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Q&A: Novel springs from journalist's concern for Afghan children
News Stories, 20 February 2012
PARIS, France, February 20 (UNHCR) – Caroline Brothers is a senior journalist with the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. She lives in Paris and has just had her first novel published. "Hinterland" tells the story of two children, Aryan and his younger brother Kabir, who undertake an epic journey from their native Afghanistan to Europe in search of safety and a decent life. The Australian writer was recently interviewed by UNHCR Senior Public Information Officer William Spindler. Excerpts from the interview:
You have been reporting on asylum and immigration issues for several years. Why did you decide to tackle these issues through a novel?
At the time I was writing Hinterland, I had a very strong feeling that there were voices missing from the debate. The issue of migration seems to challenge people in Western societies in visceral ways – everyone has an opinion – yet it seemed very hard to hear from those on whom the debate centred.
So the novel grew out of curiosity and the desire to make those voices heard, and to put their narratives back at the centre of the conversation. I also felt there were very fundamental things at stake and I wanted to consider those things in a quiet space, away from all the shouting, where I could look at the subject and pare it back to its very elemental components.
I think it was when I discovered, to my astonishment, that children were caught up in the misery and mess of adult clandestine migration that the story started to feel urgent to me. I felt I had to try to reach people on a level that was different from the pages of the daily news. I wanted them to spend some time with my characters, and perhaps try on a point of view that is not easy to gain access to otherwise. There is not much room in a newspaper article, and I felt a novel might be the best form to carry some of the weight and some of the emotion of their stories.
How did you become interested in the subject of unaccompanied Afghan children in Europe?
I spent several days on assignment in Calais with a wonderful photographer from Magnum, Susan Meiselas, and there and in Dunkirk we met two Afghan kids who were just eight years old. They were travelling with a relative – one with an older brother, the other with an uncle or cousin. I didn't realize at that stage that they were part of a wider phenomenon of Afghan kids in transit across Europe, but I think they sensitized me in a sort of unconscious way to their presence.
Later, back in Paris, I saw young Afghans squeezing through the rails to sleep in a park in the street where I lived, and I started asking questions and learned that a small shelter had been set up for those who were underage. When I finally got to meet them and talk with them, and when I started looking into the asylum statistics that were starting to be recorded by age as well as nationality, that was when I realized that I had come across something much bigger than I had originally guessed.
What motivates these children to make such a dangerous trip? What are their fears and dreams? Do they have a realistic idea of what awaits them here?
I must have had conversations with dozens of these boys while writing Hinterland, and every case is different. Some of the boys I spoke to recently were motivated to leave by untenable situations where they were living before they set off – in precarious situations in Iran or Pakistan, or facing an increase in violence in their home provinces in Afghanistan. Some kids have been sent out of Afghanistan as soon as they acquire some level of autonomy, by parents who want to get at least one child to safety or out of the way of the Taliban. Others have escaped to Iran, and move from there under their own volition to Turkey, then Greece and so on, working along the way and pushed onward by the hope that life will be more viable in the next country.
Many of them have worked in tough jobs and dream of going to school. I was initially sceptical of that desire for schooling until I realized that it was not just something they had been told to say by smugglers or others on the road. They frequently come from families who prize education, and they are acutely aware of how much they have missed already. Even boys who have had no schooling at all have often had someone teach them a little English from a book, so their motivation if they do get into school in Europe is often very strong. Some come with very high hopes – they want to be doctors, architects, computer engineers, pilots – for them Europe is a magical place where everything must be possible. Most have only the vaguest idea of what to expect. For some the path will be very tough, but there are also a number of very impressive success stories.
How do you think these children can be helped?
There are the immediate things and the longer term things. Beyond a night shelter and eventually a day shelter, they need help developing a life project that takes into account what they themselves want or need to do – otherwise it is impossible to stabilize them. They urgently need education, and ideally an education that will help them make up for the schooling they have missed, rather than being put in an education stream that will fail them. Some will succeed in apprenticeships if given the chance – others could go further scholastically but are often pressed into trades that make them self-sufficient. They need sponsorships, scholarships and apprenticeships. Above all they need to be given a chance.
What are the differences between writing fiction and journalism? Do they impact readers in different ways?
Every work of fiction is a journey that requires a leap of faith on behalf of the reader, for whom the writer has to create a world and an individual subjectivity that has to be credible to them. Often fiction casts its spell by focusing on the emotional, the sensory, the inner life of a character, where journalism has much less space for those things.
Fiction distils its truth almost like an emanation, rather than trying to establish it via the layering of argument, fact and proof. Journalism needs to touch a lot of bases so that all sides and as many angles, counter-arguments or points of view as possible get heard. It acts on the rational mind whereas fiction reaches into another place and leaves more room for ambiguity.
In the tradition I come from, journalism is very empirical and so the writing reflects that. Hinterland is a very restrained novel, but there are still points where I free the writing up and let it loose, and you don't often get room for that in journalism.