The last 12 months have seen some seriously great Indigenous teen stories across several mediums – most notably the ABC3 TV show Ready For This, named Most Outstanding Children’s Program at the 2016 Logies. The show explored a sea change for six Indigenous teens, coming from all over Australia to board at Sydney’s Arcadia House in pursuit of their various sport institute and artistic ambitions. Nukunu author Jared Thomas’ Songs That Sound Like Blood (Magabala Books) builds on similar themes, tenderly and thoughtfully exploring the power of belonging and culture, in a fine-tuned, gutsy and glorious new Aussie Young Adult book.
Roxy May Redding leaves her small country town for Adelaide to study music at university. Roxy’s first year is underpinned by money woes, homesickness, struggling in pursuit of her artistic passions and an unexpected romance with older student, Ana. Music is a big focus in the novel; everything from Johnny Cash, to Amy Winehouse, and Warumpi Band’s ‘My Island Home’ is mentioned, revealing not only Roxy’s eclectic tastes but also a connection to her single father, who is her biggest supporter. Young readers will also find artists to explore that they may not be familiar with, like 1970s Australian Aboriginal reggae rock group No Fixed Address and Central Australian singer-songwriter Frank Yamma. The second half of the novel takes on a very contemporary spin, when Roxy auditions for a reality TV show singing contest – suddenly her life is on public display, and Roxy has to decide how much of herself she gives to the spotlight.
While the book is labelled as YA, Roxy’s story can also be seen to sit within the emerging (and somewhat contentious) niche framework of ‘New Adult’ (NA) fiction.
Said to be for 18–25-year-olds, NA fills the ‘gap’ right after the teen-focused readership of YA. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, for a manuscript submission contest which specifically sought books featuring characters in their ‘college years’ and targeting readers just out of high school. NA gained attention after a New York Times article was written about its emergence in 2013, but in recent years it has become more popular – especially in contemporary romance – for stories differentiating themselves by shifting from the high school to the university campus. And while many people roll their eyes at the metadata-gone-made overcategorisation of readerships (what’s next – subadult?), the niche has had a boost from bestsellers like Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 novel Fangirl, which follows a freshman student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus.
Thomas works as a university lecturer and academic, and his book was partly inspired by the politics of higher education, making it fit even more thoughtfully into the NA purview. ‘At the time of writing the novel,’ he explains, ‘the federal government was eroding so many services established by Aboriginal communities, reducing funding to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio by $560 million while the threat of the closure of remote communities loomed large. In light of this, I wanted to communicate the aspirations and the challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in secondary and tertiary study, particularly people living in regional areas.’
‘I was paid out for being Aboriginal and that was bad enough. I didn’t even realise that I was gay.’
Jane Harrison’s Becoming Kirrali Lewis (Magabala Books, 2015), while labelled as YA, also fits into this niche with its focus on university culture. Harrison’s book tells the parallel story of Kirrali in 1985 about to start a law degree, interspersed with flashbacks of her white biological mother’s life in the 1960s when she met and fell in love with Kirrali’s biological, Aboriginal father Charley. Harrison’s book explores a hot-bed of racism and identity crisis that still feels uncomfortably current, regardless of the retro settings.
Thomas likewise explores rising political and social awareness on campus in Songs That Sound Like Blood, explaining; ‘I started to think more about what it means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are also same sex attracted, and dealing with stigma associated with this, on top of more general racism and bigotry.’
At one point in the book, Roxy confides to her student support officer, Nancy: ‘I was paid out for being Aboriginal and that was bad enough. I didn’t even realise that I was gay.’ This intersectionality is something she has encountered all her life. ‘When I told Justin, he said I didn’t look gay. It reminded me of being told that I don’t look Aboriginal.’
In this way, Thomas’s latest offering sits alongside Lemons in the Chicken Wire (Magabala Books), another recent New Adult release. This debut by 22-year-old Alison Whittaker is an intensely personal poetry collection drawing upon Whittaker’s own experiences and those of the people she grew up with. Bianca Soldani, in a review for NITV, praised Lemons as a ‘reflective and searingly honest book about space, displacement, family and love’, which tells the stories ‘of queer and transgender Indigenous Australians in the rural fringes of northern NSW.’
This aspect of Roxy’s story especially resonates. Author Emily O’Beirne (Point of Departure) praised Roxy as ‘…a multi-faceted gay girl with a strong voice. There should always be more of those in Aus YA.’ Indeed, as Michael Earp’s Australian LGBTQ YA website attests, there’s not a huge amount of queer content out there, comparatively, but Thomas’ book joins an ever-growing list.
‘Indigenous LGBTI Australians, LGBTI migrants and refugees, LGBTI young people and LGBTI people residing in rural and remote areas are likely to be at particularly high risk of suicide, in line with tendencies of high risk identified in the population as a whole,’ says Thomas, of Roxy’s sexuality. ‘I wanted to write a book that communicates the struggles that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are fighting at this point in time, that also shows the move away from a time in Australian politics where there were greater efforts toward affirmative action extended by the Australian Government. Writing the novel was an effort to maintain and strengthen my spirit, in the hope that it would assist in maintaining and strengthening the spirit of others.’
Songs That Sound Like Blood absolutely lives up to that evocative title – a complex and compelling new addition to Aussie YA (or perhaps NA) and another addition to an increasingly stellar line-up of Indigenous teen tales.