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Speaker Spotlight: Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu is editor of A Country of Refuge, an Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers. In a panel discussion, Refugees: truths and innocent lies, on 19th October she, writers Noo Saro-Wiwa and Hassan Abdulrazzak and Tim Finch, former director of communications for the Refugee Council, will speak about their experiences.


What inspired you to put A Country of Refuge together?

Lucy Popescu: I work closely with refugees as a volunteer mentor with Write to Life, Freedom from Torture’s creative writing programme. Freedom from Torture (formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture) provides refugees and asylum seekers with medical treatment, counselling and therapy. The stories we hear are about the emotional scars of torture, the pain of leaving behind loved ones and the struggles of building a new life in this country. The relentless struggle to assimilate, to integrate in a new, often alien, culture takes its toll. Added to this, asylum seekers often have to contend with harsh or racist attitudes, a hostile media and rigid, uncompromising government policies.

I first conceived of this project in January 2014, after receiving a copy of the anthology A Country Too Far, co-edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally. Using the work of well-known Australian writers,  they aimed to set the record straight about asylum seekers in Australia and to protest their government’s treatment of them. Inspired, I sent out a flurry of emails and swiftly got some terrific British and Irish writers on board. I believe writers are uniquely placed to challenge pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes because of their understanding of the power of words and ability to articulate truths. I wanted them to focus on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in an attempt to directly challenge the negative press, to cast a more positive light on a situation that, for many, is a living hell.


How did you get involved with Write to Life?

LP: I worked for over 20 years at the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers. I was Programme Director of its Writers in Prison Committee, campaigning on behalf of persecuted writers around the world and enlisting the help of high profile writers, the media and other human rights organisations to highlight their plight. The power of words was brought home to me on a daily basis. It was during my time at PEN that I first encountered refugee writers.

In 2004, I heard Cheikh Kone’s horrifying account of his time spent in an Australian detention centre for refugees. Kone, a journalist forced to flee the Ivory Coast, remained in detention for three years and wrote of the dehumanising effect of being reduced to a number. His description of fellow inmates mutilating themselves, some sewing up their lips in despair, the suicide attempts, children living behind razor wire and the constant crying, has stayed with me ever since. Kone survived by writing about his experiences.

So when I left PEN, to concentrate on my own writing, it seemed a natural progression to volunteer with Write to Life, the creative writing group of Freedom from Torture.


How did you choose who to include?

LP: This was helped by my experience at PEN. I knew which writers to approach first who might be sympathetic to the project. Once you have a few big names on board, it’s easier to get further interest.


What challenges did you face in financing the project?

LP: After getting some terrific writers involved, I immediately set about trying to find a suitable publisher. My agent, Andrew Lownie, approached a number of mainstream publishers but drew a blank. I then spent a further year trying the smaller, independent presses with no success. Fortunately, in June 2015 the pioneering Unbound Books came on board, we crowdfunded and here we are. But crowdfunding is a long, lonely process.


How was it different to other book projects you have been involved in?

LP: The crowdfunding: most of the time it involves you opening up all your networks and social media and badgering friends and colleagues to pledge for the book in advance. Of course, crowdfunding is a relatively new concept so a lot of people don’t really understand what is going on – they think you are self-publishing. So you have to prepare your communications carefully to try and summarise exactly what it’s about. And Unbound work like any other publisher. This is NOT self-publishing. I still had to pitch my idea to them, be accepted on board and formally commissioned. Their commissioning team considers submissions very carefully before saying yes or no to a project. And of course, a big part of that consideration is whether an author has the right networks to fund the book successfully.

A short video is made of the author’s pitch. Why they are writing the book, why you should buy it. They are different tiers for pledging – the cheapest is digital, but authors can offer rewards and added incentives like original artwork, creative writing sessions, a talk, an invite to the launch.

In Unbound’s words: “This new way of publishing is actually a very old idea (Samuel Johnson funded his dictionary this way). We’re just using the internet to build each writer a network of patrons… Readers who pledge for a book receive a beautifully bound, special subscribers’ edition which includes the names of all the people who made it happen. Publishing in this way means readers are no longer just passive consumers of the books they buy and authors are free to write the books they really want.”

Unbound can be much more courageous in their publishing choices than other publishers. And their distributors are Penguin Random House which means they still have the best route to bookshops as all conventional publishers do. They’ve busted a few myths since starting six years ago - including “anthologies don't sell”.


What has the reaction been?

LP: The end result exceeded all my expectations and we’ve had a great response. One reader bought 650 copies to give to our MPs and the University of Hertfordshire offered free copies to their first-year students.


You are now working on a book of writing by young refugees. What does it involve and at what stage are you?

LP: It is a book about (not by) young refugees and asylum seekers using the words of well-known British and Irish writers, including David Almond, Tony Bradman, Sita Brahmachari, Eoin Colfer, Brian Conaghan, Kit De Waal, Judith Kerr, Patrice Lawrence with original illustrations by Chris Riddell.

While putting together A Country of Refuge it became clear to me that it is the plight of vulnerable children that really gets under the skin of people and compassion fosters change. I am horrified by our government’s treatment of child refugees and their heartless decision to deny help to thousands of lone asylum seekers under the age of 15.

Building on the success of A Country of Refuge I wanted to publish an anthology on the same subject - refugees, asylum seekers and migration - but focusing on the experiences of children and young people, aimed at child and adult readers alike. I hope the book will be read widely in schools, perhaps even on the national curriculum, in the hope that the next generation will have a kinder response to refugees and asylum seekers and better understand some of the reasons people are forced to flee their native countries.

At the time of writing I have almost reached target. There is still time to pledge and get your name in the back. A Country to Call Home will include newly commissioned stories, flash fiction, poetry and original artwork. There are tales of home, and missing it; poems about the dangerous journeys undertaken and life in the refugee camps; stories about prejudice, but also stories of children’s fortitude, their dreams and aspirations.