This month, Black Inc. published Clare Atkins’ debut novel Nona and Me. Atkins’ novel is the prestigious publishing house’s first foray into young adult literature, and with it they have set the bar high.

Rosie is white and Nona Aboriginal, and the two have been friends since childhood. In their Northern Territory town, Rosie is accepted and grows up as part of an extended Aboriginal family, and the two girls live like ‘yapas’ (sisters). But their bond is broken when Nona moves away at the age of nine.

When Nona returns to the town, Rosie is fifteen and their community is in a state of upheaval. Rosie is also experiencing her first high school romance with Nick, a boy who has no respect for the Yolŋu people, their beliefs, land or culture.

Narrated by Rosie, this coming-of-age novel beautifully explores female friendship amid cultural and political upheaval. It’s a tender portrayal of two girls who have so much in common but are worlds apart, and I was unsurprised to learn that the idea for Nona and Me sprung from Clare Atkins’ own experiences living in the Northern Territory:

I moved to Yirrkala in 2007, after my husband got a job teaching at the school there. I hadn’t intended to write a book but the story came to me one day as I was lying by the public swimming pool in Nhulunbuy. I saw two girls playing together; one Ngapaki (non-Aboriginal) and one Yolŋu (the Indigenous people of north-east Arnhem Land). They were dipping in and out of the water, laughing and playing together. Then they both lay down on the edge of the pool, one behind the other, in almost identical positions; their bodies long and flat on the tiles, hands trailing in the water. For that moment in time they were the same, together, two parts of a whole. I was struck by the innocence of their friendship and wondered about how it would undoubtedly change as they got older. I started thinking about the Close the Gap campaign and wondered what that gap looks like on a personal level, and at what age it begins. This became the core of Rosie and Nona’s story.

Racism and multiculturalism are issues that Clare has always been interested in, but those politics became personal while living in the Yirrkala. ‘I saw those girls by the pool and the characters of Rosie and Nona took shape. I knew how the story would end from the very early stages of plotting.’

Clare worked with Yolŋu community members while she was writing. ‘I drew on experiences I had with my own adopted Yolŋu family, such as fishing and looking for guku (bush honey). I interviewed a couple of community members about specific parts of the story, such as the Intervention and growing up alongside Ngapaki families. But the main input came from a fantastic Yolŋu lady and teacher, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, who acted as a cultural advisor. I told her the story as it came to me, and she answered lots of questions along the way and also gave feedback on the two drafts.’

In a very important narrative decision, the story is told from Rosie’s first-person perspective; ‘I wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing from an Aboriginal perspective,’ she explains. ‘There is too much that I don’t know about Yolŋu culture, and I also didn’t feel it was culturally appropriate. Ideally, I would’ve loved to co-write the story with a Yolŋu author so they could tell Nona’s story from her perspective, but the community members with the requisite English literacy and interest were already heavily relied upon. I didn’t want to be yet another Ngapaki person making demands on their time. The compromise was working closely with Merrkiyawuy, who was extremely generous with her knowledge and time, but wasn’t required to do too much “homework” in between our meetings. This was important because she already teaches full time and is relied on in many community roles and forums. For me, working with a Yolŋu advisor was essential, a sign of respect for the culture, the people and their stories.’

In 2012 I wrote a KYD piece on Why we need more Indigenous writers and characters in Australian YA. During my research for this article, I repeatedly encountered a reluctance among many white authors to write Aboriginal characters, fuelled by concerns about potentially reappropriating their culture. This could explain in part why there are so few representations of our First Peoples in Australian youth literature. Clare had those same worries, but found a way to work through them by ‘letting go of any notions that the story should be “representative”’. The pressure to represent Indigenous experience was ‘just too big a responsibility, and it is paralysing for a writer. Instead, I focused on the story being personal. It is simply Rosie’s story, and it is just one story of many; it does not need to illustrate the whole history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations in Australia. This was a liberating realisation. Instead of asking, “What might happen in this situation between Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal people?” I was simply asking, “What would happen between Rosie and Nona?”

‘Along the way, I also found this quote from Terri Janke in the Australian Society of Authors protocols for writing about Indigenous Australia: she said, “If Australian writers are to depict a representative Australian society, they must write about Indigenous characters from diverse backgrounds, with good and bad attributes.” This is what I’ve tried to do in Nona & Me.’

Clare Atkins’s debut novel is a triumph: a coming-of-age tale that celebrates friendship and loyalty, family and community. Here is a striking new voice in Australian youth literature, and her story is one that will surely leave its mark.

Nona and Me is now available in all good bookshops.