Review | A Country to Call Home (ed.) Lucy Popescu | Book of the Week

So refugee week is over. The fact that the UK is the only country in Europe where refugees who arrive looking for a safe haven are detained indefinitely, and are often sent back home to face persecution, torture or death, will be kicked into the long grass once again. Certain politicians continue to use the language of disaster and provoke fear by swelling numbers of arrivals, backed by box-ticking Home Office officials.

Refugees are individuals seeking asylum for humanitarian reasons and suffer trauma, broken dreams, love and loss as a consequence. They are not amorphous groups to be rendered and processed and imprisoned in detention centres like criminals. Such a hostile environment is anything but a welcoming new home, and some go crazy with grief.  

As Alex Preston – journalist and author of In Love and War – put it during talk host Lucy Popescu’s rousing panel discussion ‘On Refuge’ at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road last week: “The UK has changed and many of us do not recognise it any more. This is a good country, with good people and a history of being good and welcoming to refugees. The current political climate is an aberration.

lucy popescu event on refuge waterstones tcr 20_6_19 photo copyright bookblast

During the panel discussion, Christy Lefteri, author of debut novel, The Bee Keeper of Aleppo, Dina Nayeri winner of the O. Henry Prize and author of non-fiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee, and Sita Brahmachari whose latest book, Where the River Runs Gold, is for children age 9 to 11, all radiated varying degrees of embattled frustration in the face of the current global refugee crisis. It is a worldwide problem — one whose scale and severity is unmatched since World War II.

Bees are symbol of hope: where there are bees there are flowers, where there are flowers there is new life” Christy Lefteri

Sita Brahmachari described how her migrant father’s stories about faraway places allowed her to have an imagined space to step into where she did not quite fit in, be it here or back there, but in an imagined space, which is what migrants bring to whatever landscape they go to. “We don’t write stories on our own, they come out of the landscape we live in.

Such is the spirit behind Lucy Popescu’s two superb collections: A Country to Call Home: An anthology on the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers and A Country of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers.

“I write children’s books because I believe they’re the books that change people’s lives,” S. F. Said

A Country to Call Home

Lucy Popescu writes in her introduction: “Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many arrive on our shores utterly alone. Some don’t make it. Remember that image of Alan Kurdi, the small Syrian boy, just a toddler? His tiny body, face down, washed up on a Turkish beach? The photograph was reproduced worldwide and helped temper the negative media for a short while. It was this image that made me think of putting together an anthology that explores the reality for child refugees and unaccompanied young adults making these harrowing journeys in search of safety.

A Country to Call Home includes previously unpublished stories, flash fiction, poetry by leading young adult authors, and original illustrations by Chris Riddel. It features contributions from Brian Conaghan, Bali Rai, Christine Pullein-Thompson, Tony Bradman, Anna Perera, Kit de Waal, Sue Reid, Michael Morpurgo, Moniza Alvi, Tracy Brabin, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Moniza Alvi, Jon Walter, Fiona Dunbar, Peter Kalu, Eoin Colfer, Sita Brahmachari, Patrice Lawrence, Miriam Halahmy, David Almond, S. F. Said, Adam Barnard, Simon Armitage . . . and Lucy Popescu’s interview with children’s author, the late Judith Kerr who was born in Berlin in 1923, but escaped from Hitler’s Germany with her parents and brother in 1933 when she was nine years old.

Judith Kerr’s words describe a very different Britain to how it is today: “People were so kind to us during the war. Even though we were German and my parents spoke very little English, we never witnessed any unkindness. There was an official name for Germans who were classed as enemy aliens, but people like us were officially called ‘friendly enemy aliens’ because we were German but also known to be anti-Hitler. We had to report to the police if we went more than five miles away, so we knew the police well and they were so kind. My father once said that if he left England he would have to take the whole population with him. England is my home. I owe this country so much.”

There has been a hardening of hearts. What do we owe to each other as human beings, what kind of society do we want to live in?

So in this 21st century, what does a person forced to flee their homeland have to endure, both on their journey and – if they survive – in a new homeland?

The Sea, The Sea

tourists and migrants copyright solarpix
Dream or nightmare? Tourists look on as refugees land on a beach

The vast majority of people arriving in Europe by sea are fleeing persecution, war and famine, a quarter of which are children. Bali Rai’s story, Mermaid, focuses on the fate of a little girl and her father from Damascus – an English teacher – destined for Denmark. “I will never know how long we floated in the cold and the darkness. I will only ever remember Papa holding me close, begging me to stay awake. I was so tired, so empty, but he did not give up on me. ‘Remember the film,’ he whispered. ‘Remember the stories we made up. You are Ariel and this water is your kingdom. I will save you, just like the prince in our stories, Nadia. Soon you will reach the shore . . .’.”

Kit de Waal’s superb piece of fatal flash fiction, Did You See Me?, asks terrible questions: “Did you see me when the waves bounced me up and away? Did you hear me shout? Did you see me running in the water?

The Crossing

Before World War I in 1914, there were virtually no border controls or restrictions to moving around the European mainland. In the 1950s, freedom of movement of qualified industrial workers was included in the treaties founding the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the current European Union, in 1957.

With the current rise of far-right populism, and failure of mainstream political parties to find humane solutions, border controls are overwhelmed and in disarray. Italy is refusing or delaying disembarkation of individuals recovered by rescue ships, and Hungary makes it almost impossible for asylum seekers to enter the country to seek protection.

truthout newsgeek

A boy returns home to look after his grandma the late Christine Pullein-Thompson’s story, I Want the Truth, set on the eve of the Romanian revolution in 1989 . . . “There was a lorry parked near him now full of sacks. He could climb inside and hide. The driver had disappeared in the direction of the frontier, leaving the engine running. For a moment Ion’s legs refused to move. Then he bounded across the road and clambered into the lorry.”

While Sue Reid, in Our Bridge to Freedom, evokes the turmoil of Hungary in 1956. “He didn’t know how they managed to get on the train. What a scrum! People shoving and pushing each other, desperate to find room for themselves and their families. That should tell the Soviets something [. . .] He was a refugee too now. It was easy to forget that. A refugee had always been something other people were. Someone who had no country to call home.”

Road to Nowhere

The terror of leaving the place where you grew up, not being able to return home, or knowing how the journey will end is brought alive by Michael Morpurgo in his story about a little Afghan boy’s escape with his mother in The Little Red Train.I counted twelve of us in all, mostly from Iran, and a family – mother, father and a little boy – from Pakistan, and beside us an old couple from Afghanistan, from Kabul . . . The smell, I’ll never forget the smell. After that I think I must have lost consciousness because I don’t remember much more. When I woke up – it was probably days later, I don’t know – the lorry had stopped.”

Moniza Alvi’s The Camp is an extract from a book-length poem based on a family story set at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Thousands of people were killed in civil unrest and millions were displaced. “Holes in shelters. Holes in families . . . The nothingness was palpable – you could pluck it from the air.”

The Front Line

The reality of today’s Britain is a different one to the refugee fairy tale peddled by people smugglers. People go through hell just to be believed, the bureaucratic process appears to want to find fault with applications so people can be sent home regardless of the persecution or death waiting at the end of the line.

Tracy Brabin, in Dawn Raiders, describes an asylum-seeker’s nightmare when the family home is raided at dawn. “Mr Kizende, I am arresting you on suspicion of illegally overstaying in the UK. You and your family will be prepared for immediate removal.

While Michael Morpurgo, in Locked Up, writes about children imprisoned in a Yarl’s Wood, “Then they were shouting at Mother, telling her we had five minutes to get ready, that we were illegal asylum seekers, that they were going to take us to a detention centre, and then we’d be going back to Afghanistan. That was when I suddenly became more angry than frightened. I shouted back at them. I told them that we’d been living here six years, that it was our home.

And Jon Walter, in Every Day Is Christmas, writes through the eyes of a child from Addis Ababa interned in a camp on Christmas Island off the coast of Australia. As with the UK, those seeking asylum in Australia can be held in detention indefinitely. “Mother says that stories fill you up with all the goodness in the world. That they help to make sense of who you are. But now all the stories they tell me are of their past.”

Home Sweet Home

The pieces by Sita Brahmachari, Fiona Dunbar, Miriam Halahmy, Patrice Lawrence, David Almond and Simon Armitage show the traps and pitfalls of trying to adapt and learn a new language, the humiliation of relying on handouts of clothes, the stress, isolation and disempowerment. The trauma of exile can turn murderous, as concluded by Adam Barnard in Learning to Laugh Again, about a group of teenage refugees going to a farm in Devon for a sort of therapeutic activity holiday. It’s a roll of the dice.

The young survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil war ends up working in a service station in Anna Perera’s  Gowsika Auntie. Her colleagues are oblivious to historical violence and the contradiction of seeing certain tourism spots as must-visit destinations. “I hate the smell of petrol but have a job in a service station in Essex. One day a woman with spiky brown hair and a ring through her nose was buried in pictures of beautiful hotels, idyllic beaches, tea gardens and heritage sites of my home country, Sri Lanka. She smiled to herself as she turned the pages of the magazine.”

Peter Kalu’s tale is about Sana, a Kurdish asylum seeker who works in a kitchen. She is the referee in the annual football match of Kitchen vs. Servers which seems harmless enough but there is a profoundly dark undertow. Whereas Eoin Colfer, in Christopher, conjures the Lord of the Flies type cruelty of little boys, “Marco felt sick to his stomach and wished that he could just go home. But he knew he must return to the factory.”

chris riddell copyright illus Country to Call HomeA Country to Call Home is not devoid of hope though. Hassan Abdulrazzak’s love story, The Good Girl in the All-Terrain Boots, between a Mexican girl and a Syrian boy rescued by a veteran rescue dog called Frida is touching and imbued with dark humour. “War happened in Hazem’s country. It was sudden and unexpected. I sort of understand war. I guess it’s like when two packs fight over a turf. One side says this is my domain, I’ve pissed all over it, and the other side says no, it was I who pissed over it first. Then both sides jump at each other and begin snarling and biting. Come to think of it, you people don’t do much biting, you prefer to blow things up instead.”

Lucy Popescu’s A Country to Call Home is a tremendous collection which brings into sharp relief the plight faced by thousands of children facing an uncertain future, and reveals how writers are responding to our challenging times. There’s something for everyone – fatalism, death and despair; humour, romance and poetic licence. Relevant and empathic, this book would enrich school classrooms and could go towards creating book clubs to make reading interesting and topical.

Being genuinely good to one another means displaying compassion and kindness and finding ways to engage with and support “the most voiceless our society who are locked up and treated abominably for no reason.Why not show you care all year round, rather than for just a week? There are plenty of ways to help, and numerous organisations trying to make a difference. Here are a few:

Kent Refugee Help

NCVO

Support Refugees

English PEN Writers in Prison

The Children’s Society – Young Refugees and Migrants

A Country to Call Home (ed.) Lucy Popescu | 256 pages Unbound, London | ISBN 978-1-78352-604-8 (trade pbk) ISBN 978-1-78352-606-2 (ebook)

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Breaking News | The BookBlast® 10×10 Tour 2018 Kickstarter Campaign Launched

The BookBlast® celebration of independent publishing was kicked off in 2016 via online journal The BookBlast® Diary, idea being to showcase daring, risk-taking small publishers who fill a unique niche discovering talent, publishing authentic and offbeat books which add value to the cultural landscape.

bookblast 10x10 tour book covers mosaic

We are now going offline and into the 9 regions of England this Autumn with THE BOOKBLAST® 10×10 TOUR 2018 in association with Waterstones.

Why not show your support for small independent publishers, writers and translators? Please spread the word and support our KICKSTARTER campaign: you can pledge, enjoy and spread the word HERE…

Come to the first tour event on 11 September at 6.30pm in Waterstones, Gower Street, or to  one of the 9 regional talks! We have lots of goodies and tickets to #giveaway so visit us and let everyone know how much you love to support #crowdfunding great new writing and ideas.

The BookBlast® 10×10 Tour is about extraordinary writing inspiring readers to explore what’s happening in the world now. Audiences will encounter writers from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, up-and-coming British talent.

Waterstones may be a nationwide chain, but is clearly awake to the potential of small independent publishers and showcasing them to a high-street audience.

The tour connects London and the regions and showcases some of the finest independent-spirited literature and poetry being published today.

I look forward to seeing you all on the campaign trail and at a 10×10 Tour event in the Autumn. Ciao for now! G@BB

The BookBlast® 10×10 Tour catalogue is available for download or viewing online HERE

Media Release | THE BOOKBLAST® 10×10 TOUR in association with Waterstones

bookblast official logo ®THE BOOKBLAST® 10×10 TOUR
A CELEBRATION OF INDEPENDENT PUBLISHING
11 SEPTEMBER – 15 NOVEMBER 2018

A Nationwide Festival of Independent Publishing!

A carnival of authors, poets, translators and publishers, under the banner of trailblazing agency BOOKBLAST® created by Georgia de Chamberet, will be travelling to major cities across England, showcasing some of the finest independent-spirited literature and poetry being published today.  

THE BOOKBLAST® 10×10 TOUR, in association with Waterstones, will visit nine regions of England, celebrating risk-taking publishers who fill a unique niche in discovering talent. The tour connects London and the regions.

This tour is about extraordinary writing. Writing that surprises, amazes and intrigues. Writing that challenges, disrupts and demands. Writing that is from the margins of culture portraying areas of life that the traditionalist mainstream often ignores. The tour will inspire readers, existing and new, to explore what’s happening in different parts of the world now, and to immerse themselves in the unfamiliar. Audiences will encounter writers from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. With these events, BookBlast® aims to unite people in the spirit of friendship and exchange.

THE BOOKBLAST® 10×10 TOUR launches in Waterstones Gower Street, located in the heart of Bloomsbury, London, followed by a series of themed talks, each one chaired by a small independent publisher, held in flagship regional branches of Waterstones over 9 weeks. It promises to be a hugely exhilarating celebration of the most electrifying prose and poetry being created today. Continue reading Media Release | THE BOOKBLAST® 10×10 TOUR in association with Waterstones

Review | Tinderbox, Megan Dunn | Book of the Week

In the wake of Amazon’s Kindle it seemed unlikely that books would ever be banned: instead books are commodified, turned into movies and TV series, rated and recommended in Goodreads, their individual sales histories quantified on Nielsen Bookdata and in the fathomless depths of the Amazon Sales Ranking system. Even the Kindle was named by a branding consultant who suggested the word to Amazon because it means to light a fire. The branding consultant thought that ‘kindle’ was an apt metaphor for reading and intellectual excitement . . .” [p.6 Tinderbox]

The recent Arts Council England report into literary fiction which shows sales, advances and retail prices slumping over the last fifteen years, and the average writer scraping by on £11,000 a year, does not make for seasonal cheer. Clever novels like Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox could possibly offer literary heavyweights hope for the future.

The literary canon as fandom is booming, as the greats of literature are ideologised and hybridised as part of our shifting 21st Century cultural ecology. The symbiosis between cinema, television, computer games, popular music and comics is giving rise to all manner of new creations, blurring the lines between what is real, what is imagined, and interpretations thereof. The blinkered, bookish view that popular culture fans take no interest in literary classics is a false one. Amateur writers are inspired by a whole range of classic texts, from Homer and Shakespeare, to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five have all been reimagined and transformed – unsurprisingly, Harry Potter comes out on top with over 778670 stories. Continue reading Review | Tinderbox, Megan Dunn | Book of the Week

BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | November 2017

Our eclectic November top ten reads rejoice in strong women and have a radical, cosmopolitan flavour. We continue our celebration of 15 years of the Childrens’ Bookshow, highlighting two more books featured in this year’s tour. Happy reading! Georgia @bookblast

Strong Women

teffi pushkin press bookblast diary reviewRasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi (Pushkin Press) buy here
Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France, Anne Marie Jackson

A semi-literate peasant and a counsellor to the Tsar, a hardened sinner and a man of prayer, a shape-shifter with the name of God on his lips. They called him cunning. Was there really nothing to him but cunning?  I shall tell you about my two brief encounters with him . . .” Teffi’s portrait of Rasputin, and her description of his unwanted advances, is a disturbing reminder of how sex-pests using positions of power to get their dirty way are not a new phenomenon.  All of the women saying #MeToo on Twitter are standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them.

Grigori Rasputin holding court in 1911
Grigori Rasputin holding court in 1911 Photo Topical Press AgencyGetty Images

Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Lokhvitskaya – who wrote under the pseudonym Teffi – was born in 1872 into a family prominent in Saint Petersburg society. An essayist, poet and playwright, she became so popular that there were Teffi sweets and a Teffi perfume. She supported socialism and the 1905 revolution, and worked for the first Bolshevik paper, New Life, which was later shut down by the Leninist authorities. She left Russia in 1919 and settled in France, where she died in 1952. Her engaging, witty and empathic writing belies a bleak undertow of loss and nostalgia for lost worlds as she writes about life before the revolution, fellow writers, emigration, and life in Paris.

Oriana Fallaci by Cristina de Stefano (Other Press) buy here
Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss

I’ve always been political in my writing, actions and life. I grew up in a political family. I was educated in politics . . . The risk of Fascism is my fixation,” wrote Oriana Fallaci. Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | November 2017

BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | September 2017

Our monthly round up of deliciously eclectic, mind-altering reads to see us into the Autumn now that summer is over.

Uncovering a Parisian Life

The Madeleine Project by Clara Beaudoux, translated by Alison Anderson (New Vessel Press) buy here

A young woman moves into a Paris apartment and discovers a storage room filled with the belongings of the previous owner, a certain Madeleine who died in her late nineties, and whose treasured possessions nobody seems to want. In an audacious act of journalism driven by personal curiosity and humane tenderness, Clara Beaudoux embarks on The Madeleine Project, documenting what she finds on Twitter with text and photographs, introducing the world to an unsung 20th century figure. Along the way, she uncovers a Parisian life indelibly marked by European history. This is a graphic novel for the Twitter age, a true story that encapsulates one woman’s attempt to live a life of love and meaning together with a contemporary quest to prevent that existence from slipping into oblivion. Through it all, The Madeleine Project movingly chronicles, and allows us to reconstruct, intimate memories of a bygone era.

The BookBlast® Diary will be running a review and an exclusive interview with the Author at the end of the month.

Continue reading BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds | September 2017

Breaking News | The Children’s Bookshow 2017 | 15 years on the road!

 “The Children’s Bookshow takes children’s authors to meet tens of thousands of children, introducing children to how and why writers write, illustrators illustrate.  They give children insights into how they too can transform thoughts and feelings into words and pictures.  This is not simply a matter of it being enjoyable, it’s a necessary part of what we understand by the word ‘education’.” Michael Rosen

children's bookshow 2003 bookblastThe much loved and hugely popular national tour of writers and illustrators of children’s literature brings the joy of books and reading to children across the UK each autumn. The series of free workshops runs alongside the performances in the theatres. Past participants have included Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen and Judith Kerr from the UK, and from abroad, Tomi Ungerer, Fabio Geda, Satoshi Kitamura and many more. 

BookBlast® is delighted to be celebrating The Children’s Bookshow and its 15 years on the road! We are running exclusive interviews with visionary founder, Sian Williams, publisher Julia Marshall from Gecko Press, feature review(s) and there’s a competition . . .  Continue reading Breaking News | The Children’s Bookshow 2017 | 15 years on the road!

Dreaming of Outer Mongolia (2) | A Mystical Wilderness

The Call of the Wild
When the Siberian and Chinese tectonic plates pushed up against each other, Mongolia was bookblast map mongoliaformed: a great landlocked highland plateau − sandwiched between Russia and China. No wonder the fierce warriors of the 13th and 14th century Mongol Empire who were masters at the art of war are still the stuff of legend.

I was told that sections of the Great Wall of China were built to keep the Mongolians out. This toughness, combined with an equally powerful shamanic spirituality dating back to Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Hordes – intertwined later with Buddhism from Tibet – and a continued adherence to centuries-old customs and traditions, are a seductive combination.

Mongolians live in two worlds: that of the senses, the observable, the scientific; and on a metaphysical and spiritual level − the unseen world of spirits and magic.

Continue reading Dreaming of Outer Mongolia (2) | A Mystical Wilderness

Spotlight | Georgia de Chamberet at Ways With Words Book Festival

Ways With Words Festival of Words and Ideas in Devon has been held annually for about two decades. It is extremely well run by friendly staff and the surroundings are idyllic. I stayed in a comfortable double room to one side of Dartington Hall, overlooking glorious trees and the garden, away from the central, medieval, listed courtyard. My well-attended talk about Lesley Blanch, ‘a bohemian abroad’, was held in the 14th century Barn Cinema.

On the evening I arrived, news reader and war reporter, Michael Buerk, talked about Reality TV. He was engaging, funny and ultimately pretty depressing about the future of ‘quality’ TV. Budgets for ‘traditional’ drama, documentaries and investigative current affairs programmes − Panorama and Dispatches are all we have left − are derisory, whereas around 750 producers were out in the Australian jungle for the particular show in which he featured of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Thousands of hours of filming end up on the cutting room floor. Reality TV is more ‘fixed’ now than when it first began and is not as ‘real’ or cutting edge as you might imagine. Watched by 16 to 30 year olds it offers a modern twist on people being tested and mocked as in a morality play, or freak show. People are pushed to their limits in increasingly humiliating ways for fast shock results. Instead of being pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables in the stocks, nowadays contestants grapple with their phobias of creepy crawlies, rodents and serpents. He was honest about the lure of the sum of money he was paid for taking part, (naturally he did not divulge the amount!). Bad behaviour is rewarded and ignorance is cool. Celebrity is a goal in itself, without achievements or virtue being involved in any way. The ultimate punchline from the younger members of his own family was lighten up granddad it’s only a TV show.

Continue reading Spotlight | Georgia de Chamberet at Ways With Words Book Festival

Viva BookBlast! | est. 1997

The BookBlast® Diary

Since 2016, the online journal The BookBlast® Diary has showcased independent trade publishing and world writing in translation with a special focus on France. Reviews that give context can be savoured as slow reads. We are not influenced by fame or hype, but are curious, enthusiastic and scrupulous about making choices. Our audience of book industry insiders, influencers, writers, book lovers, booksellers, librarians, journalists and bloggers is based in the UK, US and France.

We provide exclusive Q&As with indie trade publishers, authors, poets, translators; book reviews; podcasts; in-depth ‘Spotlight’ features about the book-industry and translation; articles about awards and award winners, Top 10 reads for independent minds and Top 5 reads for Francophones.

Christopher MacLehose, MacLehose Press — “Excellent and eloquent.”

Claire Armitstead, The Guardian — “Excellent work.”

Cécile Menon, Les Fugitives — “The BookBlast diary is great — as I’m sure many writers, readers and publishers have told you before.”

Maggie Gee — “A true lover of writing and writers.”

Continue reading Viva BookBlast! | est. 1997