Children in Detention: Juvenile Authors Recollect Refugee Stories

By Helff, Sissy | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Children in Detention: Juvenile Authors Recollect Refugee Stories


Helff, Sissy, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


In the last thirty years or so, one of the most swiftly growing areas in children's literature is fiction and autobiographical writing, dealing with the past and present of young people, who are deprived of their homes and ambivalently caught between cultures.1 Yet, events such as the creation of dictatorships, the decline of empires, the outbreak of wars and catastrophes, and the consequent waves of mass migration are not at all new to the human species. In fact, world history is full of records based on stories of hope and despair. What is new, however, is the scale of migratory movements and its representation in the media and literature. Indeed, the conditions of migrancy inevitably 'have formed the subject matter of children's fiction', as the critic Pat Pinsent states. Pinsent suggests that 'some of this interest [is] being triggered by the need for newer communities to find their voices, while the acceptability of such narratives for publication for children has been increased' (Pinsent 2005, p.181). The critic Jana Pohl summarises this literary development when she explains the enormous popularity of the topos of mass migration in children's literature:

  Migration has been a prospering topic of children's literature. In
  accommodating the migration issue children's literature interlinks
  with aspects of multiculturalism, discrimination, tolerance, and
  cultural plurality for informational, educational and/or aesthetic
  purposes. Migration stories, depicting the movement from one place
  to another, immanently revolve around people, countries, and cultures
  that differ from the reader's background. Migration has also been
  referred to as object, i.e. topic, and subject at the same time
  because it serves as the autobiographical background for the author,
  thus implying a strong notion of subjectivity.
  Authors, who migrated as children, tell of their own experiences
  and memories or fictionalize their ancestors' life stories in
  children's literature.

  (Pohl 2005, pp.7879)

Stories dealing with migration and flight often give accounts of children and adolescents whose entire families have been persecuted, destroyed, and finally forced to leave their home country due to war, economic crisis, oppression and discrimination. By remembering, inventing, and recuperating stories of persecution and flight, told through the eyes of a juvenile migrant or refugee narrator, authors of children's literature have started taking on issues of social exclusion and discrimination. An example of this 'literary trend' can be found in the short story collection Dark Dreams: Australian Refugee Stories by Young Writers aged 11-20 Years (Dechian, Millar & Sallis 2004). While I consider the collection as one of the most original literary attempts to date to grapple with the overwhelming number of often untold and nameless refugee stories in Australia, the project's overall idea is even more striking.

As readers learn in the introduction to Dark Dreams, all stories in the book 'were collected in 2002 through an unprecedented nationwide schools competition, Australia IS Refugees!' (p.1). In this contest juvenile writers had been asked to get in touch with people who had previously sought refuge in Australia and were willing to share their experiences of persecution, flight and eventually finding refuge in Australia. While some of the young authors decided to record and tell the story of a complete stranger, others narrated the stories of their relatives, their parents, or even themselves. In their transcultural acts of individual and collective recollection,(2) the juvenile storytellers opened up and inscribed new space when they imagined cultural diversity against the backdrop of a common sense of belonging. In doing so the young not only reconstructed but resurrected the past life of their informants. In a way they actively engaged in a process of history making. Following this pattern of thought, it can be argued that Dark Dreams invites readers to follow the juvenile writers to re-think and challenge the construction of Australian national identity, belonging and history (See Whitlock 2002, p.

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