What makes Australian YA distinctly ‘Australian’ (according to authors)?

At the end of last year, I put to the reading community a question that had been nagging me for a while (I hate not knowing things): what to them, makes a distinctly (YA) ‘Australian’ literary voice. In my characteristically informal fashion, I summed up the various responses I received by saying that instead of pinning down specifics, it is, to quote the iconic 1997 film, The Castle, “the vibe of the thing.” The ‘vibe,’ if you will, to many readers, is found in a wry humour that creeps in regardless of genre, a willingness to be unflinching when it comes to exploring ‘bigger’ issues and – when relevant – the depiction of Australian environments. With my tendency to consider a question from various sides, I wondered what authors would say.

To help answer this question, I reached out to some absolutely fabulous AusYA authors: Tobias Madden, (an Aussie currently residing in New York), author of Anything But Fine, Take a Bow Noah Mitchell, and forthcoming Wrong Answers Only (available for preorder with release due April 4), Jared Thomas, author of several critically acclaimed books, including the middle grade Uncle Xbox and YA My Spare Heart – as well as being on the LoveOzYA Committee, Katya de Beccera, an academic and author of recently released When Ghosts Call Us Home and forthcoming They Watch From Below, and Jodi McAlister, an academic and author of Libby Lawrence is Good at Pretending, in addition to other non-YA books, such as recently released Not Here To Make Friends.

I received quite a bit of variance in answer to the question of what makes an Australian YA distinctly ‘Australian.’

Jodi provided me with the most exquisite reply, featuring academic sources and quotes – which made my nerdy little heart sing. She noted, “there are some ways in which we can think of Australian-ness as characteristic of the texts we produce here. […] Kim Wilkins – another person who, like me, has a dual role as author and scholar – wrote a great article about Australian fantasy fiction a while back, where her central argument was that although Australian authors produce a ton of excellent and internationally renowned fantasy fiction, it’s rarely recognised as Australian’ literature. […] one of the key claims she makes is that ‘the Australian literary community largely offers the central place to writing that is literary, set in Australia, and relies on realism.’ When we’re talking about YA, I’m not convinced this point about the “literary” matters quite so much. (It doesn’t not matter – it certainly factors in if we’re talking about awards, like the CBCAs – but I think that YA designation kind of overrides it, in broader generic terms.) I do think, though, that when we think of Australian YA, this idea that it’s 1) Australian-set and 2) broadly realist does matter. It’s not that this is the only kind of Australian YA, but if someone asked you to define The Archetypical Australian YA Novel, that’s probably where your brain would go.”

Jared’s reply provided an interesting overview as to why pinning down a distinct or exact feature, voice, or characteristic is so tricky: “As with all cultures, there’s so many nuances within Australian and Aboriginal culture, and these cultures are constantly changing and reinventing themselves. I believe that if a writer lives within and experiences Australian culture, anything that they write will be influenced by this experience. Beyond this, Australian and Aboriginal writers arrive at distinctive Australian and Aboriginal YA voice when they capture the many facets of Australian and Aboriginal culture in an authentic way, including the broad gamete of subcultures that exist within Australian and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. One thing I know is that you don’t get a distinct Australian or Aboriginal voice by adding a roo or a didgeridoo to a narrative, but by contextualising aspects of Australia in realistic and meaningful ways.” He added, that for him on a personal level, “as an Aboriginal author, when writing about Australia from the time of initial colonisation, I am always writing about Aboriginal and Australian culture simultaneously, as do all Aboriginal writers. What Aboriginal YA writers imbue in their writing is a very lived experience, which includes an at least 65000 year connection to the Australian continent, aspects of grief, language, humour, and a knowing of land.”

This general sentiment about the complexity of capturing a single voice or perspective was echoed by Katya, who said, “It’s complicated! People have lived in Australia for at least 65,000 years, and our settler-colonial history definitely makes for an interesting debate when it comes to our identity as a nation… Australian society today is multicultural and diverse and there are different ways of ‘being’ Australian. But in simplified terms, I’d say ‘Australian YA’ tends be set in Australia and/or feature characters connected to Australia in some way, whether they were born here or came here as immigrants. At the same time, I’d hate to see Australian fiction to be limited in any way!”

Tobias’ reply echoed and extended upon some of Katya and Jared’s comments: “Is there something tangible that connects all Australian YA stories? I mean, maybe? Is it the way we view the world? The way we view ourselves? Our sense of humour? The unique setting? It might be all of the above. But I also think we’re telling many different kinds of stories now, in a way that we weren’t twenty or even ten years ago […] not only in terms of representation, but in terms of form and style and genre. […] I think it’s important to let go of our pre-conceived ideas about what makes an ‘Australian’ YA story. Otherwise, we won’t grow and change with the needs of our readers.” He did, however sum up in quite definite terms, “If it’s written by an Aussie, it’s an Australian YA story.”

It would seem the most common factor was that the author needed to be Australian, or be based in Australia. On a more thematic level though, Australian YA (and literature more broadly) arises from an exposure to Australian culture, ethos, worldview, and landscape. However, the multiplicity of identities and experiences within Australia means there are too many experiences and identities to make one definitive ‘Australian’ narrative or voice. Perhaps ultimately it’s this variety which makes one key characteristic of a distinct Australian (YA) literary voice: the fact that such works reflect an aspect of their identity and experience, implicitly acknowledging that this is merely an experience of the Australian society and country. I am interested in Jodi’s observation that any fantasy fiction is not characteristed as Australian but instead sits in its own little space, but I think I’d need another column to properly unpack that…

Interestingly, I received far more definite responses about the (YA) literary styles and voices of other cultures.

Tobias noted, “a lot of American stories are anchored around pivotal moments that don’t exist in Australia, like Homecoming and Prom and summer camp, but that’s also a huge generalisation. I’d say the seasons and holidays also feature more heavily in American books—which I now understand after living through all four seasons in NYC and all seven-hundred national holidays—as they play a much bigger role in your day-to-day life than they do in Australia.”

Similarly, Katya succinctly summarised a Russian literary ‘style’: “I’m not exactly up to date on contemporary Russian literature, but if there’s a distinctively Russian style to writing and storytelling, regardless of age category, I’d say it’s one that gravitates toward dark sarcasm, self-deprecation and ‘heavy’ life-and-death topics.”

I wonder if a bit of distance and separation makes it easier to provide a general overview (or maybe just a generalisation). When one exists within the messiness and state of flux that realistically comprise any culture, it can be difficult to say it is a single thing; you have too much context to speak reductively (especially when you’re an author – a people known to be wordy).

One of the other complicating elements in pinning down an Australian ‘style’ or ‘voice’ is the extent of recent change – for the better – in the kinds of stories which are being written and published. Jared articulated, “I’m excited by Australian and Aboriginal YA writers that resist or challenge stereotypes, and bring us into the worlds that young people occupy, which is a very different Australia to the one in which constructions of Australian and Aboriginal identity and stereotypes were forming or being projected by the mainstream media.”

Tobias pointed out that from a practical standpoint, “Today’s teens are facing different challenges than our generation did, and the stories we write for them need to reflect that. Conversely, there are some experiences that will always remain universal, and we need to continue writing about those, too.”

Similarly, Katya agreed that the Australian ‘style’ has changed, but added, “I don’t think this process is unique to Australia though. Many voices and perspectives that have been marginalised or ignored in the past now have more opportunities to be published and heard.”

Perhaps a more concrete example of what constitutes a distinctly ‘Australian’ literary voice comes in discussing how Australian texts are received by an overseas audience.

Jodi, who noted “Valentine [her debut novel – a fantasy series] has never sold into North America (too Australian’, is the feedback I’ve had, on multiple occasions),” emphasised,we also can’t escape that, when we’re working in an industry where all the power and capital and money is concentrated in North America, Australian-ness can also be a problem that writers have to navigate.”

She went on to share, “I will never forget doing a reading from Valentine in the US. Valentine […is] what we would probably now call “romantasy”, […] while it has fantastical elements (fairies, specifically), it’s set in the real world; a fictional but recognisably Australian small town. […] Everyone enjoyed it and clapped politely, but afterwards, I answered the same two questions, over and over again: ‘what is doof-doof?; and ‘what is Fruity Lexia?’” She relayed that someone said to her if the book was published in America, “you’ll have to change ‘Fruity Lexia’ to ‘wine coolers’ so people will understand.”

Curiously, the two authors (Katya and Tobias) who have had books published internationally didn’t think too much about the fact they had to change language to ‘translate’ it.

Tobias described, “I obviously have to Americanize (with a ‘z’ haha) my books for publication in the US, but I work very closely with my editor to maintain the voice at all costs. If an Aussie term or phrase doesn’t have a direct ‘translation’, I will more likely cut it entirely or rewrite the line, rather than shoehorning in an American word that feels wrong. […] I know that a lot of my American readers appreciate the Australian setting and humour of my books.”

Similarly, Katya shared, “I do recall how while working on my first book, What the Woods Keep, my editor kept picking up on so-called ‘Australianisms’, phrases or words that wouldn’t immediately translate to the North American readers (like drugstore vs pharmacy, etc.), but it wasn’t a difficult process to smooth it out.”

We know language does reflect the culture and environment in which it evolves. The fact that ‘translations’ have to be undertaken at all would suggest that Australian ‘isms’ are actually a concrete aspect of a distinct Australian literary voice to which we can point. However, this is hardly the only feature that comprises the ‘vibe’ of the Australian literary voice.

I find it fascinating that there was far less consensus among the authors about what might constitute an Australian literary voice than I found in the readers. Equally, I’m curious as to why the overall answers between the two groups were so different. I’d need to nerd out a bit more (with a bigger, funded project) to arrive at a distinct answer as to why that might be the case.

Overall, if I were to try and summarise how authors approached the question of what constitutes an Australian (YA) literary voice, I think I’d still cling to my comment, “it’s the vibe of the thing.” For authors, that vibe is created by an increasingly varied cohort of voices, experiences and perspectives and certain quirks of language and phrase. However, ask another author (or reader), and it’s very possible they might come up with a different answer!

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