Former Bloomsbury editor and now novelist Ele Fountain on the inspiration for her refugee story, Boy 87
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week. It was started in response to negative media about refugees and asylum seekers. Twenty years on, during one of the greatest refugee crises in recent times, the need for greater understanding seems more powerful than ever.
There will be events held worldwide, and a packed programme of nationwide activities. At the weekend, I was at Waterstones Nottingham talking about my novel Boy 87. Today (18 June), I'm giving a series of talks for schools at the Migration Museum in Lambeth. It's so exciting to be involved in the build-up to World Refugee Day on 20 June.
The seed of my involvement was sown four years ago, when I moved with my family to Ethiopia. This was also the height of the refugee crisis. There were news reports - almost daily - showing refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats. People were shocked by the images, but I was struck by how easy it became to switch off from the unfolding tragedy, when hearing about "boat-loads" of people. I wanted to learn more about who was on those boats and why they were there. What had they left behind in order to make these perilous journeys?
Increasingly, Ethiopia was mentioned in the reports. My friends in the UK wanted to know why Ethiopians were risking their lives in this way. Why were they leaving the country I had just moved to with my young family?
While we were in Ethiopia a state of emergency was declared after anti-government riots. We were on lockdown in the capital, Addis Ababa, for a few weeks. The internet was shut down, and, briefly, the phones too. New laws said you could be put in jail just for criticising the government.
Several weeks later, when the internet came back on, we had no access to social media. I'd never experienced power being used in this way. There were systems in place to help us leave the city - and country - if we needed to. But it wouldn't have been so straightforward for my Ethiopian friends to leave. From this perspective it was easier for me to understand that countries don't have to be at war for your life to be in danger, and that there are many ways to persecute and imprison.
Before moving to Africa I was a children's book editor for 15 years. I'd often spoken to authors about their inspiration. Now I realised there was a story I wanted to tell. The story of a boy who had left everything he knew in search of safety. That story was Boy 87. For the first time, I truly understood the need to write.
I knew straight away where the book would be set - a country where basic freedoms could never be taken for granted. I also knew that I didn't want to name the country. I wanted the focus to be on the characters and their experiences rather than on the politics of one regime. There are numerous clues throughout the story, though, if the reader does want to find out. All the places exist, and Shif's journey can be traced on a map from start to end.
There are difficult moments in Boy 87, but, overall, it's a story about the strength of the human spirit, and about hope - two things that grow with the kindness of others, however small the gesture.
Once I'd finished writing Boy 87, I decided not to submit it under my name. I wanted the book to be judged on its own merits; plus I was terrified. I used a combination of my eldest daughter's middle name, and the surname of a friend working at the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. Then I pressed send. Of course, I was excited - and nervous - to have set my manuscript loose, but have been totally overwhelmed by the response it's received since publication.
Photo by Debra Hurford-Brown.
Ele Fountain's Boy 87 is out from Pushkin Children's Books.