Fabio Geda and Afghan refugee Enaiatollah Akbari answer questions about their literary collaboration and discuss the powerful process of creating In the Sea There are Crocodiles
Questions for Fabio Geda:
What made you decide to write Enaiatollah's story?
I met Enaiat during a presentation of my first novel, four years ago. In that novel I told the story of a Romanian boy who travels across Europe in search of his grandpa who works as an actor in the street. The association that invited me to present the book had also invited a boy who really did travel alone for a long time. In this way the real story of the boy could play as a sort of countermelody to the fictional story I had written. That boy was Enaiat.
That evening, while I was listening to him telling his story - a story so dramatic, so painful - I discovered that he was able to tell it with an incredible lightness, a surprising irony. So I thought it would be nice to put the same lightness, the same irony, in the pages of a book.
What was it like working with Enaiatollah? Please, describe your process in recording his memories and preserving his perspective. Were there any particular challenges?
Working with Enaiat was a great experience. My first goal was to help him to remember as many details as possible of his travel. For this reason we spent a lot of time surfing the net, looking for photos, videos and maps of that part of the world. Then, after a couple of months of research and after he had told me a lot of anecdotes and events, I asked him to start retelling - from the beginning - one more time and I started writing.
So we have told everything Enaiat remembered about his trip. We have told everything his young memory, his young eyes, his young heart have recorded. And I - turning myself into ears, first, and becoming a voice, later on - have tried to pollute as little as possible his version of the events with my point of view, with my preconceptions. Enaiat has ever been willing and conscious, and I - entrusted only to his memory and to his childlike view - settled inside him during the writing process.
What do you think is the most interesting thing about Enaiatollah's journey?
In my opinion, the most interesting thing is the happy end. Thousands of children every year are forced to travel alone across the world to save themselves from wars and famine and other terrible issues. Many of them die, or still live in difficult conditions. Enaiat had the good luck and the strength to meet the right people, who helped him to hope for a different future. Furthermore, what strikes me most in Enaiat's journey is the absence (or presence) of adults in his life. An African proverb says: It takes a whole village to raise a child. I wonder: where is our village?
Enaiatollah's experiences are so different from that of the average readers. I constantly have to remind myself that he overcame all this at such a young age. Did you ever have trouble understanding his motivations and resilience? How do you think you would have fared in these circumstances?
In the book we say that the need to emigrate rises from the need to breath. I guess it's very difficult for us to understand the desperation that drives this journey, and how much strength rises from that desperation. But, in my opinion, a lot of us in the same conditions would take the same decision, and would find a similar strength. What is certain, though, is that is very important that the readers will learn the existence of these young refugees and I hope this awareness will make them better men and women.
Why do you think Enaiatollah was able to overcome so many hardships, especially compared to the many others in similar situations who were not as successful?
I guess Enaiat was a good strategist, able to read the situation and choose the best solution, also in the worst moments. But he was lucky, too. The fate, often, has a great role in those lives.
What are you working on now?
I'm very interested in two ages of life: childhood and old age. So far I have dealt only with childhood. The next book will deal with old age, too.
Questions for Enaiatollah:
Why did you want Fabio to tell your story?
Attending Italian schools I have discovered that many of my peers weren't aware of the existence of stories like mine. Their everyday life was made of school, family, friends, soccer, new trousers, new shoes, homework - not escapes, stone working, border patrol and shots with rifle's butt. For this reason I thought it was important sharing my life, also because it's not only my life. In this moment, while I'm writing, there are thousands of children struggle in similar conditions.
What was the most difficult thing about working on this book? How long did it take?
It was difficult to rebuild the chronology of events. I was a kid and timing was a mystery to me.
Have you continued to live by your mother's "commandments"? What effect did they have on you during your journey?
Yes, of course, her last words have always been impressed in my mind, like a tattoo, and during the journey helped me to stay away from dangerous places and not make friends with people I suspected were not upright.
At one point, you gravely injured yourself on a work-site. Do you have any lasting damage from that?
Have you been able to reconnect with your family since that very moving phone call at the end of the book? If so, how is your family doing?
My family lives in Pakistan, where they are displaced in search of protection. They can't find work and they are discriminated against because of their ethnicity. It's therefore necessary for me to support them from a distance.
Have you been able to adjust to life in Italy?
It was a little bit difficult in the beginning, especially in school where I was with a lot of Italian boys and girls who were used to a life very different from my own. I have been taking care of myself since I was ten years old, it was even a little jarring to turn in a permission slip signed by an adult. But now, after six years, I feel Italian.
Besides your family, what do you miss most about your home?
Colors and fragrances I used to smell in the streets of the little villages far from the big cities, festivities and weddings, all the people together for many days, and the silence. The ordinary life, scheduled by the seasons.
Do you feel your mother made the right decision?
Yes, she has given to me a second life.
What was the lowest point of your journey? Was there anything that you miss from the journey?
Every single day of my life was hard. But the most dangerous thing was overcoming the borders. I remember as a nightmare the twenty-seven days walking across the mountains between Iran and Turkey, the three days travelling under the truck, and the night on the sea towards the Greek island.
Are you in touch with many young Afghan boys who have made it to Italy? Are there similarities in their experiences? Are there still many Afghans making it all the way to Italy?
I'm in touch with a lot of Afghan boys who live in Turin, the city where I also live. We meet on Saturday afternoons to play soccer and spend our time together. There are some particular occasions in which we meet the Afghan boys of Rome or of other cities: our new year's day, for example. Our stories are very similar. And even today many leave our country because living conditions are always dangerous and unsafe.
Unfortunately some disappear, and nobody knows anything about them. Others get stuck in Greece, waiting to be able to hide behind a truck to continue their journey. Since it is very difficult to overcome the crack down on refugees, these boys are often forced to live in terrible conditions, hunted down and beaten by Greek police.
Have you reconnected with or do you know the whereabouts of any of the people you came into contact with during your journey?
Yes, a boy. Now he lives in Norway. I got in touch with him by Facebook.
Is there anything you forgot to include in the book that you would like your readers to know?
Nothing about my personal story. But there are many other things I would like my readers to know about immigration, about life and hopes of immigrants. About their dreams. I'd like to tell the readers: don't stop reading and learning about that.
What are you doing now? What are your goals for the future?
I'm studying in high school, and I'd like to attend university, next year. And I dream to have the chance to come back to Afghanistan, one day, to a democratic and peaceful country.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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