Between Us by Clare Atkins

Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Me and Between Us are memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.

Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.

Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?

I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!

How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?

TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.

Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here.  How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?

I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.

To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?

I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.

What is the significance of the cover? 

The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.

How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?

I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.

Clare Atkins

How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?

Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.

You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?

How have you differentiated between their voices?

Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…

Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.

Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.

Which character would you like to write more about?

I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.

I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?

I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.

You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?

I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.

In the novel you’ve referred to other literary texts such as The Outsiders, The Rabbits, The Simple Gift and Home in the Sky. Why these books?

They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.

Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?

I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…

What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?

Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.

Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.

Thank you!

Poetry here and on the way

Subject of feelingAustralian readers overlook poetry to our loss. Fortunately there are a number of excellent publishers who publish poetry either exclusively or as part of their list.

Many of our literary awards have poetry sections and these remind us that poetry deserves attention. The Queensland Literary Awards shortlist, for example, will be announced this Friday, 11th September.

Australian publisher Puncher & Wattman has a fantastic crop of poetry appearing between August and the end of the year. Highlights are John Tranter’s twenty-fourth collection, Heart Starter (August). This showcases old and new poems, some of which speak harshly about the nature of ‘poetic insight’. Philip Hammial, who has twice been shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize, had Asylum Nerves published in August. Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson’s very topical Everyday Epic about asylum seekers and reconciliation will be launched in Sydney in September. CLOUDLESS_Front_grande

UWA published The Subject of Feeling by Peter Rose (ABR Editor who appeared at last week’s Brisbane Writers Festival), and Happiness by Martin Harrison in August and will publish Cloudless, a verse novel by Christine Evans in September.

UWA Publishing and creative writing journal Trove are also co-hosting quarterly Sturmfrei poetry nights. “Sturmfrei” is a German word for “being without your supervisors or guardians and therefore being able to do as you wish.” The idea is that UWAP and Trove have fled the UWA campus for the wider Perth community for nights of poetry, conversation and ideas.

On BunyahOn Bunyah, follows Les Murray’s recent Waiting for the Past (both Black Inc) in October. Les has lived in Bunyah all his life. We were fortunate to host Les Murray in our home when he spoke at our inaugural ‘Be Inspired’ series, which aims, as the name implies, to inspire our friends and family. Our other presenters have generally been from the arts, including singer Kate Miller-Heidke; theatre company, Crossbow Productions; and authors Nick Earls and Shaun Tan. Our other poet/author inspirer was the esteemed David Malouf.

Best Aust Poems

Black Inc’s Best of Australian Poems 2015, edited by Geoff Page is also eagerly anticipated in October, as is Falling and Flying: Poems of Aging, edited by Judith Beveridge and Susan Ogle and Idle Talk – Gwen Harwood Letters 1960-1964. (both Brandl & Schlesinger).

My husband received Judith Beveridge’s Devadatta’s Poems (Giramondo) for Fathers’ Day, as well as former PM Poetry award-winner John Kinsella’s Sack (Fremantle Press).Devadatta's poems

Giramondo will publish The Fox Petition by award-winning Jennifer Maiden in November. “The fox” emblemises xenophobia and Maiden’s signature dialogues between notable people reappear. She also used this powerful structure in Drones and Phantoms and Liquid Nitrogen.

In case you missed them, UQP recently published Eating My Grandmother by Krissy Kneen and The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt. These writers also appeared at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival and both have won awards.

Robert Adamson was another popular figure at the BWF. He discovered poetry in gaol as a young man and his most recent publication is Net Needle (Black Inc). Just goes to show the power of poetry.Net Needle

Meet Alice Pung, author of Laurinda

LaurindaThanks for talking to Boomerang Books about your outstanding first novel Laurinda (Black Inc.), Alice Pung.

Thanks for interviewing me!

You are well known for your excellent non-fiction, Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter and as editor of Growing Up Asian in Australia. Why have you sidestepped into YA fiction?

Growing up, I went to five different high schools, and I have always been fascinated by the way institutions shape individuals. In each new high school I felt like I was a slightly different person – not because anything about me had immediately changed – but because people’s perceptions of me had.

High school is the only time in your life where a large part of your identity is actually shaped by other people. As an adult you can choose your friends, and your time is finite, so of course, you try to only spend time with people who like and affirm you. As a teenager, though, you are forced to fit yourself in amongst 200-1000 other people, who are all with you every day. So I’ve always been interested in how teenagers adapt to this. And I wanted to do this through fiction because I wanted to create a character inspired by a number of young adults I’d met and admired.

You are also known for the Asian content and stories in your books. How does this manifest in LaurindaUnpolished Gem

Laurinda, first and foremost, takes a satirical look at class. Lucy Lam, my main character, is from depressed socio-economic circumstances, and I did not want her race to be the main focus. Where many young adult books fall flat, I think, is when they focus on the ethnicity or race as the most important part of their character. The reality is, most teenagers don’t spend time thinking about their cultural background. You don’t wake up every morning aware that you’re Asian, until someone draws your attention to it.

And that’s the paradox with a school like Laurinda – where everyone is so liberal and politically correct and culturally sensitive – the most interesting thing other girls focus on about Lucy is her Asian-ness. The other girls do not realise that she is a teenager in the exact same way they are: Lucy does not know the history of colonial Indochina, is not an authority on oriental food, and is more interested in boys than Vietnam war films.

Did you attend a school like Laurinda? If not, how did you imagine and craft this setting with such verisimilitude?

I get asked this a lot! No, I didn’t attend any school that was as rotten as Laurinda (thankfully!), but I have, like most other students, had teachers who were bullies, been in classes where we bullied the teachers, and seen the whole mean girl dynamic five times over in each new high school at which I started.

I’ve always been a watcher. No one suspects the quiet Asian kid of harbouring very much ambition except ‘doing well at school’, so as a teenager I’ve been privy to a lot of fly-on-the-wall conversations. Sometimes, I even heard some of the most outrageously racist things from other students, and other times I got insight into the struggles of girls I never thought would have struggles.

Also, as an author I have visited hundreds of schools throughout Australia, each with their own culture and traditions. I’ve seen how certain schools promote feminism while others promote a warped sense of femininity that denies competition while pushing success at all costs. I’ve also been to a private school so understand a little about the aspirations of those students, and did not want to tar all the students with the same brush. It seems that all the news and opinion pieces about private schools in the media are rife with so much hyperbole and polarised views. So I hoped that Laurinda would allow people to take a light-hearted and yet simultaneously very serious, nuanced look at why they feel this way.

Growing up AsianThe protagonist, Lucy, is an exceptionally well-created, three-dimensional character. She should become a role model.

Wow. Thank you!

In spite of the vast amount of YA lit I read, I’m excited to have been exposed to new ideas via Lucy, such as needing a group of friends to get a boyfriend at fifteen, and recognising students who are ‘self-contained satellites’.

Could you describe Lucy, or something about her?

When I wrote the character of Lucy, I was very aware of her voice first and foremost, very certain that the reader would be hearing her thoughts and not her words. She’s what school psychologists would now call a classic introvert, but the fascinating thing is that she was not an introvert at her previous school. It is only coming to Laurinda that she loses her speaking voice.

Many young adult books stress the importance of belonging to a group, yet Lucy is content to be by herself at school after she recognises that the institution is rotten. When evil exists, we are taught to do something about it – Lucy’s non-participation in the institution is a form of resistance, and I think it’s pretty stoic. You have to have a strong sense of self to choose to be ‘a loner.’

The ‘Cabinet’, a controlling group of girls, is a masterful, chilling portrayal of teen power. How did you devise their dynamics and role in the school?

I wanted to create characters that were so entitled that they didn’t even realise how entitled they were. There’s the old cliché of the silver spoon, but I didn’t want these characters’ entitlement to be based on wealth – I wanted it to be based on cultural capital: the handed-down power that exists in our society. Their alumni mothers trained them to appreciate Royal Doulton and institutional loyalty, their fathers are powerful men and their school Laurinda trains them to be ‘Leaders of tomorrow.’

So of course they’re going to want to ‘lead’ the school. They feel it’s their birthright. And also, being such perfectionists, they feel a duty to weed out the weaker elements of the school: vulnerable teachers, students they feel are not up to scratch. I did not want the Cabinet to be vacuous ‘mean girls’, but the sort of pressure-cooker girls you would meet at a private school who must be on top of things all the time; and yet whose worlds are so tightly-wound that any threat to their order would ignite them. And I hope readers come away with an understanding that those girls are as much victims of institutional and familial insularity as they are cruel.

You mention a number of literary texts, such as Emma, Romeo and Juliet, The Great GatsbyWhy did you include these? Emma

Those were books I studied as a teenager when I went to a private grammar school. Gatsby is a book about class and a man who will never quite belong because of his pink suit. And when Jane Austen began to write Emma, I think she resolved: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” because Emma, like the Cabinet, is selfish and entitled. But actually, she is my favourite Austen character because there is a gravitas and kindness to her at the end when she comes of age.

Lucy is informed by the principal that YA literature is not studied at Laurinda. Do you have a personal opinion about this provocative stance?

I studied John Marsden and Isobelle Carmody books at my Catholic College, and a novel about a Cambodian refugee called ‘The Clay Marble’ in Year 7 at a public school. It seems to me that the more ‘elite’ the school is, the more their texts seem removed from the realities of existence as a teenager.

I cannot fathom how you could teach teenagers and yet remove their experience from the whole equation. YA books taught me how to become an adult, how to deal stoically with adversity, how to negotiate with adults around me, how to cope with mental illness: they were the most important books I have ever read in my life.

I love literary classics as much as any author, yet some schools teach the heavy themes in King Lear or the humour in Austen so rigidly, with students churning out essays full of fancy vocabulary and effluent literary tricks. They teach students to be contemptuous of YA literature, and in doing so, make them into miniature, insufferable snobby adults who have to deny their constant true state of existence, which is that they are teenagers!

And you cannot teach teenagers without acknowledging that for six years of their lives, they are inevitably, inextricably in this state of young-adult-hood, with questions about how to live well each day, and how to cope, and how to look forward to things.

What do you hope to achieve with this story? Alice Pung

It’s funny, but I never got asked this question with my non-fiction books, even the book about my father and the Cambodian holocaust! I just hope lots of young adults will read it and be able to relate in some way.

I’ve always been against didactic messages in YA books. If students are studying Kafka in Year 11, then of course they can make up their own opinions!

(I guess that might be one reason some schools put YA off their booklists – some authors feel the patronising need to include ‘a positive message’ and that kills the story.)

Laurinda is an exceptional novel that will be very well received.

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with us, Alice.

THANK YOU for these excellent and insightful questions, I’ve really enjoyed thinking about them and answering them. Her Father's Daughter