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!

YA Reading Matters

NonaI’m just back from Melbourne for the second time in a month. Despite busy May in the book world, this was my long-awaited chance to attend ‘Reading Matters’ conference, which is organised by the Centre for Youth Literature (CYL) and focuses on YA literature and storytelling. Presenters aimed their content at librarians and teacher librarians; and aspiring or other authors would also have benefited from the program. The overall theme of diversity is hot on the heels of a US movement.

Before the conference began, delegates were invited to the Text Publishing party where the winner of the 2015 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing was awarded to Kimberley Starr, author of The Book of Whispers. Her book sounds like an original historical fantasy set during the Crusades in a world of demons. I wonder if it will be a cross between Catherine Jinks’s Pagan stories and Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy?

This is ShynessThe Text party was one of the weekend’s highlights, particularly because I met one of the Text Prize’s former winners, Leanne Hall. Her first YA novel, This is Shyness, is one of my all-time top three YA books. I can’t wait for her novel for younger readers, to be published in 2016.

The Reading Matters conference started with a panel of three teen readers, overtly selected for their physical diversity. Male rep, Chris, began by praising The Sky So Heavy, which was fantastic because author Claire Zorn had been incognito in the audience until then. He also clarified that ‘YA lit’ is a category, not a genre. There are genres such as speculative fiction and historical fiction within YA. The three panellists agreed that upcoming books should cut the romance – they’re over love triangles and insta-love/lust (instant attraction) and forget the suicide books. They simply don’t want to read them.

Authors on other panels didn’t necessarily agree about the teens’ views on romance although Will Kostakis was instructed by his editor of The First Third to write a big kiss scene. Will told us that he writes ‘awkwardness’ and ‘embarrassing’ well so that is where he took his scene. Will also wants his readers to experience the emotional side, rather than just the mechanics, of relationships.First Third

Along with other panellists, Will made some good points in a panel called ‘Hashtag Teen: Engaging teens and YA advocacy’. He turned a reluctant writing class around by running a whole lesson on Twitter. He also recommended  PTA (Penguin Teen Australia) where there’s a weekly chat. Authors such as Amie Kaufman (The Starbound trilogy) even drop in.

These Broken Stars

Hip-hop, today’s spoken poetry, raised its head unexpectedly and powerfully twice. Year 12 student, Jayden Pinn from Creative Rebellion Youth performed two lyrical, metaphorical, hard-hitting pieces. And founder of CRY, formerly illiterate Sudanese refugee and now awarded performance poet, Abe Nouk encouraged us to feel, not always think; say a prayer; deliver a service – smile; use a comma, not a full stop (don’t end, keep going); be kind and gracious; invest in people; and do not be afraid to reveal your insecurities to your pen. Abe credited hip-hop with changing his life.

Tom Taylor, Australian creator of the current Iron Man and other international comics urged us to recognise comics. His comic for young readers, The Deep, deserves a wide readership.

Clare Atkins made some important points in her sessions, particularly about consulting with someone from a different background or group you are writing about. She did this with an Aboriginal friend in Nona and Me . (See my review here.) Authors shouldn’t avoid writing about other ethnic groups if they consult respectfully.

On a Small Island‘Literary Landscapes’ was another of my favourite sessions because it took an interesting perspective by exploring the landscape behind books by Clare Atkins (Arnhem Land), Sean Williams and Kyle Hughes-Odgers.

Jaclyn Moriarty and Sean Williams’s debate on ‘Science Vs Magic’ was fresh, articulate and intelligent. Jaclyn challenged Sean with two wands but he retaliated with a laser. Jaclyn Moriarty is a lyrical speaker and delegates later mentioned that they ‘could listen to her all day’ – exactly what I was thinking. She and Sean had a feisty, ultimately gracious, battle.

Keynote international authors, Laurie Halse Anderson (The Impossible Knife of Memory) and Sally Gardner (I, Coriander; The Door That Led to Where) both had horrible childhoods. Laurie told us that she writes ‘Resilience Literature’ and explained that good stories teach you about the world; about falling down and how to get up.I Coriander

One of the most exciting parts of the conference was discovering authors hidden in the audience such as Melissa Keil (The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl), Claire Zorn (The Protected), Margo Lanagan (Red Spikes) and Karen Tayleur (Six).