Mem Fox’s latest picture book, I’m an Immigrant, Too! (published as I’m an Australian, Too! in her native country), is full of hope and cheer—a story narrated largely by refugee children who have found happy new lives all over Australia. But in a phone interview, Fox told PW that she originally wrote the book “out of despair and anger” over Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have been held in offshore detention centers. While her previous books have gone through as many as 40 drafts over the course of several years, I’m an Immigrant, Too “just poured out of me,” Fox said. “It was a four-draft book, which for me is incredibly fast.”
In February 2017 you had your own personal experience with immigration: on your way to a literacy conference in Milwaukee, you were detained by U.S. immigration at the Los Angeles airport. It made headlines around the world. What’s your perspective on the event now?
I actually hate talking about this—it’s so traumatic, it’s like jumping back into a battlefield. As a result of my experience, I received so many letters from people, mostly Australians but others as well, who had experienced worse treatment—particularly in L.A., which is where most Australians land. The States needs to look at its tourism situation. The word around Australia is, “Don’t go there. They’ll get you for nothing.”
What is the most difficult part of telling the immigrant story to children?
The most difficult part was to write a charming book with happy rhyme and rhythm, lots of great repetition, so that children would just adore it for itself—not just for its message, but for the rolling happiness of it. If you’re writing a children’s book to teach children anything, it just dies. That’s not what children’s books are for. Time and time again you see adults try to bring up other people’s children by writing books with messages. And it’s nauseating.
Children are so smart. And if there’s one thing they loathe, it’s being preached to. They can see through that faster than you can see through clean glass.
For U.S. audiences, the title of your book has been changed from I’m an Australian, Too! to I’m an Immigrant, Too! Do you think that adds a new level of meaning?
Having a title change in the States did send a different message probably—a clearer message that we have to look at ourselves and say, “Hang on, where did we all come from?” There can be no hierarchy of “I came here first and therefore I’m a real Australian or a real American.” The problem is that immigrants are being used as a kind of battering ram. It’s just heartbreaking. [In the U.S.] when [migrant] children were separated from their parents, it was completely cruel and unnecessary. But when the system broke down and the children and parents couldn’t be matched up afterwards, that was the most horrifying thing—it was absolutely appalling. I think I’m an Immigrant, Too! speaks most clearly to the separation of the children and parents. The world couldn’t believe it.
It’s interesting how your illustrator, Ronojoy Ghosh, focuses on characters’ everyday lives—there are no parents clutching a child to their hearts saying, “We’re free!” On the pages where a child talks about being a refugee from Syria, he’s just waiting at the bus with his father, who’s looking at his phone.
And the Somali kids are on scooters and skateboards by the river. What we both wanted to show was normality and the similarity between us. We’re just human beings going about our daily lives.
But for me, my favorite page was about the refugee girl [the spread shows a child by the gray, barbed-wire topped wall of a detention center]. In Australia, we’ve parked refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru where they cannot escape. We’re going through hell as I speak, in fact, because the kids [on Nauru] are on the verge of dying from mental illness. This is beyond cruelty. And it’s all political. [Ghosh shows] this little girl inside a detention center, and she wants to be a vet. She has a bird cage in which she’s been keeping a dove, but she’s let that dove go free—and she’s still in a cage. The juxtaposition of that is so simple… It doesn’t beat a big drum. It’s exquisite.
You’ve noted that the book is about an idealized version of Australia—“the country we used to be.” What has been the reaction in your home country?
I wrote, “We open doors to strangers./ Yes, everyone’s friend.” But we stopped opening doors to strangers—well, we open doors to people who are “highly qualified” and forget that refugees can contribute, too. When we block the door to those people, we forget what they’re running from, what the experiences they’ve been through. It’s just unspeakable what these people are running from. And we close the door to them. I just don’t see how we can do that.
The last two verses of the book fit exactly into our national anthem, and when I’ve read the book, I’ve sung those verses, and without fail people have joined in and cried. I’ve had guys come up to me and say accusingly—amusingly—“You’ve made me cry.” When you make grown men weep then you think, “I must have written something worthwhile.”
You noted on your blog that before this book, you hadn’t written for 10 months. Was that unusual for you?
I spend very little of my life writing. I spend less time on writing than I spend on anything else—reading, walking on the beach, having coffee with friends, seeing my grandson. I write very, very rarely—I think because my subconscious does a lot of it. You start something, you put it aside, you think you’ve forgotten about it and actually your subconscious is working on it.
What’s next for you?
The team of Time for Bed , Jane Dyer and I, reunited after 26 years and this time next year we’ll have a new book coming out: Roly Poly. It’s not just the text I’m excited about. The illustrations break completely new ground—I don’t want to say anything more about it. It’s just exquisite. I’ll have another book coming out in Australia [at the same time] called A Little Star, with illustrations by Freya Blackwood.
By then, I’ll be six months off 74. I don’t want time to fly too fast, but I cannot wait for these next 12 months to go!
I’m an Immigrant Too!: An Australian Story by Mem Fox, illus. by Ronojoy Ghosh. Beach Lane, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-5344-3602-2