Flight, adapted from a novel by journalist-turned-novelist Caroline Brothers, has been the talk of the Edinburgh Festival, where it made its debut. It takes “a miniature approach towards an epic story" of two Afghan boys who travel to Europe on foot.
ISTANBUL, Turkey— Communicating the tragic suffering endured by hundreds of thousands of refugees who flee war and seek a better life in Europe is no easy task. Caroline Brothers, a journalist who grew up in Australia, reported extensively on the refugee crisis in Europe since the mid-2000s.
She wanted to find a deeper way to tell the stories, especially the goings-on and exchanges between the young Afghan children, who were making the difficult and often traumatic journey by themselves.
Based on her observations, she has written Hinterland, a fictional account of two Afghan boys’ travels into England. The novel was recently turned into a play, 'Flight', at Edinburgh. The Scottish Vox Motus theatre company chose to forego ‘real’ actors, using a rotating diorama visible to each theatergoer separately for a moment instead. The resulting play has been a hit with audiences, with many people waiting in vain to get into the sold-out performances.
Caroline Brothers has worked as a journalist in Europe, writing for The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Guardian and more. She spoke with TRT World about her life as a journalist, what prompted her to write the moving Hinterland, and how the book got turned into a stellar play.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
CAROLINE BROTHERS: I grew up in Australia and moved to Europe to study. Then I joined Reuters as a graduate trainee and worked in Europe and Latin America with them and in France. Then, when I left Reuters, I joined [the International Herald Tribune that later became] the International New York Times in Paris. And that’s sort of where it starts, one of the early waves of migration to the European Union, mainly from Africa at that point, and Afghanistan. I started getting interested in these little boats that were arriving in the Canary Islands. We did quite a bit of investigative work around that subject and that’s how I came across this issue of unaccompanied minors that no one was part of at that time. Very young children that were, by various means, trying to make a life for themselves in Europe to escape war and poverty and conflict. I stumbled on the story through the bigger migration story as it shifted around from Africa to the Middle East to Afghanistan to Iraq and so on; of course now, obviously, many more people from Syria. At the time it was still a big Afghan and Iraqi migration.
Your book, Hinterland, chronicles the tale of two young brothers trying to make it from Afghanistan to Europe, has been turned into an extraordinary play, 'Flight', as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Would you tell us about how it was conceived, developed, and received?
CB: I got a call from this Scottish theatre company called Vox Motus, who are extremely innovative and magical with the kind of work that they produce. I didn’t know them at that point, but they’d seen my book and were very interested in doing something with the story. They came over to Paris and visited me there. I took them to some of the places where the story had developed when I was reporting it and [that] they were very, very interested in. I was very impressed by that — that they were interested in coming to the focals of the story. Initially, they had a very different concept, where they would work with live actors and marionettes. They do a lot of very interesting mechanical and conceptual theatre.
Then the Syrian crisis happened. There were the pictures that went around the world of the little boy Alan Kurdi on the beach in Turkey with the soldier picking him up, and the big wave of Syrian migrants into, well, particularly through Central Europe into Austria and Germany. I think that [Vox Motus] felt that because of that they had to change the story or change their approach to it because the issue of refugees was on every page, on every news broadcast, and they knew that you can have a backlash and you can have resistance. I think they just felt that the world is saturated, if you like, with images of refugees.
They realised that they’d have to do something different.
[Flight ] is the complete opposite [of Vox Motus' previous play, Dragon ] in that they’ve taken a miniature approach towards a really epic story; and I think a lot of the power resides in that coming and going, when you realise that these are small kids covering so many thousands of kilometres on an epic migration journey. Yet [Vox Motus have] taken this very, very small scale, very personal, very intimate way of introducing the viewer, the audience to the story. It’s very, very powerful.
I don’t know how to describe it really. It’s like a diorama, it revolves, the audience is sitting on another side, separated by a little booth. You experience the story on your own; you’re left a little bit alone with your emotions even though all around you you’re surrounded by other people who are watching the same thing at just a couple of seconds' interval. So it’s not a completely isolated experience but your response is your own.
It can be an unsettling process to let go of your work; you’re leaving it in somebody else’s hands. But I was very reassured; I had a lot of faith in them just because I thought we were on a wavelength right from the beginning, and they would do something pretty fantastic with it. They’ve just done something so amazing; that everybody wants to see it again to try and understand how it works, it’s really beautiful.
What prompted you to write your book, 'Hinterland', turning to fiction after a career in journalism?
CB: I was still a journalist when I wrote the book but ... I felt that [the story] needed another form. I’d gotten as far as I could with journalism, my story about Afghan boys alone, wandering across Europe was a front page The New York Times story shortly after Obama came into power. I felt like what more can you do? There were editorials written about the work I’ve done in Calais. I felt like I’d gone as far as I could go with journalism. And I felt like this was a story that needed another forum or another environment to be talked about and discussed in. Because it confronts society with what our own values are, and how we treat other people’s children, it seemed very, very elemental to me as a story. Very fundamental, it touched some very fundamental human themes. The newspapers, the media, sensitise you to it but they leave you at a certain point. And I felt like this subject was too important to just [let disappear].
I also felt quite emotional about it. It’s very difficult to work, firstly, with migrants, because it’s so distressing sometimes, but also to work with child migrants. Even just as a reporter you end up with quite [a lot of] emotional baggage. Because you [end up becoming] very anguished and frustrated and upset really because of what these kids are being left to. So I thought it needed to be talked about in a very non-confrontational environment. At the time I was reporting in France in particular, but not just France. France was where I was most experiencing it. It was very polarised by migration. I think Europe probably still is. There was a lot of aggression on all sides and I didn’t want to be the object of trolling; I didn’t want to be fighting these quite ugly battles. I felt like we needed to look at this in just human terms, what was really going on.
As a journalist, you’ve written about refugee children for publications such as The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, the Guardian, and Deutsche Welle. What insights into this phenomenon did you gain during your time as a journalist?
CB: I think perhaps what I would say is we need to move beyond the sensationalism of arrivals and people crossing borders and the distress and that moment of anguish and move towards…I don’t know...a more complex understanding of it. Because it does throw a lot of things into question when you have people from other places arriving on your territory, and I think we don’t always see the causes; we don’t always understand the reasons.
There’s fear on both sides: people feel invaded, and the refugees can feel it, fleeing in fear from situations of great distress often. The debate kept centring on sensationalism of arrival and not on these deeper questions of 'how actually are we as a society going to cope, and what can we offer, and what can these people offer us and what will come out of it.' What new discoveries — because there are new discoveries — that are coming out of this all the time. People are nervous because of the wave of terrorism that we’re living through at the moment, but we don’t see these, that the kids in schools bring an amazing sense of poetry an amazing musical knowledge and that the parents bring their way of doing things that can actually be enriching to us.
Since you started covering migration for the International Herald Tribune in the mid-2000s, the wave of refugees into Europe has only continued to increase, and EU policy towards migration has hardened. The EU is now trying to effectively outsource migration control to Libyan militias, for instance. Do you expect the play to have an impact on the way the public understands these issues?
CB: There’s all sorts of things to say about that. First of all, none of it is new. Second, the only crisis was the crisis of unpreparedness. We talk about a refugee crisis; everyone who was working with migration knew; we all saw it coming. It had to come to a head in some way. Then Europe [said] “Oh, there’s a migration crisis” — in fact the numbers were manageable. If there’d been foresight — Syria was at war, it was just a matter of time before refugees would start coming in. The refugee conventions were written after WWII, and there were massive, massive population movements, massive movements of refugees; not just the Jews who needed protection but after the war, [for example] after the Spanish Civil War, a great many Republicans fled across the southern border of France seeking [refuge]. You know, none of this is new, in a way.
Europe has been trying to outsource its migration policy long before I started covering it. They have been, still are I think, doing deals with countries globally around this periphery: North Africa all the way down to Mauritania and Senegal. And we often don’t look at those, but the fishing rights given to European trawlers to trawl in West African waters, destroying the fishing industry for the local people who try and find a livelihood by migrating [and trying] first agriculture and, when that fails and only when that fails, they get on a boat and they take the risky journey to another country. We don’t see, often, the origins of all this.
You ask how Flight might change things… It’s just one play and it’s small. But it’s been seen and I think there’s been so much international interest in it that made me hope that it will travel to all sorts of different countries.
I don’t know that one play can change anything, I don’t know that one novel can change something, but I think it’s a contribution to the zeitgeist and it’s a contribution to a debate and of course singlehandedly it won’t change anything but it does move us forward I think.
I just hope that it plays its small role in sensitising people and people can see — you know there’s immense creativity in there, in that piece of theatre — and I hope that people take the spirit of that and realise that we can have creative responses to this whole matter, this whole issue.
Media across Europe, especially British tabloids, tend to demonise refugees. How difficult is it to humanise them in the face of such a powerful dominant narrative?
People already have voices, it’s just that we don’t listen to them, really. I think there are big, powerful interests at work: making money from sensational stories and that’s, whether we like it or not, that’s kind of with us. And I think…you can’t change the discourse, but you can come back with facts that are well-founded and well-based and that are presented at the right moment in the right argument. It’s a very piece-by-piece, step-by-step process and I still have faith in that, in changing minds and changing views. But when people become very entrenched in positions, maybe in extreme positions, you know, it becomes harder, it just becomes a dialogue of the deaf. I think that’s partly what I was resisting when I was writing the book.
It’s just that resisting that stereotyping that we see a lot in the media. You know, those voices will always exist, of demonising refugees, but I think it’s the other side that we need to work on.
There has to be a meeting point half way and compromise and moderation and all these things. They’re all possible. I think that some of the tabloids have a loud voice. Sort of like a foghorn. A loud reach. In fact, the bully in the playground often has a lot of bluster behind it and often there’s not a lot of thought that has gone into it.
The playwright Edward Albee once said “Fiction is fact distilled into truth.” Do you agree?
CB: That’s very interesting, very witty. I do have a view about all this. There are factual truths and there are fictional truths. And I sometimes think that in fiction, we know it’s made up but we also know that there’s very true human emotion, from true human responses underlying it. So even though the facts of someone’s day might not make a fascinating story there’s truth in it in terms of how you distill it and how you bring it out. You can bring out bigger themes. There’s a lot of debate even at the moment about truth and fakery, and fakery in news and truthfulness and versions and beliefs, and everyone’s truth being different. We’re all getting a bit lost in these definitions but I think fiction can bring us closer to elemental themes, I think.