Author Jan Michael writes about her inspirations for writing The Rock Boy in 2001, the story of a Albanian refugee boy finding shelter in Malta:
I have visited the Mediterranean island of Malta ever since my parents moved there some forty years ago. I love the island’s quirkiness, its rich history and buildings, its country walks, and I love swimming from rocks into the sea. The language is Semitic, so even though the island is Catholic, God is ‘Alla’ (pronounced ‘Allah’). That’s because Malta was first inhabited by Phoenicians, who came from present-day Syria, and later governed by the Arabs. Now Syrians are one of the largest groups of people who come to Malta after fleeing their country because of war. Many other refugees come from Albania. They have been escaping since the 1990s, and even today, Albanian children are still being trafficked into Western Europe.
When I wrote The Rock Boy, many Albanians were fleeing their country, coming across the Mediterranean, and landing in southern Italy and Malta. In the book, I write about one boy called Artan, who is discovered washed up in a rocky cove by young Jo. He is battered and bruised and barely conscious. Jo, along with her friend Andreas, shelters him, feeds him – and hides him from her family, and from the police. Eventually her family does find out, but fortunately, through sponsorship, Artan is allowed to stay.
I didn’t set out to write a book about boat refugees, but that’s how it turned out. As I started the story of Jo and her adventures, I was reading in the local paper about refugees arriving in Malta by boat. I went to see the woman who had opened the refugee centre, and what I heard from her – and what I went on to read about – became the major part of Jo’s story.
Malta is a small island and pretty crowded, but I was impressed by the Maltese kindness and generosity to the desperate people arriving on their shores from Albania, and more recently, from Syria, Libya and Eritrea. I knew, though, that not everyone feels so welcoming, and that’s why Jo shelters Artan in secret.
Around the same time, in a British newspaper, I read about two brothers who escaped from political thugs in Kashmir, India, by stowing away over the wheel casing of an aeroplane. When the plane landed at Cairo Airport, the older boy had frozen to death on top of his brother and had to be peeled off. His protection had saved the life of his younger brother. Their story burrowed its way into my mind, and that younger brother somehow merged into an Albanian boy I called Artan.
Whenever I read or hear of such stories, I think of the hospitality, always warm and generous, that I have witnessed in the many countries I have lived in and visited. I think of the kindness of strangers and hope that I, too, if called upon, would be as warm and welcoming as they.
Born in the Yorkshire Dales, Jan Michael spent an idyllic childhood there and in the Seychelles, also living in Lesotho and Pakistan. Since university, she has worked as an editor and literary agent in London, Amsterdam and Yorkshire. She has written thirteen books which have been published in several languages, including the children’s novels Hill of Darkness, The Rock Boy (also performed as children’s opera in Germany), Just Joshua (winner: Dutch Vlag en Wimpel prize), Leaving Home (winner: Dutch Silver Slate Pencil and the Jenny Smelik-IBBY Prize) and Moorside Boy.