It’s been a while but I’m back with another author spotlight. This interview is part of the blog tour for Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu, which was published by Old Barn Books earlier this month.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A. M. Dassu is a writer based in the East Midlands. She is the Deputy Editor of SCBWI-BI’s Words and Pictures magazine and a Director of Inclusive Minds, a unique organisation for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature, and are committed to changing the face of children’s books.
She won the international We Need Diverse Books mentorship award in 2017, and has used her publishing advances for her debut middle grade novel Boy, Everywhere to assist Syrian refugees in her city and set up a grant to support an unpublished refugee/recently immigrated writer.
You can follow her on Twitter @a_reflective.
ABOUT BOY, EVERYWHERE
Boy, Everywhere chronicles the harrowing journey taken from Syria to the UK by Sami and his family. From privilege to poverty, across countries and continents, from a smuggler’s den in Turkey to a prison in Manchester, it is a story of survival, of family, of bravery. In a world where we are told to see refugees as the ‘other’, this story will remind readers that ‘they’ are also ‘us’.
Sami is a typical 13 year-old: he loves his friends, football, PlayStation and iPad. But a bombing in a mall changes his life. Sami and his family flee their comfortable home in Damascus to make the perilous and painful journey towards a new life in the U.K. Leaving everything behind, Sami discovers a world he’d never encountered – harsh, dangerous, but also at times unexpectedly kind and hopeful.
Salaam, thank you so much for joining us! To begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your debut middle grade novel, Boy, Everywhere?
AD: Salaam, thank you for having me!
I’m an author and deputy editor of SCBWI’s magazine for children’s authors and illustrators called Words and Pictures, I mentor aspiring authors through Write Mentor and I have recently become a Director of Inclusive Minds. My work has been published by the Huffington Post, Times Educational Supplement, SCOOP Magazine, Lee & Low Books, and DK Books.
I write contemporary fiction and non-fiction as A. M. Dassu. I explore outside political events and how they impact family relationships and friendships. And I am passionate about representing and voicing perceptions of marginalised communities.
Boy, Everywhere is a story of privilege and looks at the refugee crisis from a completely new perspective, and through thirteen-year-old Sami’s eyes shows that we are all one cruel twist of fate away from becoming refugees — it can happen to anyone.
Sami is an ordinary boy who lives a happy, normal life in Damascus in Syria; he loves gaming, he makes plans with friends, has the potential to play for the school football team, has an iPad, a PlayStation, weekends at the mall to look forward to, and in an instant he loses it all. You follow him across countries and continents before he gets to the UK, which isn’t quite what he imagined it to be.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from, and what lessons do you hope readers will take away from it?
AD: Boy, Everywhere was borne from my desire to challenge stereotypes. In 2015, when the world struggled to help Syrians, I sat in my comfortable living room watching countless news broadcasts about the influx of refugees to Europe. One interview showed refugees in muddy camps wearing Nike trainers, holding smartphones, and talking about what they’d left behind. Looking around my comfortable living room, I realised that it could easily have been me. The more Syrian people I met and the more research I did, I realised that if it weren’t for the war, most Syrians would never have left. It became clear their lives were very similar to ours in the West and a civil war could easily bring the same fate upon any of us.
For years we’ve only seen grey rubble and debris on the news, or refugees on boats — it’s easy to forget that Syria is one of the oldest civilized countries. They have high-end hotels, had McDonalds, KFC, Nike shops, and Costa, before the war began. And this is what I wanted people to know too. I wanted them to know that Syrians had lives just like ours, and the media’s focus on the conflict wasn’t the full story.
I wanted to challenge the narrative that refugees are needy and desperate and instead show the reality of their lives, the choices they’re forced to make, also what and who they leave behind and how difficult it is to start again.
I wanted to create a window that would allow readers to experience how it feels to have it all and then lose it.
I really hope readers will see that this could easily happen to anyone. No one sets out to become a refugee. No matter who you are, or where you’re from, we have many similarities; we all have the same hopes and fears. We mustn’t focus on our differences, but instead focus on what we have in common.
I love that! This is your debut middle grade novel. What made you want to write a book for this specific audience? Do you have any favourite middle grade novels or authors?
AD: This book actually started off as YA, but agents during my first submission round told me that my ‘voice’ was young and perfect for upper middle grade readers, so I rewrote it for a younger audience and the ‘clean teen’ market.
Middle grade books are wonderful, life changing and empowering and there are many brilliant authors to choose from. I love Nizrana Farook’s The Girl Who Stole An Elephant, Liz Flanagan’s Rise Of The Shadow Dragons, Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story, Kirsty Applebaum’s The Middler, Sophie Wills’s The Orphan’s Of St Halibut’s, Louie Stowell’s Dragon In The Library and Catherine Johnson’s Freedom to name a few!
Those are all great recommendations! As Director of Inclusive Minds, an organisation for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature, why are stories like Sami’s so important?
AD: Media representation significantly influences the way marginalised groups are perceived by society and accurate representation in books can send an important message to all readers that marginalised communities are in fact valued and they belong.
It is more important than ever for children to see themselves portrayed in literature, to know that they can also aspire and dream. It is only through adequate representation that others can learn about diverse lives and cultures. Children can be introduced to differences in culture, religion, identities, family set ups and lifestyles through stories, and by reading them see how much we have in common. More importantly stories that challenge stereotypes like Sami’s can bring children together and hopefully help build a more inclusive society.
I couldn’t agree more. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and do you have any advice for aspiring Muslim authors wanting to tell their stories?
AD: One of my writer friends showed me that by being disciplined and writing 800 words a day, she could have her full novel written in 75 days. That changed my life! I realised that something that seemed so unachievable was actually not as out of reach as I’d first thought.
My advice for writers is to take feedback on the chin. No one can write a perfect book. And it’s only through feedback and critique that you can polish it. If you really want to get published, be ready to edit your work and listen. And don’t give up. Be persistent. Publishing is so subjective; you just need to find the right person at the right time to read your book!
If I’d gotten disheartened and given up on Boy, Everywhere when it first went out on submission to agents in July 2016, it wouldn’t be published today. With determination and work, every book can be rewritten and you can absolutely make it stronger for submission.
And finally, what are some of your favourite books written by Muslim authors and which ones are you looking forward to?
AD: Tomorrow is a beautiful picture book by Syrian author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan. It’s an uplifting story about the conflict in Syria and shows how important the love of a family is. It helps children to understand how it feels when your life changes without any fault of your own.
For middle grade readers, I’d recommend Phoenix by Lebanese-born author, SF Said. It’s a page turning, adventure in space, which subtly looks at how refugees (in this case aliens) are perceived.
A YA novel I’d recommend is All The Things We Never Said by Muslim author Yasmin Rahman. It’s a book written from three points of view about friendship, strength and discovering that life is worth living.
I’m really looking forward to Nizrana Farook’s second middle grade novel, The Boy Who Met A Whale.
Thank you so much for joining us, and for taking the time to answer these questions!
Boy, Everywhere is out now. Order the book from an indie bookstore near you, and don’t forget to add it on Goodreads.