By Seemi Aziz, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Celeste Trimble, St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA
Subhi, who is nine, is a member of the Muslim Rohingya people of Burma and lives in an off-shore Australian detention camp. He was born there, unlike his sister Queenie. All he has known is the life in the detention camp. Barbed-wire fences and the brutality of the guards who oversee every moment of the campsite define his entire lived experience. His dreams at night and his ruthless reality during the day intersect in a never-ending labyrinth. The appalling food and living quarters, the enclosed spaces and the forever-watchful guards are what he knows as life. His family consists of his mother, sister and Eli (a boy who takes him under his wing, protects him from bullies and provides better quality food for him and his family). He meets a young girl who lives on the outskirts of the camp, and who has lost her mother recently. She is a prisoner of her own reality. Together both characters make sense of their lives.
This story of displacement is by far above and beyond of most representations of refugees in YA books. Rohingya are the invisible people who are being slowly but surely killed in Burma presently. Subhi’s mother is represented as having fled Burma by boat with his sister after Subhi’s father (a writer) is taken prisoner and they end up in an Australian refugee camp. He doesn’t understand that they aren’t wanted anywhere. In a moment of dejection, Subhi’s character profoundly admits that they aren’t wanted in that detention camp or in Burma or in any other place.
Reviews and awards for this book are: Booklist starred, 10/01/16, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, 11/01/16, Horn Book Guide, 04/01/17, Horn Book Magazine, 01/01/17, Publisher’s Weekly starred, 10/03/16, School Library Connection, 11/01/16 and School Library Journal, 09/01/16. Also, it is a Carnegie Medal 2017 Finalist.
SEEMI: What I like about this book is that Subhi’s character is represented as a thoughtful, positive one, who is optimistic in his dire conditions. He has a strong imagination that seems to save him from the reality around him. He is somehow attached to the ocean and sees its immensity even though he has actually never been. In his seclusion, he makes friends with a plastic duck that he has debates and conversations with. It is through his arguments with the duck that the reader learns more about his condition. His mother goes into a stupor due to the prolonged exposure to the unrelenting conditions as well as the horrible food. He adores his mother, who used to tell him stories about his father. Subhi’s positive worldview masks the numbing camp life. Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perrera is another book that carries the same theme of oppression, aggression and displacement as does this book.
CELESTE: I enjoyed reading this book. At first, I was concerned because we do not learn where Subhi and his family are from until about 35 pages into the text. We know they are refugees in a camp, but their cultural background is not revealed, even on the dust jacket. I was worried that their cultural and geographic background would not be revealed at all, and they would just be refugees from an unspecified place. I wonder about the author and publisher’s choice to keep this information off the dust jacket and only revealed later in the text. The author is not Rohingya, nor from Burma. This gave me pause as well.
One of the things I love about this novel is the slight magical realism that emerges out of the ocean/dream sequences. I wonder if Subhi is mentally sound or if the harsh conditions have begun to deteriorate his grasp on reality. I think of the connection with the sea as a kind of mental escape. When Subhi meets Jimmie, the girl who lives outside of the camp, but sneaks inside, I doubted her existence for a while as well, as did Subhi’s sister.
I read a review of The Bone Sparrow that mentions a white savior narrative. What do you think of this? I’m thinking of Harvey, the kind detention guard, but I’m also thinking about Jimmie, the girl who sneaks into the camp and befriends Subhi. What complicates the notion of a white savior narrative is the fact that Subhi at some point saves Jimmie by sneaking out of the camp, finding her house and calling emergency services when she is alone and ill. Subhi sneaks out of the camp, but then he sneaks back in. I also find this element of the story to be highly unbelievable, and that jarrs my involvement with the story.
SEEMI: You raise brilliant questions and concerns, some brought forth by critics of the book previously as well. I read the narrative in a different manner and do not assimilate what is mostly being projected by critics.
In the ‘magical realism’ concept projected within the novel, I read it as a necessary one to understand and accept the horrendous circumstances presented within the book. Subhi is represented as a thoughtful character who uses imagination to make sense of his life. This was a much-needed trope to keep the narrative accessible for the readers. I don’t think a person going through this kind of an experience can stay positive without imagination that permeates into the reality. The sea became real for him through the different stories told to him by his mother and sister and is represented as essential to the survival of his people. I don’t think he is demented in any particular manner but, yes, he is different, more sensitive and needs protection. The others around him know of another world but his whole life has been in captivity. The security he feels within the barbed wires is his reality and all that he loves is within the confines of the camp, he therefore comes back to it after leaving and saving Jimmie. Jimmie is represented as a captive of her circumstances and therefore not a free agent, physically and emotionally, while Subhi shows agency when he reads her mother’s narratives to her and then decides to sneak out and help her. Literacy again makes a difference in the lives of captives.
The guards are not white saviors in any respect, but some are kinder than the other really vicious ones. That comparison is necessary to keep the humanity of Australia alive. The author is not from the community nor a Muslim, but she does represent the conditions within the camp and within her country well. I find her narrative brilliant. She probably did a ton on research on the people because she represents them authentically.
CELESTE: As I was thinking about The Bone Sparrow today, I realized that I have never read a children’s novel from Australia before. Certainly, Australian authors and illustrators are fairly well represented on the picturebook shelves, not so much for longer form fiction available in the U.S. I read this novel more as a Rohingya refugee story without thinking much about the geographical location of the camp. Indeed, while reading many news stories, novels and picturebooks about refugees in the United States, I am inadvertently building a larger story in my mind that other countries are not treating refugees with the same kind of dehumanizing unkindness as we are in this country. It is so important to engage in narratives of refugees globally, and I am glad you suggested reading The Bone Sparrow for this reason and others. Now, I’d like to look at creating a text set of refugee stories that are not about people seeking refuge in the United States but elsewhere. I’m glad I recognized this gap in my reading, so that I can intentionally seek to read in this gap and share the books and stories I find with teacher candidates and young readers.
SEEMI: International literature is significantly different within the parameters of issues represented such as the one we have explored here. This is seen in narratives such as Armin Greder’s The Island, Mirror by Jeannie Baker and Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. Recent books in the U.S. have strong narratives about displacement and refugees in novels such as, How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (a graphic novel).
We have addressed multiple issues in various manners of displacement with this MTYT, from international refugees as displaced individuals in The Bone Sparrow to national and local displacements in The Night Diary, Saltypie, Amal Unbound, and Internment. Each of the texts selected were powerful and impactful to say the least. Thank you, Celeste, for appreciating my take on the books and know that your perspective was greatly appreciated as well.
[Editor Note: The Bone Sparrow was reviewed in Volume 10, Issue 1 of WOW Review.]
Author: Zana Fraillon
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Date Published: November 1, 2016
Throughout July 2019, Celeste and Seemi give their takes on books on the theme of displacements and its representations. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!