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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2021 - Author talks (secondary) - 05. Zana Fraillon

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EMILY: Hi, I'm Emily, and I'm a student from Galston High School. I'm here today on Darug land at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta as part of the Sydney's Writer Festival Secondary School's day. And I'm So, excited to be interviewing Zana for the New South Wales Premier's Reading Challenge. Hi, how are you today?

ZANA FRAILLON: Good. Thanks for having me.

EMILY: That's OK. I'm a huge fan of your books. And one that stands out to me the most is 'The bone sparrow,' which rightly has won a lot of awards. For anyone who doesn't know what that is, or hasn't read it yet, it's about a nine-year-old boy named Subhi who is born in a detention centre in Australia.

His family are members of the Rohingya people in Burma and fled their country as refugees, but were detained when they reached Australia. So, Subhi has never known freedom. Obviously, it's a really important story to tell, but why did you choose to direct 'The bone sparrow' at a teenage audience?

ZANA FRAILLON: I think one of the things is that when I'm writing I tend not to think about my readership, which is sort of a backwards way of doing it. Because people always tell you that think who your readers are. But when I'm writing, it's very much I let the story come to me and the voice of the character come to me. And depending on what that voice is, that will sort of determine the readership.

So, Subhi came to me as a child. And his voice was very, very strong and very, very clear. And so, I started writing that. And at one point, I did think, will I make this an adult book or will I make it a YA or kids book?

And it was really important to me that I kept it as a kids book because I feel that kids are the ones who, you're the ones who are stepping into the future. You're the ones who are going to make the world a better place, basically. And kids have such strong ideas. And often, their voices are overlooked and they're not listened to.

So, I really wanted a book that would speak powerfully to the people who were going forward and who were going to make a difference.

EMILY: Thank you. What was your biggest inspiration for the novel? Do you have any personal connections to refugees, or did you just do a lot of research?

ZANA FRAILLON: I did a lot of research. I spent maybe the first 4 months pretty solidly researching. I had, before I became a writer, I worked in a school as an integration aide. And that had a really big proportion of kids who'd come from other countries who were refugees or migrants.

And so, I sort of had that background as well. But, the biggest inspiration for me was that I was reading all these media reports. I was hearing things on the news, and it was all about the problem of refugees. It was all statistics and policies.

And what was missing were the stories of the people and their humanity had being completely removed and had been taken away. So, I wanted to bring that back. I wanted to remind everyone that these are real people with real stories and so, much to bring to our country.

And that we're thinking about it and we're talking about it in completely the wrong way.

EMILY: Yeah, that's very important, thank you. Your book 'The ones that disappeared' deals with a similar theme to 'The bone sparrow,' but has a slightly different focus by focusing on 3 children who got caught up in human trafficking, ended up having to escape from a horrific gang who were used as slaves. What inspired you to write this story? And how do you go from making these stories have just the right balance between really difficult to read, but still approachable by a teenage audience, especially when most of your readers probably don't know about human trafficking before picking up the book?

ZANA FRAILLON: Yeah, so that was something I discovered when I was researching 'The bone sparrow' was I thought slavery was a thing of the past. And then I discovered that there is so much human trafficking going on now. And that modern day trade, that slave trade is booming.

And so, that really horrified me that this was something that I didn't know about and that I wasn't aware of. So, it was very important to me to bring that into the public light, I guess, and to make people more aware of it. And I think the thing with my books is that although I'm dealing with difficult themes, the heart of all the books is hope and the strength of people, especially young people.

So, I think the trick in getting the balance is getting the right amount of hope. And showing that these people are in a really difficult situation, but, they do find their way out.

EMILY: With your recent book, 'The lost soul atlas' is rather different from your 2 previous books. While 'The bone sparrow' and 'The ones that disappeared' have realistic settings, this one has more elements of a fantasy book because of the main character Twiggy. Has woken up in the afterlife and has to figure out what happened in his final moments before certain events make him forget forever. Despite this, you still managed to explore difficult issues of poverty and homelessness. Do you find it difficult to blend fantasy with real life issues?

ZANA FRAILLON: This was a really good challenge for me because I really love fantasy novels. And I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could bring some of that into my writing. But, it was still really important that I was looking at these issues which are important to me.

And so, I sort of was experimenting with ways I could do that. And the afterlife was really fun to do, because I could really just create this world. And so, it's got a wisecracking skeleton raven and it's got librarians who have been so long in the library that they just floating heads who drink endless cups of tea and tell bad jokes and gatekeepers and things like that. So, it was really fun to do.

But again, at the heart of it, it's about friendship and resistance. And how those small acts of resistance can still be really powerful. So yeah, it was a little bit different. I guess, but in a really fun way to do, yeah.

EMILY: That's amazing. Something that stood out to me about your stories was the representation of young adults from diverse backgrounds. Is this something that's important to you? And what impact do you think it has on teenagers and young adults that read your books?

ZANA FRAILLON: Yeah, so the school I worked at, the kids were all from diverse backgrounds. So, a lot of my characters come to me, when I imagine them, they're sort of from these backgrounds anyway. But, I'm also careful to make sure that I'm not appropriating any backgrounds.

So, with Subhi in 'The bone sparrow,' he was born in the detention centre. His mum had refused to teach him about his cultural background. So, he was missing that anyway. So, he sort of had this absence of culture almost.

And the same with the characters from 'The ones that disappeared' as well. They were removed from their background. They didn't have that culture either.

And with Twiggy, he sort of, his culture, it's never mentioned, although what he said is that his family came to this country illegally and they have to avoid the authorities. So, I wanted to have diverse characters, but in a way that didn't appropriate any particular cultures. And it is really important.

The publishing industry as a whole has to have more diversity in it. And that's across cultural diversity, as well as ableist diversity and gender diversity. So, the more authors writing from diverse backgrounds who are encouraged to write, the more publishers at the top level of the people running the publishing companies, the more diversity we can get into the industry, the better for everyone.

EMILY: Yes, thank you. Do you resonate with any character in particular? Why?

ZANA FRAILLON: Oh, with each book, I resonate with different characters. In 'The lost soul atlas,' Flea is the character that really speaks to me. And that was because I first got the idea for 'The lost soul atlas,' I was driving home and I'd just dropped the kids at school. And I was at, I can still see exactly the bit of the road I was on.

And I suddenly had this very strong image of this scruffy kid who held their hands out to me and said, come with me. I can show you how to fly. And I was like, whoa. It was a really incredible moment. And I don't know how I got home.

It was just I drove home on autopilot. Lucky I didn't crash. But, that was Flea, and they stayed with me and never really left me until I'd finished the book. So, yeah.

EMILY: That's incredible. What was it that motivated you to become an author? Did you have any pressure to pursue another career?

ZANA FRAILLON: No, I didn't have any pressure. It's funny, because my uncle is quite a prolific author, my mum had published a book when I was a teenager, but I'd never thought about being an author myself. I was working in schools, I got a teaching degree.

And then I had kids of my own and I was writing stories with them. And my sister-in-law saw one of the stories I'd written and said, oh, you should see if you can get it published. And I thought, oh, that'd be amazing. I can imagine doing that. And I just never considered it before.

And I was very lucky that that book got picked up by a publisher. And so, I went from there.

EMILY: What helps with motivation? Do you have any techniques?

ZANA FRAILLON: That's a tricky question. I've never felt that I have to motivate myself to write. I mean, I've sort of, writing is my release. So, during lockdown, I'm from Melbourne, so it was 23 hours a day we weren't allowed outside. So, it was pretty intense.

And I have 3 kids and they were all home. And I got up to my studio for about an hour a day. And that was my release. That was where I could just let all my creativity out.

So, I've never felt lack of motivation to be a problem. I do, however, have moments where I can't work out what's going to happen or I don't know what to do in a plot sense. And walking really helps. Just sort of walking with nowhere, no destination in mind, just sort of meandering.

And there's something about walking that always brings ideas. Just letting your mind wander, not listening to music or a podcast or anything. And that always helps.

EMILY: That's so cool. I'll try that. Do you have anything that you would like to say to young people who have a passion for writing?

ZANA FRAILLON: Yes. Do it. Write and keep writing and keep reading. And when you write, just imagine no one's going to ever read it. Because sometimes what happens is when you're writing and you think someone's going to read it, you're editing yourself all the time. And you're restricting yourself and you're not actually saying what you want to say.

But, if you pretend no one's ever going to read it, then that's when you're really good ideas come out. And I do that with every book I write. I think, no one's ever going to read it, I can just write it the way I want it to be.

And if there's something in there later on which I think, actually, I don't want people to know about this, then you can cut it out later. But definitely, definitely keep writing and keep doing it because we need more writers. And stories matter and ideas matter, so yeah.

EMILY: Yes, they do. Thank you so much for letting me interview you today. It has been very amazing to talk to you. I'm still very starstruck.

I hope everyone watching this today enjoys reading these incredible novels as much as I have while you did it while completing the Premier's Reading Challenge. Thank you.

ZANA FRAILLON: It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.

EMILY: Thank you.

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