed a fitting tribute to these lost children.

A Dangerous Crossing will, I am sure, generate empathy and sympathy for the refugees fleeing Syria. What would you say to children who would like to do something to help the refugee situation but are limited to what they can do because of their age? The age of young readers doesn’t mean that they can’t still do something positive or take important action to help the desperate plight of refugees fleeing Syria.

  • Young people can organise collections of clothing and other items to help refugees, through their schools and/or local communities. Essential goods can then be dropped off at collection points for distribution to refugees in camps and centres.
  • They can hold cake sales or sponsored walks to raise money to donate to legitimate charities, such as Medécins Sans Frontiéres or Amnesty International.
  • They can attend rallies, days of action and marches to show their support for refugees and to raise awareness.
  • They can sign petitions, and email world leaders, MEPs and politicians to demand a more proactive response to the crisis and to pressure them to provide emergency funding.
  • They can read about and share stories of refugees so that others can learn more about them.
  • Young people can make a real effort to befriend and welcome refugees who are relocated to their schools and/or communities. Refugees have been through a tough time, and welcoming them or making them feel included in their new communities is an important gesture of friendship.

Why do you think it’s important that children’s fiction focus on stories like Ghalib’s? Children in Ireland and the UK need to understand the terrible things that are happening to Syrian children. I believe passionately that words have the power to create empathy, to engender understanding, and ultimately to provoke action. The more that young people learn about this crisis, the more they will understand its underlying causes.

It is often tempting to shield children from the harsher realities of life, such as death and war, but children have a remarkable capacity to empathise when something is presented to them in a way they can understand. With such broad media coverage of the civil war, they are very aware of the crisis, but perhaps don’t quite appreciate what it means. To this end, fiction can be a wonderful medium to explore difficult topics safely. An honest storyline that doesn’t shy away from the truth enables young readers to explore multiple perspectives and gain insight into complex issues. However, when writing a distressing story, I try to remain sensitive to the young minds absorbing the difficult narrative. I always try to include a note of optimism and hope, and even a touch of humour where possible to lighten the tone.

A Dangerous Crossing is endorsed by Amnesty International. How did this come about? My last book—Chalkline—was endorsed by Amnesty International as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them. Such endorsement means a great deal to me: human rights are an important theme in my books and of personal importance to me. My publisher, Little Island Books, approached Amnesty International to ask them about the possibility of also endorsing A Dangerous Crossing and I am honoured that they agreed. Additionally, the Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland launched my book in Dublin.

This is your seventh novel; how did writing A Dangerous Crossing compare to your previous writing experiences? The topic of A Dangerous Crossing is such a current and burning issue that writing it was far more urgent and important for me that any other novel I have written. It is a highly political story compared to my previous works and as such, it has attracted a lot of attention. This can only be a positive thing for the desperate people in Syria as anything that brings attention to their ordeal can only be a catalyst for action.

And finally, what are your three best pieces of advice to aspiring writers? It is always great to hear of writers who aspire to write stories for publication and/or submission to publishers, and I would encourage them to keep at it. My three pieces of advice are as follows:

  • Finish your work. So many aspiring writers tell me about the work they have just started. Sometimes, when things get really tough, it is easier and tempting to put a manuscript aside and start again. The result is that lots of new writers have lots of works-in-progress, but never actually finish a complete manuscript. So my top advice is finish your work. There is a great sense of achievement in completing a manuscript.
  • Don’t send in your first draft. Editing and rewriting your work will make it so much stronger. When you rework your writing, you’ll see things that you never noticed first time around, such as plot errors, repetition, typos, and so on. It is always so much more professional to send in a polished and redrafted manuscript for consideration.
  • Be open to feedback and criticism—especially if it’s from an editor or agent. New writers can sometimes be a little precious about their work, but try to remember that it’s an editor/agent’s job to make your work as strong as possible. Be open to the feedback and look on it as a way to improve your work.

Thank you Jane for some wonderful insight into your work, amazing ideas for helping young reader’s (and indeed older readers) respond to the refugee crisis and great advice for aspiring writers.

A Dangerous Crossing is published by Little Island.  Find out more about Jane Mitchell at www.janemitchell.ie.

 

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