Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Refugee Memories - by Julie G Fox


Julie G Fox gives a personal account of being a child refugee and explains how this experience motivated her to write Goodbye, Emma, set up Clever Fox Press and write books for refugee children.


I was a refugee. I left my birth city, Moscow, almost a quarter of a century ago and moved with my family to the United States, one of the few countries at the time that accepted political refugees from the former Soviet Union.
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I didn't attempt to do any writing in English for a long time after immigrating, not only because I was embarrassed by my lack of fluency, but also because writing was the last thing on my mind. Survival and integration took priority. Almost a decade of intensive language learning (as well as two university degrees) later I was brave enough to put pen to paper (or at that point fingers to keyboard).  I soon found that I was happiest when I wrote. Poetry, short stories, and even a memoir were piling up on my desk and hard drive, but I still didn’t feel like I had a clear idea of where it was all going.

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At the end of last year when our media was flooded with sad stories about the fate of Syrian refugees, I found myself going back to the memories of my family leaving Russia and becoming refugees in the West. I vividly remembered the last months and weeks before we left the country and the trials and challenges my brother and I, then teenagers, faced. One of the hardest memories was leaving our pet dog Emma behind. We, as refugees, were not allowed to take any pets with us on the journey. It was especially hard on my brother who was younger than I and had a strong attachment to our dog. The other hardship for us children was having to decide which toys, books and family pictures we could take with us, as the amount of luggage we could carry was also limited. I thought that it was a very good time to share mine and my brother’s story with other children, to help them relate to the hardships, both physical and emotional, for children fleeing war and torture.


And that is how my first children’s book came about. It was called Goodbye, Emma and told the story of a boy refugee who is forced to leave behind his pet when his family flee their country. This book was of course based on my own family's experience. I decided that by the time I found an agent (if at all), sold the book to a publisher (another question mark here), and the book finally hit the stores, the momentum would be lost, so I decided to self-publish. I also planned on donating all proceeds from sales of  Goodbye, Emma to various refugee centres around the world. This meant that a traditional publishing route was out of the question as no for-profit publisher would agree to such a deal. The book came out in January 2016 and was my first attempt at self-publishing. When I say ‘self’ I actually mean it. I had to learn every step of the process, from mastering publishing software, to writing press releases and learning the meaning of numerous abbreviations (pdf, jpg, png, epub, mobi) as well as new vocabulary (margins, bleed, trim, gutters etc).


The first hundred copies of  Goodbye, Emma were shipped to refugee camps in Greece and Iraq and to charities that work with child refugees in the UK, Canada, Germany, Ukraine and Turkey. One year later, I still ship parcels monthly. After the book came out I felt that I had too many stories locked away in my head, and that these stories had to somehow reach more children. I decided to establish my own publishing house, Clever Fox Press, and to connect with artists and toymakers in third world countries, and especially regions troubled by war and economic problems. I wanted to encourage these artists to contribute and to share their stories. I have since written and published 12 more books with 5 more projects on the way.
Being a one-woman publishing house and trying to do all the jobs myself has proved more challenging than I imagined. I am now outsourcing editing and proofreading. I am just plain horrible at drawing so this is something I have never attempted to do. I have a wonderful team of freelance artists that I am working with (hooray to fiverr.com) who stepped up to the challenge of educating me about the art of illustrating for children’s books. A few of my characters are now hand-made toys thanks to etsy.com which connected me to the world of craftsmen from distant lands. Talented toymakers from Ukraine, Latvia, Hungary and Russia produced hand sewn versions of the characters I have created. My daughter recently suggested that the reason I am so happy with my new found passion, my publishing house, is that I have finally figured out how to rebuild and recreate the lost collection of books and toys I was forced to abandon in my childhood home 25 years ago. She might be right.


@cleverfoxpress
Julie G Fox is the founder of charitable publishing house Clever Fox Press, and is the author of Goodbye, Emma. Julie writes books aimed at child refugees and collaborates with illustrators and toymakers from around the world, mostly from countries facing economic or humanitarian crisis. Clever Fox Press have produced numerous books and are currently working on various new projects, including a collection of international folklore and a series of books on history and sport.

Louisa Glancy is the Wednesday Features Editor for Words & Pictures. Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org

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