Books

Jane Mitchell on exploring Direct Provision in new young adult novel Run For Your Life

Award-winning author Jane Mitchell's new young adult novel Run For Your Life centres on the experience of a teenage refugee living in Ireland's heavily criticised Direct Provision system. We asked the Dublin-based writer more about the book...

Author Jane Mitchell

WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?

RUN for Your Life is about a 14-year-old Asian girl called Azari who arrives in Ireland with her mother, seeking safety and refuge from violence in her home country. Azari is sporty and energetic and full of fun, but hardships in her life have knocked a lot of her spirit out of her. She's feeling lost and desperately sad, but she's also resilient and forward-looking.

After a rocky start, Azari forges ahead with her new life in Ireland, in spite of the hardships she faces and her mother's mental health difficulties. She makes friends both in the Direct Provision centre where she must live and in the local community. She embraces new opportunities that come her way and finds way to make her life sunnier.

The brightest light shining in Azari's new life is the opportunity to return to her beloved running – something she was forced to give up back home.

WHY CHOOSE A TEENAGER AS YOUR PROTAGONIST?

Because teenage years are so interesting. It's a challenging time, full of change and uncertainty: dealing with changing feelings and emotions, becoming more aware of yourself and others, getting used to changes in your body.

It's a struggle for many of us, but it's also a time of great anticipation and excitement. The world is opening up to us as we reach the brink of adulthood and lean towards independence and freedom.

On top of the usual ordeals of being a teenager, Azari has to deal with the shock of arriving with her traumatised mother in a strange country where everything is different from home: Azari feels cold all the time. She can hardly speak English. The food tastes bland and greasy compared with the spicy dishes she's grown up with. But she is also spreading her wings.

She soaks up everything around her. Finds out about herself and her emotions. She explores the new world she finds herself in: a world of possibilities, of new experiences and hope.

WHY WRITE ABOUT DIRECT PROVISION?

Azari's story is loosely based on the interrupted lives of thousands of people in Direct Provision in Ireland, many of whom are traumatised by war, displacement, and persecution.

When she arrives in Ireland, Azari is denied the freedom most of us enjoy. She can't take part in after-school activities, can't prepare her own food, can't even choose when or what she wants to eat. She lives in poverty and faces intimidation and threats when she speaks out.

While she is welcomed by many people, Azari and other asylum-seekers are treated with savage hostility by a group of locals.

The Direct Provision system is no way for anyone to live, least of all refugees. In 2021, more than 7,000 people are living in Direct Provision centres across Ireland, of whom over 2,000 are children.

I want to engage with young people in Direct Provision who have an interest in reading and writing. To this end, I am volunteering with the Fighting Words Charity to run workshops for young asylum seekers to coincide with the publication of the book.

WHY DOES THE STORY ALSO TOUCH UPON DOMESTIC ABUSE?

Perhaps from having been a teacher and working with people with disabilities, I've always been interested in human rights, and particularly children's rights.

It's often tempting to shield children from the harsher realities of life, such as racism, domestic violence, and unlawful killing. But young people have a remarkable capacity to empathise when something is presented to them in a way they can understand. Fiction can be a wonderful medium to explore sensitive topics safely. An honest storyline that doesn't shy away from the truth enables young readers to explore multiple perspectives and gain insight into complex issues.

Young readers need to and are entitled to understand the terrible situations that cause people to flee their home countries in fear of their lives, and to learn about the bleak wretchedness of Direct Provision centres where the Irish government house traumatised and distressed asylum-seekers.

WHY CHOOSE RUNNING AS A THEME?

I've been a leisure runner for years, taking part in the Dublin city marathon twice and participating in running events all around Ireland. Running is something that invigorates me. It clears my mind, and I enjoy working my body and pushing it to its limits.

Running seemed to be an ideal passion for Azari: something that symbolises her fight for freedom and equality. In so many parts of the world, the stigma around women's bodies and their freedom to be independent without threat of violence or public shaming has an enormously negative impact on their lives.

What is appropriate or inappropriate for a young woman to do – be it sport, education, career choice, relationships or personal freedom – is determined by patriarchal customs, traditional beliefs and the systemic disempowerment of women.

:: Run For Your Life is available now, published by Little Island Books.

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