By Angela Mullin
‘Women don’t run, Azari.’
So says the father of 14-year-old Azari in Jane Mitchell’s latest novel, Run For Your Life. The book tells the story of a young asylum seeker who has fled violence in her home country, along with her mother, to seek refuge in Ireland.
The teen lives a grim existence in a Direct Provision centre as she struggles to adjust to a different language, new school and way of life.
A promising athlete, Azari finds solace and hope when she realises that in Ireland, she is free to pursue the sport she loves.
This is award-winning author Jane’s ninth book, all of which are aimed at children and young adults. The theme of human rights, particularly children’s rights and the rights of women in developing countries, runs through most of her books.
Her last novel, A Dangerous Crossing, centres around a family fleeing Syria and is on the school curriculum in Brazil. Another novel, Chalkline, about child soldiers in India, has scooped multiple awards including the CBI Children’s Choice Award.
“I’ve always been interested in human rights and exploring this through my writing,” Jane says. “We are lucky here in Ireland to have access to education, clean water and food. There are so many children who don’t have that.”
Exploring her passion
This is the first book that former primary school teacher Jane has written featuring her other passion – running.
“I wanted the lead character Azari to have something she was passionate about that gave her an outlet. I quickly came to running because it had to be something that she wasn’t able to do when she was in her home country, and it became a very important part of her sense of self. Running was the obvious choice because I’m so familiar with it myself.”
The book sensitively portrays the many stark contrasts between the oppressive culture of Azari’s South Asian homeland and the Western ways of Irish teenagers. Azari begins to relish her new freedom, much to her mother’s dismay. ‘You shouldn’t be running around in tight clothes for everyone to look at your body,’ her mother warns her.
Jane deliberately doesn’t specify which South Asian country Azari is fleeing from. “The story is really about Azari in Ireland, as opposed to Azari in her home country. I wanted to shift the focus.”
It’s clear from the outset, however, that Azari’s homeland is a place where running is considered an inappropriate activity for a woman.
A life of servitude
“Sports would not be something that a lot of women from certain developing countries would do,” Jane says. “When they start getting their periods they are seen to be women as opposed to girls, they are then seen as ready to be married off, ready to go into servitude.”
“If you look at the representation of women in the Olympics who come from developing countries, the numbers of women are really small. It’s usually only the elite, higher levels of society where it’s encouraged because they are much more Westernised in their outlook.
"In traditional patriarchal cities and villages, women would not have the freedom at all to run or show their bodies or be out on their own on the streets or on the road. That doesn’t happen, they aren’t allowed. For their own safety as much as anything else.”
The running game
The Dublin-based author has been writing since childhood and published a children’s book, An Loch Draíochta while still a student at Trinity College Dublin.
Her passion for running is something that developed later.
“Running came to me in adulthood. I was in a gym with a great social side for years. When I was in my 20's, a group of us decided to start running together. My first organised race was the Women’s Mini Marathon. It went from there.
"I started doing the Irish Runner Race Series in the Phoenix Park and eventually the Dublin Marathon, which I’ve now completed twice.
The plot thickens
“Running helps clear my head and figure out plot points,” she says. “If I’m feeling stuck, I think – 'right, I’ll go for a run', and my brain starts jiggling around the ideas that I’m trying to figure out with my writing.
"Sometimes the brain comes up with a solution by itself.”
Writer on the Run at the International Literature Festival
In May of this year, Jane took part in the inaugural Writer on the Run at the International Literature Festival.
At the innovative event that looked at the synergies between running (and all body movement) and writing, Jane led a group of runners on a 5km jog around the city – stopping at various points to take a breath and discuss how the worlds of creativity and movement collide.
“I think there are a lot of parallels between writing and creative pursuits,” she says. “You have to exercise discipline for both. You need perseverance and endurance.
"There are common themes. People who are creative might look at running and think there wouldn’t be a link between them at all, but I think the two complement each other really well.
“If you’re sitting there waiting for something to inspire you to write, or to run, you will be sitting there till the sun goes down. At the end of the day, you have to just start writing – or running - and you will feel the inspiration coming out of that.
"I think the action comes first. Get going and then you’ll feel inspired to keep going.”
Run for your Life by Jane Mitchell, published by Little Island Press, is out now.