By Zana FraillonYoung Adult Hachette Australia
The Bone Sparrow
Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The Night Sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.
The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family's love songs and tragedies.
Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.
Set in a modern-day Australian detention centre, The Bone Sparrow executes the most difficult of balancing acts. Author Zana Fraillon never shies from exploring the full horror and injustices of her setting while weaving a moving narrative of hope, love and the power of story. Rarely does a book speak as clearly or urgently to a moment in history as The Bone Sparrow does to our country right now.
Optimistic and dreamy, ten-year-old narrator Subhi is a member of the Rohingya people from Myanmar – one of the most persecuted populations on earth. Yet he knows his homeland and culture only through the stories that swirl around him. Born in the hot, dusty camp, he has only ever left the confines of its wire fences in his mind. Just when Subhi is pushing against the seams of his captivity, he meets Jimmie, a scruffy, gutsy local girl who breaks into the centre and cracks his world open.
The plot hums with a sense of urgency and rising tension that mirrors the situation of the detainees. Hunger strikes, mistreatment, overwhelming hopelessness – they are all part of Subhi's story. And yet the novel is full of generosity, tenderness and humour, often provided by the wry observations of a wise-cracking rubber duck. The prose is lyrical, original, accessible.
The taut desperation of the setting contrasts with the rich constellation of individuals and relationships who inhabit it. Each is drawn with complexity and nuance. This skilful characterisation is what ultimately gives The Bone Sparrow the power to bring about change. Compassionate, resourceful, resilient and enraged, these are characters with the strength to drag this issue out of the abstract and into the heart, mind and conscience of every reader, young or old – and the potential consequences are huge.
And so by elevating a book that draws attention to the plight of refugees, in particular the Rohingya people, it is hoped that we will move closer to the day when they have the space and audience to tell their stories in their own voices, and share these experiences themselves.
Sometimes, at night, the dirt outside turns into a beautiful ocean. As red as the sun and as deep as the sky.
I lie on my bed, Queeny’s feet pushing against my cheek, and listen to the waves lapping at the tent. Queeny says I’m stupid, saying that kind of stuff. But it’s true. She just doesn’t see it, is all. Our maá says there are some people in this world who can see all the hidden bits and pieces of the universe blown in on the north wind and scattered about in the shadows. Queeny, she never tries to look in the shadows. She doesn’t even squint.
Maá sees though. She can hear the ocean outside too.
‘You hear it, né?’ I whisper, my fingers feeling for her smile in the dark.
In the morning, the ground still wet and foamy from where those waves washed up, I sit and trace the hundreds of animals that have swum all the way up to the tent, their faces pushing against the flaps, trying to get a look at us inside on our beds. Queeny says they aren’t real beds, but just old army cots and even older army blankets. Queeny says that a real bed is made with springs and cushions and feathers, and that real blankets don’t itch.
I don’t think those animals would know the difference or really care much either.
This morning I found a shell washed up right along with those animals. I breathed in its smell. All hot and salty fish, like the very bottom of the ocean. And even though Queeny doesn’t believe, and grunted about when was I ever going to grow up and could I please quit bothering her all the goddamn time, she still gave me her last bit of paper and said I could borrow her pen so I could write the words in black at the top of the page. The Night Sea With Creatures. I drew a picture as best I could with no colours and paper that curled from the damp. Using her pen and paper only cost me my soap, and I’ll steal that back from her later anyway. Sisters shouldn’t charge their own brothers for paper.
I snug up with Maá, my legs curled up in hers – but careful not to wake her because today is one of her tired days – and look through all the pictures in my box. I’ll need to find a new box soon. The rats have eaten most of one side, and what’s left is wet and mouldy, even after I left it out in the sun to dry. There are some pictures down the bottom that are headed with Maá’s writing from way back, before I could write on my own. I like Maá’s writing more. When she writes, it’s like the words seep out onto the page already perfect. I push my fingers over Maá’s letters, breathing them in like the smells from my shell.
Tomorrow, when she’s better, I’ll show Maá my new picture, and the shell, and tell her again about the Night Sea and its treasures. I’ll tell her every little bit and listen to her laugh and watch her smile.
When I untangle my legs and whisper that it’s just about breakfast time and does she want to come eat, I see her eyes open a bit and the smile start on her lips. ‘Just little longer, né?’ she says, in her English that never sounds right. ‘I not hungry much, Subhi, love.’
Maá’s never hungry much. The last time she ate a full meal and didn’t just peck at her food was when I was only nineteen fence diamonds high. I remember because that was on Queeny’s birthday and Maá always measures us on our birthdays. By now I am at least twenty-one or twenty-two, or maybe even twenty-two and a half high. I haven’t been measured in a while.
Maá’s never hungry much, but I’m always hungry. Eli, he reckons I must be going through a growth spurt. Eli lives in Family Tent Four with some other families because his family isn’t here. Eli and I used to be in the same tent, Family Tent Three, but then the Jackets made him move. They do that sometimes. But there are forty-seven people in Family Four, and only forty-two in Family Three, so I don’t know why they did. And it doesn’t matter that Eli’s older than me by more than Queeny is, he’s my best friend and we tell each other everything there ever is to tell. Eli says we’re more than best friends. We’re brothers.
Eli’s probably right about that growth spurt because today, after Eli and I have got our lunch, I’m still hungry even though I was given an extra big scoop in my bowl. ‘You need to be strong to look after your mother, yes?’ the man serving us said. I nodded because I wanted the extra scoop, but I don’t know what looking after he was talking about. Eli leaned over and said, ‘If you want to be strong, the last thing you should eat is this food.’ But my mouth was already watering just looking at that bowl. We’ve had food shortages for the last four days and have only been getting half scoops, so there was no way Eli was going to put me off.
When I finish my lunch, I look down the rest of the long table at the others scrunched over their bowls, and the standing eaters by the wall, but no one looks like they might want to give up their food, not even after someone pulls what looks like a bit of plastic from their mouth. They just spoon through their mush more carefully.
Maá tells me never to look too closely at the food, and whenever I find flies or worms, she says I’m extra lucky because they give me protein. Once I even found a human tooth in my rice. ‘Hey, Maá, is this lucky too?’ I asked, and Maá looked at it and said, ‘If you needing tooth.’ She laughed a long time at her own joke. Longer than it was really worth in my opinion.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist