The irony isn’t lost on Mem Fox. The author of books advocating tolerance and acceptance was detained by U.S. immigration officials as she arrived in America to give a talk about the importance of tolerance and acceptance.
Fox, perhaps Australia’s most famous children’s author, has written such books as “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,” which celebrates the humanity common to all children. No matter where someone is born, no matter what a child looks like, the book reminds us, we all have “ten little fingers/ and ten little toes.”
Her latest book, to be published in Australia this week, is called “I’m Australian Too.” Among its lines: “We open doors to strangers./ Yes, everyone’s a friend.” (Simon and Schuster is in negotiations to buy the book and publish it in the United States.)
Fox was on her way from Australia to a conference in Milwaukee on Feb. 6, scheduled to speak about this very theme, when she was detained by immigration officers at Los Angeles International Airport. She was held for just under two hours, she says, and aggressively questioned about her visa status.
“I was going for such a good reason,” she says of the trip, noting it would have been her 117th visit to the United States. After her experience at the airport, she says, she is unlikely to return.
“The worst of it,” she says, is that she was questioned not because she was a children’s author “but because I was just anybody.” About 20 travelers were taken to a holding room, she says, “and the manner in which we were interrogated — in public view about really private information — was terrible. It was the insolence that was beyond mind-boggling.”
Fox says that she was waiting in the immigration line when she was pulled aside. Engrossed in a book — Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” — she at first did not hear officers calling her name. She says that when she politely apologized, the officer asked her, “What do you want me to do, stand here while you finish it?”
And that “was just the beginning of it,” she says.
Fox says she was aggressively asked about her finances and the nature of her trip. The implication, she says, was that she was coming here to work. Fox says that the conference organizers were paying for her hotel and an honorarium that just about covered the cost of her flight.
Over the past decade, Fox, a grandmother who will turn 71 next month, has made numerous trips under similar arrangements. She was sure her visa status was correct. It took about 15 minutes of questioning for officers to arrive at the same conclusion.
“I was so frightened,” she says. “The heel of my right hand was on my heart to try to stop it from beating so hard.”
Others in the room were being treated similarly, she says. “I felt ashamed to be a human being.”
After returning to her home in Adelaide, Fox filed a complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and received a “charming” email in response. “I took it as an apology from all of America,” she says.
Fox, the author of more than 30 books, has remained publicly quiet about the incident until recently, when she began doing interviews about her new book. She says the difference between her message of tolerance and her experience in the United States was too stark to ignore.
Fox, who appeared at the 2010 National Book Festival in Washington, says she has been pleased by the support she has received since coming forward.
Has it changed her view of the United States? “As a whole, everyone is charming, friendly, welcoming, gorgeous,” she says. But “the U.S. is changing its mind about what the U.S. is. That is what is coming through. That is the tragedy.”
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.