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19 March 2006 ·

Across the Dark Sea

A reader has just asked me about the three books that are coming out this year, so it seems like a good time to talk about the first one. Across the Dark Sea, published by the National Museum of Australia, will be released in May (only in Australia at this stage.)

This book is part of the Museum’s new Voyages series, which they created by asking different authors to write a story using an item in the Museum’s collection. The item they chose for me was the Hong Hai – a 20 metre Vietnamese fishing boat which arrived in Darwin in 1978 with 38 people on board. Their journey, and that of thousands of others like them, was almost too horrendous to believe, as they fled from their homeland without really knowing where they would end up, usually without enough fuel, food or water to last the distance, often sent back to sea even before they could land and find refuge, and sometimes attacked by pirates. If and when they did arrive, they had to face settling in to a very different new country, and wondering whether they would ever see their family again – because often the whole family couldn’t come together, and the children might be sent with one parent, or another relative, to give them a chance at freedom and a better life.

I haven’t tried to write the story specifically of the Hong Hai and the people who came on her, but by talking to people who had made a similar journey, and reading the piles of newspaper clippings and books that the Vietnamese community has saved over the last thirty years, a story finally appeared to me. It started with an old newspaper article about the parcels that the new arrivals sent home to the family left behind in Vietnam. Fabric was a good thing to send because it survived the trip well and could be sold there to raise money. Suddenly I saw a boy looking in a window at a bolt of cloth that he wanted to send home to his mother. Can you imagine all the emotions he’d be sending with it! And so, Trung was born.

One of the best things about writing this book has been meeting some of Melbourne’s Vietnamese community, and attending events that I probably wouldn’t have heard about otherwise, such as the celebration of the community’s 30 years in Australia, and a wonderful play, The Children of the Dragon. Events like this enrich our lives, and I’m very lucky to have been able to do this exploration into another side of the Australian community.

The other thing that’s been very exciting has been seeing Donna Rawlins’ illustrations. They are moody, evocative and stunning. I can’t tell you how moved I was to see Trung’s face; she has captured all that I feel about him – that even when he’s scared and lonely, his bravery and hopefulness shows through, and we feel that somehow, he’ll be all right in the future.

The book is at the printers now, so I’m looking forward to seeing it soon. And I’ll let you in on a secret: Donna has told me that she’s giving me my two favourite pictures from the book. Now I’m feeling very, very lucky!

happy reading

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio