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Escaping the battle fields of Syria

Escaping the battle fields of Syria

Aya has escaped the war in Syria but now has another battle - to stay in the UK. What she wants most of all, though, is to be able to dance. We asked author CATHERINE BRUTON to tell us more about NO BALLET SHOES IN SYRIA.
Aya has escaped the war with her family and is now seeking asylum with her mother and young brother in the north of England.

Aya loves to dance and is invited to join a dance class and then to apply for a dance scholarship. As the family's story progresses, we are gradually made aware of the hardships and dangers they have suffered, and the reason why Aya's father isn't with them.

Here, CATHERINE BRUTON tells us more about why she wanted to write the novel:

Q: How did you come to be an author, and do you do other work?

A: I think I always loved telling stories, and I was lucky enough to have really inspirational teachers at both primary and secondary school who gave lots of scope for creativity.

I became a prolific diary writer in my teens and then at some point I started using the diary to write creative pieces. I started writing my first novel (thankfully unpublished - it was dreadful!) when I was working in the middle of nowhere in Africa.

Once I'd started writing fiction, I couldn't stop! Nowadays, I work part-time as an English teacher at King Edward's School in Bath and the opportunity to work with amazing and inspiring young people and colleagues, and to spend my life discussing great texts, all feeds into my writing.

Q: Can you tell us what inspired this book about a young Syrian asylum seeker, Aya, in Manchester?

A: I actually found this book incredibly challenging, and I think it was partly because for a long time I was struggling with one of the biggest questions a writer has to face: was this really my story to tell?

The answer is not straightforward: really No Ballet Shoes in Syria is the story of the 11.5 million refugee children around the globe today who are looking for somewhere to belong, and I really hope that one day we will hear the stories of child migrants told by those children themselves.

But right now - as one father from Aleppo said to me - those children have no voice. And I suppose that's what I wanted to give them. I wanted to write a story which would give children like Aya a voice.

Once I had made that decision, I knew I had to do it with integrity and authenticity and that meant being really rigorous about research. It was a difficult story to tell at times but ultimately I loved writing it.

Q: How did you research both the experiences some asylum seekers face in their journey, and what happens in their country of arrival?

A: I contacted local refugee resettlement projects who helped me with research, and I spoke to members of the Syrian community who had come to Britain, as well as reading many many first hand accounts and transcripts of interviews with young people like Aya.

My first teaching experiences were with refugees from Angola and Rwanda, and I have also worked with young people fleeing the former Yugoslavia and the Congo. I think that all those things fed into the story I tried to write.

Q: Aya and her family face many challenges during their dangerous journey to the UK - why did you decide to include details of her journey from Syria and the many dangers they faced as flashbacks?

A: Processing the traumas of the past, reconciling them with the present and looking the future is one of the hardest things for young people like Aya, and interestingly this posed a real challenge for me when I started writing the novel.

I couldn't seem to capture Aya's voice - sometimes she was there, clear as a bell; at other times she seemed to slip out of my grasp. And I think that's because she is changed by the experiences she has undergone.

So I decided to tell the story of Aya's life before and after the war in Aleppo - escaping in a container, in refugee camps, crossing the Med in a storm, the last time she saw her father - in a series of flashbacks interspersed within the narrative of her life as an asylum seeker and a young dancer in the UK.

At first the two voices are quite distinct - but as dance becomes a medium for Aya to work through complex memories of the past, to start letting go of guilt and allowing herself to look to the future - the two voices come together. By the end of the novel they are almost indistinguishable. Not quite, but almost.

Q: Is this why you wrote the story from Aya's perspective?

A: It felt important to try and give voice to her experience, and I wanted her to be the main protagonist in order to lend her agency as a character, to ensure that she was the heroine of the story, not somebody to be pitied or rescued by 'white saviour figures'. Although it was a really difficult decision because I haven't been through what Aya goes through, that felt important. I hope I got it right!

Q: How difficult was it to write Aya's story, without making it bleak, given what she has experienced?

A: There is a lot of hope in the story in 'the kindness of strangers' which the book also celebrates. Some people are hostile or unhelpful to Aya and her family, but so many others aid them and support them, showing acts of kindness, large and small.

Aya is also a remarkably resilient, brave and loving girl who looks after her mum and brother, supports her friends and never gives up on her own dream. I hope, therefore, that the novel stands as a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and of people's capacity for kindness.

Q: Why did you decide to make Aya a ballet dancer? Have you studied ballet or did you need to research this?

A: I simply adored ballet as a young girl! I wasn't a very good dancer, but when I read books like 'Ballet Shoes' and Lorna Hill's 'Sadlers Wells' series I could imagine that I was transported to the stage of Covent Garden or a prestigious ballet school.

Those stories of following your dream, of the transformative power of art, are part of my DNA! But I also wanted Aya to be defined by something other than being a refugee - to give her a dream to aspire to, a means of both escaping trauma but also processing what she's been through. I hope this book might be to young readers what Noel Streatfield and Lorna Hill were to me, but I also hope the book will get them thinking too!

Q: You also have some wonderful supporting characters in the story, do you have a favourite?

A: Yes, Dotty is my favourite! Aya meets Dotty at Miss Helena's ballet school. The daughter of a famous Prima Ballerina, and reluctant dancer herself, Dotty is scatty and funny and forgetful with a giant heart and a motor-mouth! I love her!

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from this story?

A: I hope it encourages young readers to look beyond labels like 'refugee' and 'asylum seeker' and see the child behind - a person with hopes and dreams just like they have. I also hope that if a child like Aya were to read it, they would see it as an empowering depiction, to see a story in which they were presented not just as a victim but as a heroine.

Q: When and where are your favourite places and times to write? What are you writing now?

A: Because I juggle teaching, family and writing I have become good at writing pretty much any time, anywhere! I am currently working on a 'spin-off' of Dickens, about Oliver Twist's twin sister. It's called 'Another Twist in the Tale' and I am having great fun writing it!

Q: Are there other areas in today's world that you would also like to develop into a story?

A: That is such a good question and one which I am currently pondering! Watch this space!

Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?

A: Ooh, I think writing is my escape from everything else! I never want to escape writing!

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