Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Refugee stories and a new generation of writers

It's Refugee Week.  Indeed every week throughout the year is another week with hundreds of  thousands of refugees struggling to find somewhere safe enough to call home. But in the UK, this is a week of special events to stop and remind those of us lucky enough to have homes.

Monday 19th June also happened to be the 80th Carnegie Medal event and the 60th anniversary of the Kate Greenaway Awards. The ceremony now also celebrates the Amnesty CILIP Honour Awards for a book chosen from each shortlist that engages young readers with human rights. As a former Carnegie winner, I was delighted to be invited and have the chance to meet Zana Fraillon, author of The Bone Sparrow. It is an extraordinary novel about a boy whose young life has been spent inside an immigration detention camp. In this bleakest of settings, we experience the human spirit, freedom of imagination and the power of story.  I ended reading The Bone Sparrow in angry tears. Zana lives in Australia but came to London to receive this hugely deserved Amnesty CILIP Honour Award.   

I was also delighted to meet Francesca Sanna, creator of The Journey which also received an Amnesty CILIP Honour Award. It's about a mother and two children seeking safety after war takes their father. The story is vividly told in the voice of one of the children while the illustrations convey a dramatic and often frightening journey. However, the images and words reflect the children ensconced by their mother's love, determination and hope for their future.

It's seventeen years since an earlier refugee story won the Carnegie. The Other Side of Truth is soon to be released 'A Puffin Book' and I couldn't resist holding my advance copy alongside Francesca's The Journey.  Tonight, before writing this blog, I watched the news and heard Lord Dubs, who arrived in Britain with the Kindertransport in 1938 (the year after the first Carnegie Medal was awarded) reiterate his plea for the UK to offer a home to today's young refugees. "We can't step aside."  Thank goodness there is also a new generation of writers for young people whose books reflect that same spirit.

This year's Carnegie Medal goes to Ruta Sepetys for her historical novel Salt to the Sea, with refugees and a maritime tragedy at its heart. To read more about it and the other award-winning books and their authors, click here . 

Friday, 16 June 2017

The power of reading... and re-reading

Down Second Avenue was one of the books that had a huge impact on me as a student in South Africa in the early 1960s. In his memoir of growing up not too far from where I had grown up in Jo'burg, Es'kia Mphahlele could have been writing about another planet. Until my university years, I had been completely blinkered within apartheid's 'white bubble'. This book, along with Peter Abrahams's Tell Freedom, introduced me to life beyond my blinkers. I was also lucky to have fellow students who helped to slash the bubble. But the invitation of these two fine writers to enter their lives - to see through their eyes and hear their inner voices - exerted a particularly intimate power and a necessary shock.

Es'kia Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams are sadly no longer with us but their work lives on for new generations. My friend Mma-tshepo Grobler recently wrote that she'd bought a copy of Down Second Avenue on a recent trip home to South Africa. (We first met when her brilliant educator mother, Martha Mokgoko, ran an extraordinary workshop on Journey to Jo'burg shortly after it had been 'unbanned' in 1991.) I was keen to know Mma-tshepo's thoughts:

Down Second Avenue was a completely different read the second time around. I read the book when I was about 10 years old I think but my memory of the book was nothing like what I have just read recently. Mphahlele’s retelling of his time growing up in the rural areas and then his subsequent move to Marabastad is the part of his story that I think my childhood self connected with the most. His description of the uncles, Aunt Dora, his gran, his surroundings and everyday life in Marabastad, the police and the neighbours are all elements that were present in my childhood. Two things that struck me whilst reading the book now as an adult are 1) how like Mphahlele, sustained poverty, difficult working conditions, neighbourhood politics were accepted as normal to me as a child and 2) my mind as a 10 year old was definitely not developed enough to understand the gravity and depth of this book. My adult self was completely blown away by the broadness of this book. Mphahlele skillfully addresses, questions and recounts so many themes and issues that we still face as South Africans. What saddened me most after reading was the thought that the politics of poverty still prevail with a vice grip on our people – nothing has changed. 

What an indictment in that last line. It is time for me to re-read Down Second Avenue too.