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.

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