I'm absolutely thrilled to interview the creative team behind No Country, illustrator Patrice Aggs and author Joe Brady, as part of their current blog tour. No Country, which tells the story of a young family torn apart by civil war, was originally published in The Phoenix comic before being released as a graphic novel by David Fickling Books. It's only been in my classroom for a couple of weeks, but has already been read and loved by several children, and is clearly going to become one of those special books that's rarely, if ever, on the shelves.
Can you briefly sum up the story you tell in No Country for those people who haven't yet read it?
PATRICE: No Country looks at a conventional, mainstream family in the messy aftermath of a civil war. When we meet them we reckon they've learned how to cope with what's changed, but as their lives gradually become more uncomfortable and threatening we're not so sure. All of them wind up having to make choices and sacrifices without knowing if their decisions are right.
One of the main themes of the narrative is the increasing lack of control the characters have over their situation and how hard they must fight to regain it. What do you think young readers will take away from this aspect of your work?
PATRICE: Young readers will pick up on how many aspects of daily life in an ordinary town we all take for granted! Hopefully they'll also see how easily and quickly that secure background can be snatched away. It might make the reader think about what's really important and what doesn't matter. And to treasure the things that do matter. Even for thoughtful readers, the idea of 'refugees' automatically assumes a group of people we label as 'other'. Us and Them! But what if the tables were turned, and 'them' became 'us'?
Although the book is fiction, it's clearly been inspired by actual events. Was there a real world 'trigger' for creating the book, and did the storyline go in the direction that you first expected?
JOE: For me it was the Syrian refugee crisis and the nativism that followed. People in the UK seem to want to bend over backwards to believe we’re immune from the negative effects of fascism, war and our broken relationship to the planet. If we are going to get through this, we need to actively develop a compassion across borders that doesn’t require any justification. I hope No Country might be a small instrument of building some of that.
The story line both did and did not go in the direction I expected. I always knew Bea and her family were going to be forced to leave their home, but I naively expected it would happen in a less violent way. The reality seems to be that, to borrow a much-quoted opening from Home by Warsan Shire, 'no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark'. Even after creating a hard life for them and a relatively easy way out, I was surprised by what it took to dislodge the characters from their home.
There are some wonderful 'pauses' in the action, such as when Bea rescues the snail, which help stop the book from becoming too dark. They show that kindness and empathy can still exist, even in the most challenging situations. How integral was empathy to your thinking while you were creating the story?
JOE: Empathy is everything for No Country. It’s at the centre of this story and behind the entire project.
Within the story, Bea’s challenge as a character is that she has a big heart in a world that rewards thick skin. This is something so many of us experience even when our societies aren’t falling apart. How do you continue to give empathy to people and creatures who have nothing to give you back? The snail moment was intended to be a ludicrous act of compassion, that readers might both appreciate and roll their eyes at. In future books, I’m hoping to test this element of Bea’s character.
Another place where empathy is at the core of the story is looking at the family. Bea and her family are a strong unit. That is to say, they look at one another and see each person with a value that goes beyond accomplishments or personality or aptitude. In other words, they love each other. This love forms a bond which is the strongest unit in the story – even when they are apart, they still define each other by this bond. Every person in the world deserves to be seen like this, and seeing others like this takes awareness, practice and work. I firmly believe that a life spent learning to truly see even only one other person fully is a life well-lived. Extending that amazing courtesy of love and empathy to people fleeing violence and oppression, is one of the foundations of creating a truly just society. It’s hard work, but essential.
Behind the project, I never intended to stand in place of the stories of real-world refugees. In fact, the opposite is true. I’ve always thought of No Country as a potential bridge between our own experience and that of a refugee. To that end, my hope is that it will help young readers will look at stories in the news and see that these are people just like them. The circumstances of the lives of a kid from England and a kid from Syria who was forced to flee violence are vastly different, but the inherent value of those kids is precisely equal. I hope after finishing No Country, readers consider the people coming here in a different way.
Mum only ever appears on an iPad screen, but is a regular presence throughout the book and helps give the family a sense of hope. Is there a message about hope that you'd like to send children?
JOE: My message would be that hope is self-fulfilling. To hope is not only to see a brighter future, but to understand that we must work for that future. One of the central messages of the book is that we can’t take what we have for granted – no matter how stable our society seems at the moment, that we have to work at extending compassion, justice, fellowship to everyone. Every right we have as humans is tied to a responsibility; we also have to ensure others have access that right. Hope is to believe rather than to know, which is to say there is an element of doubt and uncertainty. That doubt is OK; it’s more than OK, it’s good! The little bit of doubt reminds us that we have to nurture our hopes, and in doing this work we see that a better reality is not only possible, but it’s within our power. To hope isn’t just to expect a better outcome, it’s the path to empowering yourself to bring it about. Hope, truly enacted, is more than a feeling or a daydream. It’s a verb, and it asks us for action.
This isn’t an easy thing that I’m saying, and I’m far from a perfect example of it. But if we work together, the effort it will take to push our hopes over the mark is small. In the scene when Dad is talking to Bea under the stars, he talks about hope and how he’s close to giving up. But then he looks at the next generation and he believes that we’ll get to where we need to go. Like Dad in the story, I’m inspired every day by kids – in their idealism and how they put that hope into action.
Patrice and Joe, thank you so much for your time! I'm already looking forward to reading the next part of the story, as are several members of my class.