Australian YA: Meet Helen Chebatte and Bro

Helen CHelen Chebatte’s debut novel Bro has just been published by Hardie Grant Egmont.

It’s a riveting story and has an authenticity that young adults will respond to.

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Helen.

Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA and children’s lit world?

Hello Boomerang Books!

I live in Sydney, Australia.

I love reading children’s and YA books and have been involved for a long time. Whether I’m attending festivals or seminars or reading the latest news in the children’s and YA world, I try to stay in touch. Bro is my first YA novel so now I’m seeing the children’s and YA lit world from another angle too. Visiting bookshops as an author and speaking at writing festivals is very exciting.

What’s your working background and how else do you spend your time?

I’m an actor. I’ve worked professionally in film, television and theatre for many years. Some of my credits include roles on Crownies, Deadly Women, the feature film Cedar Boys and the romantic comedy Alex and Eve. I also taught drama for a few years but these days I spend most of my time writing.

When I’m not working, one of my favourite leisure activities is going on long drives.

BroWhat inspired you to write Bro

Having Syrian heritage and growing up in a multicultural community, I was always excited by the mix of culture and language. I like seeing people with ethnic backgrounds represented in literature (and film) It’s important everyone feels they have a place in this world.

Could you tell us something about your main characters?

Romeo Makhlouf is a Lebanese-Australian teenager who is conflicted about his identity and his place in the school yard. He’s a gentle person who prefers to mind his own business. He adores his grandmother and has a lot of admiration for his best friend Diz. Diz on the other hand is confident, outspoken and funny. Not one to take things seriously, he’ll crack a joke whenever he sees fit. He won’t let anyone disrespect him and he’s super loyal to Romeo.

How do you know and can write characters like these?

As mentioned, I grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood. I knew, and still know many boys like Romeo and Diz as well as many of the other characters in Bro.

Have you received any responses from young readers about Bro that particularly resonate with you?

People talk about how Bro has touched them and there is a sense of need to talk further about what happened in the book. They mention how realistic the plot line is even though it’s a work of fiction, and how prevailing the themes of Australian identity and racial rivalry are today. Many also feel hopeful because conversation about these themes has been initiated. I want to say more but I’m in danger now of spoilers…

What are you writing at the moment?

I’ve started my second YA novel and I’m revisiting a children’s picture book text that I started quite a few years ago.

Sea HeartsWhat have you enjoyed reading? 

So many! I loved reading the YA novels Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels, both by Margo Lanagan. Into that Forest by Louis Nowra is another favourite. All the Truth that’s in Me by Julie Berry is also great. Forgotten by Cat Patrick was a page turner. Nona and Me by Claire Atkins is a recent gem. Then there’s the Young Reader novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick which I adored – illustrations are beautiful! In the adult genre I thoroughly enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton, Bitter Greens by Kate Forsythe and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I could keep listing forever – so many great books out there.

Thanks for your insightful responses and all the best with Bro, Helen.