No Words by Maryam Master
“Words have power.” (No Words by Maryam Master)
Maryam Master’s debut children’s novel Exit Through the Gift Shop (illustrated by Astred Hicks) is shortlisted for the 2022 CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers category.
No Words, her new children’s /middle-fiction novel is equally important and powerful. Not a memoir but unreservedly personal, No Words is based on Maryam’s own refugee experience.
Aria, the 12-year-old character who seems to have no words, is selectively mute. His escape from Iran and refugee tale is told in flashbacks. Infused with hope and humour, this story is accessible and understated enough for children to read empathetically without experiencing trauma themselves. It also adresses bullying and other issues with nuance.
Both novels are published by Pan Macmillan Australia.
Maryam Master reflects with honesty and beauty about No Words for ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords blog:
Ah, what words do I use to describe No Words?
This story has been sitting latent in my heart and mind for decades. Throughout my 25-year writing career, I’ve been asked one question more than any other:
‘When are you going to write about your escape from Iran?’
When I was six years old, my world changed overnight because of the Iranian Revolution and the upheavals that followed.
My memories of that time are patchy. Some vivid and still raw. Others distant and vague. If I were to break them down into vignettes, they would look something like this:
- The immediate shutting down of my school. (It was an American co-ed school so that wasn’t surprising.)
- Revolutionary guards rounding up women and girls and forcing them into the back of vans for not complying with proper hijab. A frightening thing to witness as a six year old.
- Western influence demonised. Music and literature banned. American flags burned on the streets. Freedom of religion no longer allowed. My family who are Baha’is were and continue to be persecuted by the regime.
Then came the war with Iraq. Sirens in the nights, bunkering in the basement during bombings …
I could go on, but No Words isn’t about the details of that scary time, rather about how a child (let’s call him Aria) deals with the turmoil, loss and displacement that comes from fleeing his home country and becoming a refugee in a new and foreign land.
That all sounds very heavy, but this story is also full of silliness and humour, the ridiculous and absurd, and I infused it with as much love and hope as I could, because I’m an incurable optimist and (with good reason) believe in the innate goodness of humankind.
Aria, the protagonist, never speaks at school. Not a word. It’s like someone has taken the remote control, pointed it at his mouth and pressed the ‘mute’ button. His friends Hero and Jaz are intrigued by this mystery boy.
Where did he come from?
Where is his voice?
What’s his story?
While on their mission to uncover the truth about Aria, they also discover their own gifts and talents and the life-saving power of friendship. They discover that laughter is a medicine and that words have POWER.
No Words is a story about stories. How they connect us and weave our souls together with invisible string.
I’m not sure why I put off telling the story of my escape for so long. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. Perhaps I was waiting for Aria to find me. Telling his story was cathartic in ways I hadn’t imagined. I wept for him.
The blurry line of my own reality and this fictional world I had created allowed me to freely explore the range and depth of emotions that come with living through a revolution, war and persecution.
What it means to be a kid refugee.
But also, what it means to be a kid who never loses the hope or desire to live each moment to its fullest.
It is my hope that anyone reading No Words will be uplifted. I hope they too will see that no matter what curveballs life throws at us (even a revolution!), hope and humour will see us through. Oh, and words.
Marvellous, magical, mighty WORDS!
As Hero says about her word-nerd dad in my story:
‘He loves words the way some people love dogs. Or burgers. Or roller-coasters. He eats stories. Devours poetry and flosses his teeth with prose. If he could, he’d probably marry words.’
I can totally identify with that. Words and stories have been and continue to be a lifeline for me. The story in No Words is fictionalised, it’s not a biography, but it’s the most personal I’ve ever written.
I hope it resonates with readers young and old.
A huge chunk of my heart is in it.