For Educators, For Readers, Q&A 2 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Jared Thomas about MY SPARE HEART

Dr Jared Thomas is a Nukunu person of the Southern Flinders Ranges and the Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Material Cultural at the South Australian Museum. He has written three #LoveOzYA novels: Sweet Guy, Calypso Summer and Songs that Sound Like Blood, as well as co-authored the junior fiction Games Day series with NBA player and Olympian Patty Mills.

Jared’s latest novel, My Spare Heart, was released on 31 May 2022. He spoke with #LoveOzYA’s Alice about the impact of parental addiction, how teens can get help and the importance of sport for mental health.

My first question is about the voice of the novel, because your writing style is very teenage. Was that a deliberate decision? If so, why. But also, what did you as a writer have to do in order to get into that teenage voice?
Okay, So yeah, I’m writing from the position of seventeen-year-old Phoebe. To do that, I guess, well I’m fortunate to have a teenager daughter which helps. So I guess it was a lot of discussion writing this book with my daughters. And trying to get that voice and establish that character so when I’m writing I have to come to hear the voice of that person, that character and really get to know their idiosyncrasies, and their needs and their boundaries, and what helps them to stay safe. So yeah, there’s a quite a concerted effort. And then, in relation to the topic of My Spare Heart, I spend a lot of time researching…

That leads to my next question, because My Spare Heart explores a number of quite difficult issues from alcoholism to divorce, parents to racism. But racism in a way that was really interesting because it looks at how to address it. And then there are questions of consent. What I’m really interested in is, the overarching topic of the various issues that My Spare Heart touches on, I’m really curious to know what it is that you think it is about the power of stories that is so important that we need to have them told.

Well, maybe if I just start with the bigger issue: the character of Phoebe is 17 year old young woman who’s starting to come to an understanding of their mum’s problematic relationship with alcohol. I believe that many young people have a relationship with a friend or family member that has an addiction issue or problematic relationship with a substance or something that’s not necessarily a substance; it could be a parent who overworks, or a parents who maybe spends too much time on social media, or just doesn’t see that child for a number of reasons. But in this case it is about problematic drinking.

So for me, the power of story: there are so many young people in the world in this situation, and for adults; there’s many people in my life who are experiencing something similar to Phoebe, and those adults struggle with it, and some of them might be able to be brave enough to seek counselling or support. But if you’re a young person, where do you go, where do you start? So for me I’m writing this story so that young people who might be experiencing something similar can see their story at least portrayed through fiction. And then maybe it will hopefully provide them a framework for navigating this particular issue.
When it comes to the other kind of things that we mentioned, Phoebe’s a young woman with mixed ancestry. She has an Aboriginal father, a non-Aboriginal mother. It’s her non-Aboriginal mother that has the problem with drinking. So just looking at my life, if I had an issue in my family, it’s complicated because, you know, race is always going to be there in the equation. You’re either dealing with racism that’s directed at you, or you’re feeling the pain of racism that is very public. It could be racism that’s directed at a role model or someone else in your community. In Phoebe’s cases, there’s racism that’s directed at home, and there’s racism in the media that impacts her as well.

Then we throw in questions of consent. I’m writing in this case as a young woman and that’s a really critical important thing for both young men and women; it’s going be both young men and women that are reading this book. Again, it’s something that’s true to people. These are the things that are playing out for young people at present, I guess Alice, I really don’t want to be preaching about these things; I’m older now, but in terms of what is the power of story, my adolescence was very, very challenging. Everything was being thrown at me and it’s hard to go to your parents or older family, and say, Hey, how do I deal with this, because you’re embarrassed about it or you think you’re gonna get in trouble. So for me it’s, what are the types of stories that I would have liked to have read when I was a kid, of in front of with racism. Having to navigate relationships being kind of like peer pressured into taking drugs and alcohol and stuff like that. So that’s really the position that I write from a lot of the time.

I think that’s you’ve hit you on something that’s really special. In particular about stories, which is that they help you. They give you a framework by which to navigate something you might not have the tools to navigate and what’s really amazing to me about YA is, it’s only been emerging in the last 15 or so years, and we’re giving young people all of these tools and resources, and stories that they didn’t have access to before.

I think from an Aboriginal perspective, because where I grew up you have Dreaming stories that help you navigate Country. There’s so many things that can kill you, like a white pointer shark, and there’s some of the most venomous snakes. There’s scarce water resources as well, so you have all these stories that help you navigate that Country. And the characters of the dreaming, they’re flawed characters, so through learning about those stories you’re learning how to look after country and look after self and look after others. But within a contemporary world, we’re not really getting that. So when we go to school we’re taught how to read and write, but we’re not really taught those stories about how to look after ourselves. And so I think for me, again, not wanting to be preachy, but having my characters with all of these challenges, and often those characters are flawed and the people around them, are flawed because I think that’s the reality of humans. There’s always shades of grey and none of us are perfect.

Yeah, and that’s my favourite thing about the book actually; I think in many ways the hardest thing when you go from being a child to an adult is realizing that your parents are flawed people, and within My Spare Heart, the realisation of the alcoholism of Phoebe’s mother as what she had previously just assumed was normal. She is now starting to unpack and realize actually this isn’t ok, but the level down from that is realizing, for example, the hypocrisy of her father; she says to my father at one stage, well you have a drink, what’s your stance on drugs.

I think that’s such a nuanced approach to take, which is Phoebe’s struggle to understand that the people who are fundamentally there to help her, and who are on his side, and who by and large are doing a pretty good job, doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. So I think that’s also a really valuable thing, navigating story as you navigate it in your own life.

Recently, someone said to me, one of the difficulties of childhood is you’re watching your parents grow up. Because your parents are often on in their twenties and thirties as well, and we’re all learning as we go. So yeah, I think in the case of Phoebe, her parents are all dealing with a set of complexities and that is life. Some people work it out there better than others, are quicker than others, and some people don’t work it out at all, the issues aren’t easily resolvable.

It’s really important to have stories like that; it brings to mind The Surprising Power of A Good Dumpling by beautiful Wai Chim, in which the story comes to conclusion and there is resolution, but that doesn’t mean everything’s tied up in a really neat bow. And that’s a really important story for young people to read.
Yeah, and that is the case for the addiction. There’s people that maybe haven’t had a drink for 20 years, and they still describe themselves as an alcoholic, because it’s about a certain relationship with alcohol. I guess in this book, the one thing I was very conscious of is I wanted to tell the story of Phoebe, how Phoebe felt about her mum’s drinking, and the impact that was having on Phoebe, and the family members around her. I didn’t really want to try to explain alcoholism. This is a book looking at people’s responses to someone who has a problem with alcohol.

I actually went to support meetings for people that have a friend or a family member dealing with addiction. I did that for at least eighteen months while writing the book. Within the book, I’m not sharing anything that was shared in those meetings, it was more about trying to distil the essence of those experiences across the set of characters that are featured in My Spare Heart.

I actually think that those were some of the most powerfully written scenes. You just get that micro snapshot into somebody else’s relationship with a parent who is struggling with addiction. Now that you’ve said it, I can really see how much research went into making it really authentic.

Yeah. So obviously, people know about Alcoholics Anonymous in some form. I didn’t know that there was support through a type of Alcoholics Anonymous for adults and teens. There’s a support network called Alateen, and that’s for teenagers that have a friend or family member who’s suffering from an addiction or problematic relationship with drugs or alcohol. That was a real revelation. And when I was writing, including text from Alateen, Al-anon, which the same type of organisation, I was paraphrasing things, particularly as it’s an anonymous organisations; I wanted to just give a sense. I was actually delighted when Al-anon and Alateen said, no, you need to include this text word for word. To have that support for the novel was great.

That’s great, and I think it’s so powerful. It gets the message out about these services. But it also destigmatizes attendance. It tells the story also about how attend attending these groups, can help you.

Shame is terrible, it’s of the most terrible human emotions and one of the things, If you have a person with a problematic relationship or addiction, it’s like you feel embarrassed because of their actions. And sometimes you try to cover that up. If you’re a kid that has an alcoholic parent, you might not be embarrassed for yourself but you’re embarrassed for or about them. And then, if you were to declare to a friend, hey dad drinks too much, mum drinks too much, or Nana drinks too much, and then get abusive and Dad has to go and help her out, or whatever the situation is, that can be deeply embarrassing. I guess what I wanted people to know through this book is that it is so widespread. And it’s not defined by ethnicity or cultural background, and it just happens across all sectors of society. And in the case of Phoebe’s mum, she’s pretty well-to-do, she’s had a good career, and Phoebe thought her mum’s really awesome because she’ll get her and her mates concert tickets, and as an event organiser, she’s been taken overseas to New York to watch the basketball and stuff like that. But her mum has that problem and that’s reality. There’s a lot of people that have nice inner-city houses and drive nice cars and have a great career, but are really struggling with addiction.

And I think you make that point really well. Final question to end on a light note: What prompted you to have basketball as such a central theme?

The beginnings of this book came from a conversation with someone in New York, and I started thinking about American basketball, so that was kind of the starting point. The story was about a 17 year old girl, who’s really into basketball, but her mum’s problematic relationship with alcohol destabilises her in so many ways. And then also, I then went on to work with Patty Mills on the Game Day stories. And I have that real interest in basketball because my daughters are playing basketball, and just sort of seeing really the positive effect of sport on mental health. I think movement is such an important part of life. And some of us take it for granted or we don’t, we find it hard, but I just think physical activity really helps when you are at any stage in your life, and particularly when you have big issues that are happening, that makes perfect sense.

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