Friday, June 27, 2008

Children’s Books: Mahtab’s Story by Libby Gleeson

Since the Taliban’s harsh rule sent refugees fleeing Afghanistan, a new genre of fiction has arrived: the child refugee story. In North America, Deborah Ellis specializes in this genre. Several Australian writers have also been doing it, because refugees have arrived there in boats and ended up in detention centres. It’s a huge issue in Australia, where the would-be immigrants are often in these camps for months or even years before a decision is made about their status, and writers -- especially children’s writers -- make statements through fiction. Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and Girl Underground are particularly good examples.

Mahtab’s Story (Allen & Unwin) is the latest entry in this genre. Like most others of its kind, it is based on a true story, that of a girl the author met at a Sydney high school while researching the book. At least this author has the courtesy to name and thank the young woman whose story has inspired the book; some other writers don’t.

When twelve-year-old Mahtab’s family suffers under the Taliban, they leave their home in Herat. In Pakistan, after a terrifying journey, Mahtab’s father reluctantly decides that the family will be better off if he goes ahead to Australia to arrange things for them. After they have waited without contact for months, Mahtab, her mother, sister and brother decide to follow by boat, a journey that costs them all their money. When they reach Australia they are placed in a detention camp while their claims to refugee status are being investigated. They find help and friendship from the camp’s nurse, who teaches Mahtab English. But the waiting time is long -- and they always have on their minds the possibility that they will be sent back to the nightmare. And where is Dad?

This story is easy reading and well told, a good introduction for children to the refugee experience.

That said, I’d like to add that while all these stories are important, we have had others since Afghanistan. I haven’t yet come across any novels about the experience of African refugees coming to Australia. Their nightmares are just as real and they, too, have stories that need telliing. As a teacher working with African refugee teenagers, I’d like to see them told.

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