Detention (Penguin Random House) is a highly memorable insight into a complex, fraught situation.
It balances the terrible quandary of refugees detained in or near Australia with kindness and help.
Thank you for speaking to Paperbark blog, Tristan.
Pleasure! Thanks for being such a great advocate for my books and a positive force in children’s literature for so many years.
Could you please briefly introduce us to your two protagonists?
Sima, a 12 year-old Afghan Hazara refugee, escapes from an immigration detention centre early one morning along with about fifty other people. The escape goes wrong. An alarm goes up. There are smoke bombs, people tackled to the ground and Sima is separated from her parents. They told her to run no matter what, so Sima escapes over the motorway, into the bush and hides in a school which goes into lockdown. During the lockdown Dan, a boy who lives in a local caravan park, finds her hiding in the toilet block and must decide whether to dob her in and have her sent back into detention or to help her get away. And Sima must decide whether or not to trust him.
What are they both desperately seeking?
They are each seeking escape in some way, escape from their situation, their lives and problems.
You have very effectively paralleled some situations/circumstances. Could you briefly outline one of these?
Sima’s problems are of a much greater magnitude than Dan’s. Her life is at stake, which puts his problems into perspective. He is privileged relative to Sima in that he was born in Australia, free from persecution, torture and war. But he is quite severely underprivileged in terms of education, living situation and parental support. They have both lost their parents in different ways. They are both alone. They both need their lives to change and they become a catalyst for one another.
What is the importance of the dog to the story?
Dan is on his way to school and finds a badly injured dog by the roadside. He lost his dog the year before. It had been put down for biting a child. I had not long before writing the book lost my own dog, so maybe that’s where it came from. Like Dan, the dog is alone, feeling hurt, a bit scared and likely to lash out if provoked. He immediately wants to help the dog but that complicates his life enormously. Dan’s teacher, Miss Aston, perhaps carries the same risk in reaching out to Dan. He’s in a low-literacy class and likes her a lot but can’t be seen to be accepting her kindness in front of the other students. So Rosco, the dog, gives him company, takes his focus off himself and also parallels his own life in some ways, while providing a connection between Dan and Mum, a fellow dog-lover.
You have posed a number of moral dilemmas in Detention. Could you outline one for us here please?
If you were twelve years old and you found a child who had escaped from an immigration detention centre hiding in your school during a lockdown, would you dob them in and have them sent back into detention? Or, if you could, help them get away? This dilemma is echoed in Mum’s dealings with the situation, too. She’s not the most open-minded person in the world and this girl is very different and has broken the law. So her response is very straightforward, but is ‘legal’ and ‘right’ always the same thing? This idea is the core dilemma in the book, but I try to explore it with a light touch, not moralising or being didactic.
Your writing is gripping. How have you packed so much, yet so economically, into the narrative?
That’s very kind of you to say. I like tight, lean writing. I like Hemingway and, for kids, I like Gary Paulsen. I like unadorned writing and, over many years, I’ve become more economical. I made a short film years ago and documentary filmmaker John Weiley saw it and said, ‘Less is more’. I think I had put a bit too much sauce on the emotions, tugging at the heartstrings a little too hard, overstating things. Now, I do that in early drafts but in drafts four, five, six, seven, I pare back ruthlessly, trusting the reader more, allowing them to put two and two together for themselves. Readers love it when you trust their intelligence without confusing them. It’s a fine line and it just takes longer to write economically than it does to write wordily. (Those adverbs are bothering me but let’s fix them on the next draft of the interview.)
How have you incorporated Sima’s past and Afghan culture into the story?
Hopefully with authenticity and with restraint. There are references to food and stories and songs that she loves from ‘home’ (although she’s not sure where home is, exactly, anymore). I, particularly, want to try ‘falooda’ – shaved ice topped with rosewater syrup, vermicelli noodles and qaymaq, which is cream, and chopped pistachio nuts. I discovered details like this through conversations with people like Hassan Rezayee, Jasmina Bajraktarevic and Shukufa who are refugees and former refugees working for organisations STARTTS and the Refugee Council of Australia.
I researched a thousand times more information than is in the book. I tried not to information-dump. But in the author’s note at the end you can learn a little more of Sima’s journey before the book begins. The main thing in the book was the human story.
I am amazed at how much humour you have included in a story about such a serious subject. Is there a humorous part that you particularly like?
I had fun with the banter in the classroom during the lockdown. It’s a low-literacy class called ‘Reading Superstars’ with only five students and their teacher. During the lockdown, hiding under their desks, I like this exchange:
‘Why do they think we’ll be safe under our desks, Miss?’ Thomas asks.
Miss Aston doesn’t respond.
‘Isn’t that a bit like when you go to the beach and put your wallet in your
shoe and think no one will steal it?’ Josh suggests.
I also managed to squeeze in my favourite corny joke:
‘What do you get if you burn down Woolworths?’ Rubi asks.
They all try to think of a punchline. ‘Dunno.’
‘Coals,’ Rubi says.
What do you hope your readers understand from reading Detention?
Some readers will already understand that life can be difficult, that the playing field is not even and I hope that some of those readers will relate to Dan’s situation and think it feels honest and real. Some readers will be fortunate enough not to know too much hardship and maybe they’ll gain insight into Dan’s life and hopefully feel deeply for him. I hope that all Australian non-refugee readers will gain greater understanding and empathy for kids like Sima who can’t return to their homeland but also haven’t yet found another country willing to take them. And I hope, for refugee readers, that they will feel Sima has been rendered honestly and that they might relate to some aspects of her experience and, I hope, feel that it’s a positive thing to see these ideas and challenges explored in books. For all readers, let’s hope they’ll be carried along by the story, turning pages and totally immersed.
How important is it to have a hopeful ending?
I think it’s important to have an ending that fits the story. If you plan to make it a hopeful ending no matter what, it might feel forced. And if you’ve decided you’re going to inflict a ‘down’ ending on the story, it might have the same effect. I only ever find the last note of the story, whether it’s hopeful or not, at the very end of the process. It has to grow out of everything that’s come before. I think life tends to have both hope and challenge, so my intention is that the ending feels, most of all, true and satisfying while not too neatly packaged.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
I really enjoyed Mark Smith’s Land of Fences and, like everyone in the universe, Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe . I’m reading Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, Megan Daley’s Raising Readers and a book on Martin Scorsese by Roger Ebert at the moment. I’m an eclectic reader and like to have a few on the go – kids’ and teen fiction, adult fiction, non-fiction, screenplays. I’m looking forward to reading Lenny’s Book of Everything (bit late to the party), some Meg Rosoff and Bridge of Clay.
Thank you for answering these questions, Tristan, and all the very best with your important, powerful novel.
Thanks Joy. 😉
Teacher Notes on Detention https://www.penguin.com.au/content/resources/TR_Detention.pdf
Tristan Bancks’ website is https://www.tristanbancks.com/