Morpurgo flies the flag for tale of Afghan refugee

Morpurgo flies the flag for tale of Afghan refugee

Michael Morpurgo will publish a book this September about a young Afghan refugee, inspired by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The book came about "almost by accident", Morpurgo told The Bookseller, when he was asked to do a modern version of Gulliver’s Travels "years ago" by illustrator Michael Foreman, but initially was ambivalent to the idea because "when people do a re-telling, they almost always just do the Lilliput story, which is only part of the book, and treat it as a sweet story for children. Whereas Gulliver’s Travels is actually a comment on society and an attempt by Swift to reveal the profound unfairness of society as it was then."

In Morpurgo’s version, Boy Giant, a 12-year-old Afghan boy called Omar flees his home in a boat and tries to reach his uncle in Mevagissey in Cornwall. But when a storm hits his small boat, he finds himself on an island where the inhabitants are very small and speak their own language, Lilliputian.

The Lilliputians are incredibly kind and the author said he wanted to explore a society "inculcated with kindness" [Lilliput], but also show how poorly we here in the UK treat people who land on our shores. "We cheer them when they are great athletes or writers. Look at my great friend Judith Kerr, who died recently. She grew up as British as you or me but she was a migrant. Our first instinct is to push people away." Like Swift, Morpurgo wanted his story to reflect a society where "we are used to seeing people wash up on beaches".

Omar is torn between staying with his new friends and finding his family, but eventually decides to set out for Mevagissey in a boat with two Lilliputians. During the journey they see a rowing boat, navigated by a teenage girl, and she takes Omar to his final destination.

Morpurgo said he made his central character Afghan because there is a large contingent of displaced Afghans in the Calais "Jungle"—a refugee and migrant encampment in northern France—which Morpurgo visited in order to see first-hand the way people live there. He also supports the charity Afghan Connection, which aims to improve the lives of asylum seekers who are not allowed to work.

"These boys and girls love cricket, so the charity brought them to Devon to play teams from the villages and towns down here," he said. "They stayed on the farm [Morpurgo set up Farms for City Children, a charity, in 1976] and beat the villages hands down! I’ve never seen young boys hit the ball so hard. They loved it and came back again the following year."

Last month, artist Ai Weiwei created a flag to celebrate universal human rights, marking 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Morpurgo was involved in the campaign to promote the flag across the country. The flag is a reminder that human rights are for everyone and that those rights were hard won. "This book echoes that spirit," the writer said.

Boy Giant will be published on 19th September as children’s fiction, but Morpurgo said, like Gulliver’s Travels, his story is relevant for everyone. He is, however, heartened by young people and their determination to enact social change. "Children understand fairness and I am so impressed with how they are engaged in sorting out the planet. They are very motivated."