'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Interview: Jackie French on Refuge

KBR is thrilled to welcome Jackie French with this incredibly moving interview on her powerful middle fiction novel--Refuge.

Refuge is a story of the people who came—and continue to come—to Australia by sea. Why is it so important to tell this story?
The boats have come for 60,000 years. They will keep coming, as long as there are humans and boats to sail in.

No nation has the duty to accept all who come to their shores, nor can that be done sustainably, both socially and ecologically. We do not necessarily owe those who arrive here the right to live here. But we do owe them kindness, compassion, education, and medical help, to the best of our ability to provide it.

As a nation, we must know that the boats will come, and work out long-term, realistic responses, instead of hoping that somehow, sometime, it will all go away.

My ancestors all came here by sea, at different times, from different places, and many reasons. They were met with kindness and generosity, just as I was when I moved to the valley where I have lived for forty years, and where many of my ancestors lived, too.

The book features children of varying nationality and circumstance, set over a time period of 60,000 years. How difficult was it to weave their stories together? What common ground do they share?

This was perhaps the most difficult book I have written, as there were so many cultures that had to be included. I tried to work from primary sources, the stories of those who had lived through those times, but was always aware that there was so much that I didn't even know I didn't know.

Common ground? Each came here with a dream: often not even a realistic dream. On the beach they learnt to work together; they learnt tolerance. But even more: they learned how dreams can be forged together to make a better future.

The story is set on a ‘magical’ beach—a refuge for children of varying time and nationality. The children play a special ball game on the beach. How was this concept born? Why a beach?

Our beaches are as iconic as Uluru. They are in the tourist brochures, the dream of Australia we give the world. But also, as a child, the beach was my refuge, staying with my grandmother in school holidays, the place I could walk for hours, where land met the sea and possibilities were endless. I sang and knew no one would hear me above the waves. I plotted novels I have yet to write, collected cuttlefish for the budgie. And around the corner—maybe—there'd be mermaids.

A few years ago, staying in a hotel above a beach, I saw a game played for days, just as it was in the book. Players of different ages, different backgrounds ... one would leave and others take their place. But every time I walked past or looked down from the hotel, the game was still being played, bringing friends and strangers together.

The back stories of the children we meet in this story are painful and fraught with fear and danger. How emotional was this process for you?

Difficult. Much of the time I still am finding it difficult. To write a book well you need to live it, and then relive it, over and over with each revision.

At the end of the book, you give the reader more information on the lives of each character (as well as other characters who never appear in the book). This biographical information appeared so real, I’ll admit to googling one or two of them—perhaps hoping them to be real. Did you draw on the lives of living people to create these characters?

Every character in the story and in 'Susannah's List' is completely fictional, but each one was also inspired by an actual person, though I took care to make the fictional ones different in almost every aspect.

How connected do you become to your characters?


Refuge is a true feat in the merging of imagination and reality. How much enjoyment do you glean from merging these alternate realities?

Sometimes a book is a joy—with The Road to Gundagi, I loved it so much that I didn't want to stop working. Every book I read or DVD I watched was so much less fun than being in the book.

Other books bite you on the back of the neck and don't let go till you have written them. I didn't want to write Refuge, but knew it had to be written. It was difficult both emotional and intellectually.

Tell us one of the most important ways immigrants shape our modern day culture, and our country’s future.

Diversity, but also that deep core of optimism and hope that brings them here. A a society we need hope, dreams and optimism, and this is what the newcomers bring to us.

What do you hope Refuge shows our children?

That dreams matter, and so does hope. That each one of us comes from very different places and cultures, but we create a nation together. That while dreams are vital both for us personally and as a nation, it is not good to linger too long in dreams, but to use them to find the strength to face reality, and make the dreams come true—or, more likely—let that reality change your dreams, just as your dreams can also help change the real world.

To be kind to each other. To know that one kind act may become a small wave of kindness spreading across the world.

To know that standing together—despite your differences—makes you strong.

To be able to say, when things are bad. 'I can cope with this. And tomorrow—or next year—things will be good.'

To know that as humans we all have far more that binds us together than the things that make us different. I am descended from races and religions that fought each other, tried to exterminate each other, that hated each other with passion and dedication. I wish I could tell them that generations later they'd have descendants in common, who honour them all.

Perhaps just: be kind. Do what is necessary, but also: be kind. 

Learn more about Jackie's extraordinary books at her website www.jackiefrench.com.