Ask Alice: What makes Australian YA distinctly ‘Australian’ (according to readers)?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
The Australian YA literary scene is something of which we can be quite proud. It punches well above its small size in the quality of books we produce, as well as the sense of community it fosters. It’s one of the reasons LoveOzYA exists: consensus that Australian YA literature is worth protecting and championing. Yet while we speak in broad terms about the importance of having home-grown stories that reflect lived experiences back to readers, we often put a full stop at the end of such claims and don’t elaborate further. That’s a shame, because Australia is by no means a homogenous country in terms of experience or voice. Yet I certainly would claim Australian literature has a distinct quality to it, even if I struggled to immediately articulate what that quality was.
Given this preamble, you would be unsurprised to know the arising question which forms the basis of this Ask Alice is: what exactly is the ‘Australian’ voice or tone found within Australian YA literature (and beyond)?
I’ve taken a two-part approach to answering this question, asking readers and then authors what they would say makes Australian (YA) literature distinctive. I reached out on bookstagram to ask the readers there what they found to make something sound or feel distinctly Australian in its authorship and content. I got a lot of immediate and impassioned replies.
The most succinct (and, unsurprisingly, most vague) way I can sum up what people said is that, to quote an iconic Australian piece of art: “it’s the vibe of the thing.” However, that’s not particularly helpful when explaining what makes Australian literature unique, and thus worth championing.
So being slightly more specific, a few more distinct themes emerged:
First, a particularly – and distinctly – Australian ethos tends to infuse the page, regardless of genre.
Although saying ‘Australian values’ is almost as vague as referring to ‘the vibe,’ many people told me that Australian YA frequently represented “our multicultural identity” and a distinctly Australian attitude and worldview. After a little digging on how we might more specifically define an Australian worldview, I found that the SBS Cultural Atlas notes “egalitarianism strongly underpins interpersonal values in Australia. People believe in the right to a ‘fair go’ regardless of a person’s background […] Australians tend not to think in terms of one person being better than another – rather, those who are privileged are simply acknowledged as “better off” than others. A person’s level of education and wealth does not necessarily earn them status or respect.”
Certainly, while Australian society is not without wealth disparity or other forms of inequality, characters in Australian (YA) books have a sense of equality baked into the relationships between their characters that comes from connection and similarity and can transcend questions of wealth or status. This was something which really struck me about the social environment Jared Thomas describes in My Spare Heart, which could be explained by an observation of the SBS Cultural Atlas noting Australian friendships “tend to be built on camaraderie rather than hierarchy. In this way, people tend to show respect to friends and peers through gestures of equality instead of deference.”
This egalitarianism also manifests in what many people identified as the fact that Australian YA “doesn’t take itself too seriously.” While Belinda noted that humour frequently popped up in books across all genres, this goes a step further when considering the way characters – and authors – frequently employ self-deprecating humour specifically.
An article in The University of Melbourne publication Pursuit written by Professor Brock Bastian suggests although we might at times over-use this trait in negative aspects, self-deprecation is “one aspect of Australian culture in comedy that I think, in particular, sets it apart.” Bastian attributes a national characteristic toward self-deprecation to “Australians [being] quick to bring themselves and those around them back to ground-zero” if they get an overinflated sense of their own self importance and ego, meaning that as a tendency when used in the best settings, it “can provide for a sense of humility, and this can build authentic social connection with others, undercut pretention and build trust.”
To me, there are obvious links between the Australian egalitarianism and self-deprecation, and I think this comes out clearly in that fact that books which are quite serious in focus can also have moments of humour and vice versa, which isn’t necessarily as common in British or American books. This can be seen in Allayne Webster’s That Thing I Did which, despite being a humorous book, also touches on some very sombre issues. Equally, Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys is an inherently serious book given its focus, yet there are moments of humour that arise across it.
While this tendency to humour might be attributed to a typical Australian ‘larrikinism,’ the willingness to have characters not take themselves – or others – too seriously is, in the words of Bastian, something that keeps “everyone on a level playing field, and to foster the value of ‘a fair go’.”
Interestingly, this doesn’t mean that characters are superficial. While, as Jase said to me quite directly, Australian YA is very comfortable engaging with ‘the big issues,’ Alana said, “Diana Reid [whose novels are arguably New Adult] writes her characters and actions as easy going, but then also introspective of current events.” This was echoed by Steph, who shared her perspective that, “a lot of young adult protagonists reflect on […] where they’re going in life, what they want in life. Those internal monologues often illustrate the characters at the crossroad of childhood/adolescence and adulthood. It’s at this juncture the potential of life, love and aspirations are most prominent.”
While it’s true that by its very nature, YA fiction can be quite introspective because characters are considering their transition out of childhood and into (young) adulthood, I certainly would say that the Australian willingness to take unflinching looks at bigger issues leads to protagonists that are often more reflective than their British or – especially – American counterparts. Perhaps this has to do with the tendency which Kate pointed out to me, of Australian YA being “far more willing to depict reckless behaviour, drugs, sex, and profanity, it often forms less of the plot or an issue but just part of life.”
Of course, beyond temperament of characters, ethos, and content, there is also the setting. Although many Australian YA books are not necessarily set in an Australian environment, those that are depict our distinct landscape and climate – often in quite a significant way. Alana specifically identified Holden Sheppard and Melina Marchetta as authors who exemplify the Australian voice (and of course, if you grew went to Australian high schools in the early-mid 2000s, Melina Marchetta is a particularly Australian experience!), noting that “some authors just capture that feeling of growing up in Australia; the heat, the nation as a multicultural entity, the slang, the issues…” Steph spoke eloquently about the “summer delirium” distinct to Australia, and elaborated that certain Australian YA texts vividly evoke “the summer after high school. The hot sticky air, hanging out with friends and beginning to navigate life at large,” providing the example of Jacko’s Reach by David Malouf. I guess you could say then it’s not just the physical landscape being described in such books then, but…the vibe??
Any piece of art is a product of its maker, and the environment to which that maker has been exposed. It’s no surprise then, that upon a bit of reflection and digging, people who read widely are able to point to specific elements of books that demark books as specifically ‘Australian.’ However, I’m as curious as you to see how authors themselves perceive what about their work is distinctly ‘Australian’ (or not), and how that might differ from the experiences of readers… Keep your eyes peeled for part two!!