Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.
Ingrid Laguna is a writer, teacher and musician. She lives in Melbourne and teaches English to children and adults from all over the world, many of whom have refugee backgrounds. Songbird is her second book.
Songbird – Synopsis
Jamila has left her friends, her school and her home in Iraq, and now she has a new home. It’s safe in Australia, but Jamila is finding it hard to settle in. She misses her best friend and worries for her dad’s safety back in Iraq. It’s hard to speak and write in English all day. And Jamila has a secret she wants to keep hidden. When she joins the choir, Jamila begins to feel happy. Singing helps take her worries away. And singing will help her find her place in her new life, a place where she can shine. Songbird is a tender story about belonging, about the importance of friendship and asking for help, and about the parts of our lives we keep concealed.
Songbird is about the resilience of a young girl, Jamila, who flees Iraq with her family and settles in Australia. What compelled you to tell this story?
I have spent over five years working with school-aged new arrivals, many from Iraq and Syria, with refugee backgrounds. I have had the privilege of building relationships with these kids. My students have shown me how resilient young people are capable of being. How much they can endure and still have the courage to keep going. To live each day with great distance from their people, their culture, their language, knowing that in their beloved home countries their loved ones may still be in danger.
My students, despite unimaginable challenges, have been warm and hopeful and full of fight – to learn our language, to move forward, so they can do well in school, have a future, help their families, get through the day.
Through Songbird, perhaps young readers can gain some insight into what it might be like to be forced to flee your country for fear of your life, to be cut off from your best friend in the world or separated from a parent. To make your way in a world of people who don’t speak your language.
In the book, the protagonist Jamila finds a love of singing, which becomes her refuge and strength. Why did you choose singing as the creative outlet for your character?
I chose singing because I have a music background – singing, song writing, playing percussion and guitar. I have firsthand experience of the power of singing and song writing to remind you of who you are; the way it can bring you back into yourself when you are anxious or distracted. I have found music has calmed and centred me, and filled me up, in the same way that writing does for me now.
Jamila, the protagonist in Songbird, was one of the brightest kids in her class in Baghdad, confident handing in homework, and putting up her hand to answer questions. Now that she is at school in an outer suburb of Melbourne, and English is ‘not her real language’, Jamila may not be able to give a good speaking presentation or write clever sentences, but she can sing better than anyone else in the school. Singing gives Jamila a chance to shine in a place where she feels otherwise invisible.
How did your own background as a musician inform the way you told this story?
My love of music, and my experience as a musician, enabled me to create a character with the same passion. I could confidently write musicality, and its power, into Jamila, the eleven-year-old protagonist. I could use singing and song writing as a powerful vehicle for Jamila as it has been so many times for me.
You teach English to children from all over the world, many of whom have refugee backgrounds, and you dedicated the book to your students. Does Jamila have the traits of some of your students?
Jamila embodies many of my students’ qualities and lives with some of their experiences. She is resilient and courageous, despite the fact that she has been forced to flee her beloved home country, Iraq. She finds it in herself to be strong in a new school, speaking a new language, after being separated from her life-long best friend Mina, the girl who nicknamed her Songbird, or Mutraba. Her Mama, Safir, is fretful over her missing husband and has less English than Jamila. Jamila witnesses her mother’s depression and shares her anxiety about her missing baba, Kasim. She must be strong and keep going in the face of this. Safir calls Jamila home from school repeatedly to go with her to appointments or to help with simple things like shopping. I have seen my students facing similar situations time and again.
The story is also a powerful story of friendship between Jamila and Eva, and between Jamila and Mina. How did you see the role of friendship in the story?
For Jamila, as for most kids at around her age, friendship means acceptance.
Friends also reflect back to you who you are, helping with your sense of identity. For Jamila, Mina has always been the friend with whom she could be her complete and uncensored self. She could share secrets with Mina and ask questions she may never say aloud to anyone else. She can write and sing songs and share them with Mina fearlessly.
When Jamila becomes friends with Eva at her new school in Melbourne, she no longer has to hide between buildings or in the library or at her desk at lunch times, feeling painfully self-conscious. Eva listens all the way to the end of a story. She doesn’t interrupt or look away when Jamila talks about the nightmares that rush into her sleep on her worst nights. She doesn’t laugh when Jamila says ‘drinked’ instead of ‘drank.’ And Eva helps Jamila to fix her sentences in class, saving her from embarrassment. Eva tells Jamila the meaning of new words and together they share food at lunch times.
Another key aspect of the book is the significance of family, and it delves into how family can present challenges amidst unconditional love. What was it like to write these complexities into your characters’ families?
From what I have observed in my Iraqi students, (as well is with students from a range of ethnicities), they have been brought up with a strong emphasis, culturally, on the importance of family. This is a vehicle for conflict in the novel because Jamila’s mama frequently needs her help, calling her home from school, and requiring her to translate at appointments or to help with the care of Jamila’s baby brother. This is problematic for Jamila because she wants to do well in school, and she wants to improve her English. She is also ashamed to be called home to help her mother with simple tasks, making it harder for her to fit in and make friends.
Jamila feels both compassion and resentment towards her mother. The conflict is brought to a head when Jamila must make a difficult decision in order to perform in the school concert – should she do as Mama asks and miss her chance to shine in the concert? Should she defy Mama? What is right and what is wrong?
Jamila is very strong for a young girl, as she stands up to her classmates who find her hijab ‘weird’, however she also acknowledges her vulnerabilities. Can you talk a bit about Jamila’s strengths and vulnerabilities?
Jamila is innately courageous on a number of levels – just surviving, staying hopeful and continuing to try, in a completely new and foreign environment, reflects a degree of strength and resilience. But Jamila also finds a way to help her struggling mother. She is resourceful enough to take up support from the Refugee Support Centre despite her mother’s resistance. She manages to convince Mama that their small family does, indeed, need help, even though the act of asking for help itself is challenging.
Jamila has a strong sense of right and wrong. This leads her to request a meeting with the school principal in order to explain her reason for forging her mother’s signature. She knows she had done the wrong thing but for the right reasons. It is important for her to be understood.
Jamila is vulnerable in that she wants to belong and fit in and make friends. She does care what other kids think of her, even though she wishes she didn’t care quite so much. She does feel ashamed of her mama even though part of her knows this is wrong. Jamila struggles with being in the lowest group for reading when in Baghdad, she used to be one of the strongest.
Songbird is a refreshing and important story of diversity in contemporary Australia. How do you see the role of diversity in children’s literature?
Through engaging stories that are told from diverse perspectives, young readers are enabled to empathise with the experience of others. Their worlds become bigger. They may be less quick to judge. They have a broader understanding and develop a truer sense that we are all different, but also the ways in which we are the same. We all need kindness, acceptance, and to be heard.
Through literature, if children can be introduced to the lived experiences of others, and internalise some empathy and understanding of these, they may be less likely to judge and more likely to be kind and compassionate.
You can purchase Songbird from Text Publishing.
Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.
This interview was originally published on 19 June 2019.