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Monday 25 June 2018

Guest Post: Q & A with Donna Rawlins on Waves

Waves is a touching, reflective and thought-provoking narrative non-fiction book about the waves of migration to the shores of Australia. Every journey is perilous, every situation heartbreaking. Every refugee is a person forced by famine or war or fear to leave their home, their families, their friends and all they know. 

Children have travelled on the waves of migration to the shores of Australia for tens of thousands of years. This book tells some of their stories. Today we welcome Waves author, Donna Rawlins and her story behind this fascinating collection of stories.

Waves is the first book that you’ve written for some time. You usually work purely as an illustrator. Why this collaboration with Heather Potter and Mark Jackson?
Usually I’m more than happy to illustrate other writers’ texts. I love trying on someone else’s ideas for a while. But sometimes I need to navigate to my own destination. With Waves, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I always saw it with Heather’s and Mark’s beautiful and moving drawings. 

Why is the subject of migration so important to you?
Two main reasons. Firstly, I am not an indigenous person, so, I am from ‘boat people’ stock. Everyone who is not indigenous is here as a result of their own or their family’s migration. Secondly, I grew up in Sunshine, Victoria. Our neighbours, my playmates, school friends, teachers and extended family came from all over the globe. If I looked around me I didn’t see Australia as a British outpost. I had the entire world in my street.

In high school almost every one of my friends were from immigrant families. I didn’t ever see racism around me until I left Sunshine and saw a different Australia outside of the mostly migrant working-class western suburbs. Migrants and their immigration was central to every day of my life. It defined us as a neighbourhood and my sense of what it is to be Australian.

You went on to work in community and educational publishing before coming to write and illustrate the books readers know you for. Did that influence Waves?
Before I produced books in mainstream children’s publishing I worked with Morag Loh. Morag is a ground-breaking oral historian who has made a major contribution to preserving the stories of the migrant experience for Australia’s historical record. We worked together from the mid-1970s on some fantastic projects; Growing up in Richmond, an oral history of inner-urban Richmond in Victoria; With Courage in Their Cases, an oral history of Italian immigrant workers; and People and Stories from Indo-China, a collection of traditional stories in six Indo-Chinese languages and English. As a mutilingual text it was the first of its kind anywhere in Australia, if not the world. 

Working with such a visionary historian/storyteller was a privileged place to start my book making craft – it sharpened my ears and eyes, and made me value everyone’s stories equally. So, my motivation to make books for children is firmly rooted in that oral history tradition. And of course, that naturally leads to writing in the first person. 

There must have been a lot of research. Where did you go to find these stories?
So many people these days are delving into their own family histories and discovering primary sources such as church and census records. Since the advent of sites such as Ancestry.com and programs such as Who Do You Think You Are?,  there’s been an explosion in people’s interest in their own stories. Thankfully I’m a very curious person too, so research is just poking my nose into other people’s business! I’ve always been a ‘news junkie’, but reading old newspapers (and being a ‘citizen helper’) on Trove is one of my all-time guilty pleasures. I love ‘geeky’ things like shipping records. But of course, Waves is fiction, so the research was just the leaping off point.

Image courtesy of Lateral Learning
Tell us about the art. You said you wrote Waves with Heather and Mark in mind – why?
Heather and Mark are two of the most accomplished illustrators in the country. The characters they create are invested with so much pathos and tenderness and their research is always very thorough. As a creator, I think it’s important to be aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and I know I could never have matched their formidable talents. I kept my fingers crossed throughout the writing process in the hope they’d say yes to the project. They produced hundreds of exquisite drawings. I wish we could have used them all. I’m very grateful for the work they did to make this book so visually eloquent. 

The subtitle is For those who come across the sea. Why did you choose that subtitle?
We sing that in our national anthem, but we often don’t live up to it. We hear a lot about Australian values. That is one I hope we can return to with pride.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Waves?
 I hope that it makes them ask questions about Australia and what it means to be Australian. And I hope they are encouraged to talk to their friends, relatives and neighbours about their journeys here. It would be great if they wrote those stories down and made their own versions of Waves. Who knows where their first experiences of collecting oral history will lead?

A topic very dear to many Australian’s hearts is that of immigration. Australia is considered to be one of the world’s major cultural diversity countries featuring a population with origins in over 200 nations. Since 1945, over 7.5 million people have settled here making Australia their home but what we may not think about is the fact that most Australian’s living here today have ancestors that came from other countries, dating back thousands of years ago. 
This gorgeous and stunningly illustrated book – an essential addition to any home or school library - taps into the stories of children immigrating to the shores of Australia from the late 1840s – 2000s. It is moving, educational and will help many young children today understand Australia’s immigration history.

Keep an eye out for our KBR review of Waves by Sarah Steed, next month - 6 July!
Donna Rawlins is an illustrator, book designer and teacher who has specialised in making books for children for most of her working life. She has won many awards for her work and in 2003 was the recipient of the prestigious Lady Cutler Award, presented by the Children’s Book Council of New South Wales, for her outstanding contribution to the children’s book industry. Donna lives on acreage in the Lower Blue Mountains outside Sydney, New South Wales.