Review: ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’ by Jane Harrison

kirrali lewis*This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

**Teachers notes for this title are available here.

Here I was: Kirrali Lewis. Through a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates was one of the oldest universities in the country. Our paths had just intersected. It was the 10th of March 1985 and I, little black duck, was about to step through those gates to embark on a law degree.

It’s 1985 and Kirrali Lewis, little black duck from a white adoptive family, is just starting university. She’s worked hard to get to where she is, and she doesn’t want any handouts – particularly not those given to her because she’s Aboriginal. From day one, Kirrali shuns the Aboriginal cooperative, draws a line between herself and race politics and anything that could be seen as a handout. Kirrali’s attitude is that it’s hard work and and determination that are responsible for success, not privilege (or lack thereof). But uni is an eye-opening experience for Kirrali, in more ways than one.

This excellent first novel tackles some complex themes. Kirrali’s position in the politics of her race and generation (whether she likes it or not), makes for a fascinating narrative perspective. Alongside the obvious challenges that Kirrali faces – developing her sense of identity, discovering her culture and her place in it, tracing her ancestry – the book also looks at issues facing single mothers, mixed race relationships and the different ways privilege manifests itself.

Kirrali is the kind of character who protects herself with a mask of cool detachment. Despite having been the subject of racist bullying – an interaction with a girl in high school who confidently tells her that ‘black people come from Africa. And they should go back there.’ leaves Kirrali ashamed of her own truth – Kirrali can’t see how her ancestry should define her. Her self-imposed isolation at the beginning of the novel works well to put some distance between the reader and the narrative. Instead of being unable to see beyond the character’s emotions, Kirrali’s emotional detachment gives the reader space to consider the complicated politics surrounding her. Of course, as the narrative continues, Kirrali’s perspectives shift and she becomes more emotionally open, and the reader is right there with her.

This book challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions on all levels, because Jane Harrison has written fantastic characters who push the boundaries. Kirrali’s adoptive parents are frequently mentioned as having tried to encourage Kirrali to connect with her history. The dreadlocked guy from the Aboriginal Coop becomes Kirk, a fierce political supporter, but also an emotionally complex friend who supports Kirrali from the get go, despite her initial attitudes towards him. Kirrali’s best friend Martina could have been a happy-go-lucky airhead, but in fact offers strong counterpoints to Kirrali’s fears and judgements. Kirrali’s mother too, who in fact takes half the narrative, is unexpected in a number of ways.

Despite being a book that is very aware of the politics surrounding it – as Kirk says to Kirrali the first time they meet ‘Looked in the mirror lately, girl? You gotta be interested in politics.’ – Becoming Kirrali Lewis isn’t self conscious, and it doesn’t pander to existing political narratives. Instead the politics exist within the story, which is deeply personal. Kirrali’s flaws, her insecurities, fears, ignorances and desires are so familiar, so there is never any danger of her being reduced to a stereotyped representation of the Aboriginal experience (as if, as Ambelin Kwaymullina writes in this piece there were only one experience). Books shouldn’t be added to collections purely to increase diversity, but excellent titles that are also diverse and challenging should be sought out and displayed prominently. Becoming Kirrali Lewis is certainly one of these.

Review: ‘The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf’ and ‘The Disappearance of Ember Crow’ by Ambelin Kwaymullina

ashala wolf disappearance of ember crow








*This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

**Teachers notes for this title are available here.

The bulk of the references in this review are to The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf to avoid spoilers from The Disappearance of Ember Crow. The third book in the series The Foretelling of Georgie Spider comes out September 2015.

One of the things I loved most when I first read The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf some years ago, that still struck me on my recent reread, was its ability to surprise. Without giving too much away, the premise and the plot twists are clever and unexpected and this is just as true for The Disappearance of Ember Crow.

Kwaymullina’s books are clearly influenced by her own history, ideas and experiences, but her writing rebels against being A Lesson. This is real diversity – where readers can see writers and characters from diverse backgrounds in all stories, not only playing the part of The Indigenous Character.  I remember hearing Ellen van Neerven talk about the freedom that writing speculative, or non-traditional fiction gives to Indigenous authors, and I wonder if these ideas are connected. Speculative fiction removes politically charged themes from the ‘now’, giving them space to breath in another place, pushing characters beyond their Single Story, and allowing readers to discuss them without feeling the need to attack or defend.

Ashala Wolf is the leader of the Tribe, a group of young runaways with ‘abilities’. In this post-apocalyptic world where the Balance (‘the inherent harmony between all life’) is maintained by a set of Accords, ‘other’ is not defined by race or religion, but by whether or not someone has an ability. Ashala’s is Sleepwalking – in a dream state she is able to shift the reality around her. Her younger sister Cassie was a Firestarter, killed as a child when a group of Enforcers came to escort her to a Detention centre, the mandatory home for people with abilities. Ashala and her friend Georgie run away, escaping to the Firstwood where they build a refuge for themselves and others like them. But the Tribe will never be safe until they are no longer the target for humanities fear.

Ashala has a lot in common with Obernewtyn‘s Elspeth. Strong willed, independent, protective. A born leader. She is introduced at her most vulnerable, when she is being led away to interrogation. She believes that she is alone, and afraid of betraying the members of her Tribe. She is a character who carries the isolation of being a leader with her, although she values her friendships dearly. Ashala is descended from the Serpent, one of several earth spirits who appear in the series (in The Disappearance of Ember Crow we meet the First Cat). She is a rich and complex character whose journey connects her as much to her past as to her present. As she explores her own relationship to the world before the Reckoning, the reader can see the connections between this future and their present. What would it take to take us there?

You genuinely believe we’re outside the natural order? That you can treat us however you like without causing disharmony. because we’re not part of the Balance in the first place?

Ashala asks this of Connor as he leads her to be interrogated, but it’s a question I can imagine being applicable to many political figures at present. Without trying to, there are strong links between this fictional future and the present. As Ashala challenges her captor, the fanatic Neville Rose, she says

‘You don’t care enough, and you don’t care the same […] the same as you would about one of your own […] If some ordinary kid had died in the way Cassie did, there would have been an outcry and an investigation. There wasn’t though, not for a girl killed during an assessment. You set us apart, and you tell yourself it’s for the good of the Balance.’

I was reminded immediately of Tony Birch’s article ‘Who Gives a Fuck About White Society Anymore? A Response to the Redfern Riot’

Hickey’s name will be remembered in the wider community as little more than an archived news item. Meanwhile young Indigenous people will continue to die as a result of violence, most of them in the shadows of Australia’s psyche. Some of these children will die within their own communities, others alienated and alone. And unless they are able to provide a photo opportunity to accompany a briefly documented statistic they will die anonymously. They will not be forgotten by the wider community, as they will have never been remembered. But we must remember these young people, and in life not death. White Australia also needs to discover its memory of its own history of violence.

Perhaps it is in fiction that we can look for ways to shape a future where we are better.


Review: ‘Heat and Light’ by Ellen van Neerven

heat and light

*This review was developed at the Stella Prize/ DWF critics masterclass with Jo Case and Melinda Harvey.

**This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

It is the uniqueness of structure and voice that makes Heat and Light stand out. The stories in this debut collection by Ellen van Neerven are not entirely stand-alone, nor are they entirely connected. The book is divided into three distinct parts. Similar themes echo through each, but ultimately they function quite independently.

Given the number of different characters in the book, it is impressive that each has a distinctly individual voice. In other interviews, van Neerven has mentioned that some of the characters have been in her head for a while. Some of the stories have had earlier publications. S&J, a piece about two girls trying to define themselves beyond their skin colour, sexuality and friendship, was first published in the prestigious McSweeney’s Quarterly, alongside short story heavyweights Tony Birch, Tara June Wing and Melissa Lucashenko.

The time that has been taken to piece together these characters and stories is evident, as Heat and Light doesn’t show any uncertainty – there is no echo of ‘debut novelist’ in its pages. Her characters carry the necessary spark to make them spring to life, and each demands attention from the reader. Each voice is given the opportunity to share stories that are uncomfortable, confronting, tender, familial, searching.

Publishers are hesitant when it comes to publishing short story collections. This tide is now turning. In the same year that Ellen van Neerven won the David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Author (and the subsequent publication of her novel by UQP), Maxine Beneba Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for her debut short story collection, Foreign Soil. Both books went on to be longlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize, where they joined another collection Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. Perhaps many of the important cultural and social conversations that we are currently having with literature are best had through the short story form. Or perhaps, in our time-poor society, we are turning more to short stories as a way of accessing literature.

It is impossible to drive a single narrative through all three parts of the book and trying to force one would warp the ease of the stories. The parts could easily be read independently, although there are structural and thematic similarities between Heat and Light that unite the two. In terms of cohesion, it is Water that sits further apart, with even the title pointing to its exclusion. It is a wonderful piece to read, a speculation on Australia’s future that draws parallels between the errors of an overzealous new President’s attempts to make amends and the historical treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population. However it feels slightly jarring between the other two collections, differing both in the speculative setting and the length.

If there are links between all three parts of the book they are thematic ones. Themes of love (familiar and romantic), displacement, gender and country are present throughout, explored in ways that beg the following questions.What are our responsibilities to each other as Australians? As humans? As family? As lovers? Are we ever able to mend what has been broken? These questions echo through each of the stories, including the first, where a young Amy Kresinger discovers the truth about who her grandmother is.

I found Pearl lying on the ground a long way from the lake. She had called me there with her whistle. She looked half-dead.

            The jealous part of me could have kept going but I helped her. I felt a bunch of guilt that I hadn’t done anything. And I had been one of those who had talked about her at school, and after I finished school, I had helped in outcasting her. She had come here to the town for a fresh start and she hadn’t got it. I got her up and walked her to the lookout where I know she stayed for a time.

Heat and Light is an extraordinary debut that sets a high benchmark for whatever topic van Neerven sets her sights on next.

Teachers notes will be available soon on the Stella Prize website.

The book can be purchased here.


The #weneeddiversebooks campaign was established in the US in 2014 in response to the lack of diversity in youth literature at the time. In 2015, when Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay visited Australia, she said that one of the questions she asked when she first arrived was ‘are there any black people here?’ It’s not surprising the she would ask this, given the lack of Indigenous faces we see on Australian screens, or in the media, and in Australian books. Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures being one of ACARA’s cross-curriculum priorities, at first glance at least, it would appear that books by Aboriginal authors are hard to come by.

In fact they aren’t. YA author Ambelin Kwaymullina (The Tribe) is passionate about this. In fact, she has written several articles on the need for Indigenous literature in the classroom, most recently for the Wheeler Centre which can be found here. She says

The briefest glance at the catalogue of Aboriginal publishers in Australia (IAD Press, Magabala Books, and Aboriginal Studies Press) is enough to show that there is an extraordinary range of Indigenous voices across every genre, and there’s plenty of Indigenous writers being published by other publishers too. Indigenous voices are speaking. They are just too often not being heard. So silence does not always exist to be filled; sometimes it should be interrogated.

I spoke to Ambelin recently at the Reading Matters conference hosted by the Centre for Youth Literature in Victoria. I’ve spoken to her before and would love to speak to her again. Among other things, she is absolutely unwilling to skirt around issues that she believes needs to be addressed. In a society where so many issues are treated to Australia’s famous ‘look away’ treatment, it’s refreshing to be challenged – it’s the only way to steer us away from the easy option.

So I came away from our conversation asking myself what I could do. And the most obvious thing I could think of was to read, and review as many books by Aboriginal authors that I could get my hands on. I’ll be doing that, and posting my progress on the blog, and on twitter using #weneeddiversebooksAU. Where possible I’ll link or add teachers notes, links to buy the books, author interviews and anything else that is relevant. I’m open to recommendations and would love people to get involved in the discussion, share books they’ve read, or experiences they’ve had in the classroom on these topics*.

*I reserve the right to refuse any comments that are offensive or irrelevant.

I’ll be getting my lists from the YA booklists at Magabala books and IAD Press and wherever else I can source titles from.